In a startup, the chief marketing officer (CMO) is usually one of two critical positions responsible for driving growth, alongside the head of sales. Essentially, CMOs are responsible for — and held accountable for metrics-wise — growing the company’s base of users/customers. They are also responsible for increasing revenue and profits; driving engagement and retention; and leading creative, brand, and communications strategies.
And yet the CMO role can mean very different things in different companies. One of the biggest discrepancies in the role often occurs in consumer- vs. enterprise- focused companies: In consumer businesses, the CMO is often responsible for direct user acquisition through means such as advertising and organic acquisition. In enterprise-focused businesses, the CMO is typically directly responsible for lead generation and sales enablement, and needs to partner tightly with the head of sales to feed a complex and lengthy go-to-market machine.
CMOs for consumer and enterprise companies are therefore two different types of roles. And while there may some CMOs who have the breadth of skills and experiences to straddle these different types of companies, in my experience it’s quite uncommon to find someone who’s world-class at both. That’s why companies that pivot from consumer to enterprise often rebuild their marketing team from top to bottom; it’s almost as if the marketers in consumer and enterprise companies speak different languages.
But beyond types of customers, CMOs also differ based on the type of marketing that the company needs. Intuit founder Scott Cook observed to me many years ago that there are two types of marketers in the world: artists and scientists:
“Artist CMOs” are experts in the many qualitative tasks in marketing, such as positioning the brand, developing marketing materials and storytelling consistent with that positioning, and executing on media campaigns. These CMOs often thrive in companies that spend lots of dollars on media, especially offline media.
“Scientist CMOs” are experts in many of the quantitative tasks in marketing, in particular at user acquisition strategies, economics, and other optimizations often associated with growth hacking (which some people observe is really marketing by another name, but has a unique connotation in the context of network effects businesses). Many scientist CMOs evolved out of the engineering discipline, or out of the direct marketing world — where the Holy Grail has always been performance marketing and advertising to customers based on precise data.
Qualities to Look for in a CMO
First, it’s critical that you develop an informed perspective on which type of CMO your business needs before hiring one — there’s too much risk if you hire one type of CMO and then expect them to thrive in a different role. Most veteran marketers tend to stay in their “swim lanes” — their prior experiences on their resumes typically stay consistent across their career — and I’ve rarely seen a CMO from their self-designated lane successfully cross over.
That said, all marketing is a combination of both science and art, so companies typically need some level of both disciplines. Hire the CMO that fits your dominant need, and then have them hire the people on their team that help them fill the gap; for example, a “scientist CMO” hiring a really good VP of Communications/ public relations. But recognize that that these hires will be managed by the particular type of CMO you hire; their mindset will set the priorities for the entire marketing organization including the other hires filling their gaps.
(FWIW, most consumer tech companies that I work with bias strongly towards scientist CMOs as they bias towards online marketing vs. offline media.)
What Functions do CMOs Perform?
What are the functions that a marketing organization needs? Note: these don’t necessarily map onto individual hires, and not every marketing team has every function, particularly early on. But as companies mature, they often hire dedicated resources focused on many or most of the below. I’ve tried to list them here in the order by which new companies add these functions based on my experience:
User acquisition/lead generation helps the company grow by the direct acquisition of actual and potential customers. Lead generation involves multiple channels, including search engine marketing (SEM/paid), search engine optimization (SEO/unpaid), social (paid and unpaid), and content advertising. A good chunk of the marketing budget in a consumer company usually resides here. In enterprise companies, the function is just as important, only the users being acquired are often developers and therefore some of the methods are different.
Marketing communications aka “MarCom” (and sometimes PR), defines the company and executive narratives, working with media, through conferences, and other avenues to raise awareness and understanding. Offline and native ad buying also often resides here. Sometimes, the PR/communications function is separated out from the CMO and reports directly into the CEO, but the goal of the function remains essentially the same.
Retention/engagement focuses on getting the users you’ve already acquired to stay engaged. Key efforts here typically include messaging (email, in app) to follow up with and incentivize users, as well as re-targeting campaigns.
Business development works with other companies to drive user growth, awareness, or monetization. They are the “deal” team, striving to grow the business through strategic partnerships.
Brand positioning develops a very clear definition of what the brand is (and isn’t); this includes positioning the brand relative to its competitive set. While the founder typically defines this in the early stages of the company, the marketing function often refines it down the road, updating it based on market traction, customer feedback, desired differentiation, and more.
Creative translates the brand positioning into reality through advertisements, collateral, web design, and even the user interface/ user experience of the product.
Events help drive growth, not only engaging with customers but also other stakeholders such as developers, providers on a particular platform, and others. Prominent examples of this include Oracle World, Dreamforce by Salesforce, and Airbnb Open.
Research/analytics develops informed points of view on non-financial but critical measures of performance, such as: brand awareness, target users, competitive positioning, etc. Best practices here include leveraging both primary and secondary research sources.
Another core function is product marketing. In enterprise/B2B companies, this function tends to be one of the first to be built out, often hand in hand with engineering in technical companies, once the product is feasible. Overall, this function is responsible for developing product-specific content and messaging (including presentations for customers, demos, and use cases); enabling sales (including capturing case studies); and developing the competitive strategy. Many consumer-facing/B2C companies, however, may build this function later given the viral individual growth a consumer product can often have in the early days; but as those companies begin to diversify their product offerings, they then build out this function (often beyond the CEO, head of product, and head of marketing) to further package features and pricing for various customer segments.
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It’s critical for the CEO to determine which marketing discipline is dominant for their company — “artist” or “scientist” — because it will heavily inform their search. But the reality of early stage startups is that they will make a number of other marketing hires before targeting a CMO. It’s also hard for an early stage company to attract a talented CMO, because the most successful ones are highly coveted and very well paid. On the flip side, many successful CMOs haven’t gotten their hands dirty in a while; don’t expect them to be comfortable with things like executing ad buys on Google or Facebook, as they typically have delegated these executional activities to their team in the past. Your early marketing hires should therefore be proficient in the functions above that you think have the most leverage in growing your business.
And if you are hiring a CMO in a typical enterprise company, know that they will work closely with your head of sales and must be on the same page. If you’re hiring in a consumer company, they will likely have significant interaction with the head of product. The executives in this position can and should help you identify the right CMO for your company.
Cast in the right role, a talented CMO cast has the potential to make a company. Getting this wrong can break it, since it’s very expensive and sets the company way back because mis-casting the CMO usually comes at the expense of growth. Every startup CEO, especially technical founders not familiar with the role, should invest the time and attention to get this critical hire right.