Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.
—John Wanamaker, United States Postmaster General from 1889–1893
Of all your executive roles, the one that’s likely to turn over the most is your chief marketing officer (CMO). In our experience, the lifespan of a CMO at a tech company is about 18 months. Why the short tenure? It’s in part due to the nature of the role.
Marketing consists of disparate functions that might seem unrelated at first glance—from PR and marketing automation to advertising and social media campaigns.
Your marketing leader is typically responsible for some or all of the following functions:
As your company evolves from product-market fit through the growth stages, the most important aspects of marketing for your company will change—and as they do, so will the type of marketing leader you need. Regardless of what stage you’re in, however, a great CMO will tie these functions together to tell your company’s story to acquire users, generate leads, and grow business.
When you’re conducting your CMO search, you’ll likely find candidates who have come up through 1 of 3 tracks: product marketing, growth marketing and demand generation, or brand and communications. Most CMO candidates will likely “major” in the area they came up in and can hire, develop, and unblock leaders in other disciplines that they “minor” in. A good CMO can come from any of the 3 tracks, though brand and product marketing tend to be more common in CMOs. Regardless of a CMO’s specialization, a great CMO will lead, grow, build, and hire high-performing teams across different functional areas and balance creative messaging and storytelling with data-driven acquisition.
The central question when adding any marketing leader is: over the next 12–18 months, what customers are you looking to add or expand, and what marketing do you need to reach and convert them?
Whether you need a C-level marketing leader depends on the kind of company you run and the complexity and scale of your go-to-market org. A consumer app wanting to get into the hands of millions of daily active users will probably need a CMO earlier than a B2B company going after big contracts with a leaner marketing team.
Consider how marketing might evolve at that consumer company.
We discuss writing a mission–outcomes–competencies (MOC) document in greater detail in The Hiring Process.
The marketing outcomes you want over the next 12–18 months will largely determine what type of CMO—brand and communications, growth marketing and demand generation, and product marketing—you’re looking for.
We find it helpful to start writing a MOC for a CMO by dividing their outcomes into “majors” and “minors,” then deriving core competencies from those majors and minors. “Majors” are functions that your CMO has deep experience scaling, while “minors” are other parts of the business your candidate has direct experience with but perhaps hasn’t managed themselves.
These marketers build a compelling and consistent voice, story, and identity to differentiate your company from competitors in the market. They also help build a talent brand that can attract top talent as you grow, and they effectively mitigate risk to the brand through effective crisis communications. Great brand-minded CMOs also build your brand into every touchpoint with customers, from billboard ads to onboarding flows.
These CMOs often come from PR or marketing agencies or from the consumer packaged goods (CPG) space, where there’s less product differentiation and how you position the commodity to create wants and desires in the customer base is much more important.
These are metrics-driven marketers focused on the user journey. They develop, allocate budget, and execute multichannel marketing campaigns to acquire customers or generate qualified leads. As one growth marketer describes it, “You spend money in different channels and hope it turns into more money.”
It’s critical to understand who closes on sales and whether demand generation supports a P&L leader or owns the P&L themselves. Here are some common structures we’ve seen:
These marketers understand the audience, understand the product, and can spin a yarn. They have a track record of translating complex products into easy-to-understand, yet meaningful and accurate, materials for technical and business audiences. They spend lots of time with customers to make sure they understand and realize value from your product. When you launch a new product and feature, they know who to target and can translate the product or feature into an effective value proposition. Generally, consumer product marketers need to organize and prioritize feedback from a vast range of customers, whereas enterprise product marketers typically have relationships with their users and can reach out to them directly for feedback on how to make the product more valuable.
For consumer companies in particular, it’s important to continuously iterate on and build new features into the product to respond to user needs while also maintaining the core value of the product. This is why it’s so important for product marketers to parse and prioritize feedback from users: you need to understand why customers use a certain product, then use that data to build features that drive more growth.
Product marketing is such a hinge point because they identify your audience. From that audience identification, all of these other things—pricing, packaging, sales org design, comp design—get determined.
—Michael King, a16z product marketing partner
A note on that last point: for open source products or products selling primarily to developers, you’ll likely need a robust developer relations (DevRel) function. DevRel is a skill set in high demand that builds and grows a community around your product, usually through event engagements and educational content. When done well, this can drive organic adoption and top-of-funnel leads and accelerate how you move prospects through the funnel. That said, we don’t generally see DevRel leaders becoming marketing leaders. If your company sells to a technical user, it’s important that your candidate can hire for and develop DevRel teams and is technical enough to credibly talk to members of your developer community.
We cover best practices in The Hiring Process, but we’ve included some recommendations below for what different members of your executive team may want to focus on when interviewing engineering leaders.
A good CMO is a good storyteller, but do they tell the right story for your company? Ask them to describe what you do for different types of audiences (their grandma, a top engineer, a kindergartener). Does the way they talk about your company inspire you? You want a CMO whose brand instinct matches the kind of company you are building.
Sometimes, people are better at (and more focused on) branding themselves than the companies they work for. If someone has come from a strong brand, make sure they were a critical part of building it and not just on the right team at the right time. References are a great way to check for this kind of experience.
For a lot of companies, marketing is the biggest line item after payroll, but despite the price tag, a lot of marketing—especially brand marketing—can be difficult to measure. Many great brand marketers will get the CMO job for their brand and comms chops, but lose it because they can’t manage marketing spend and metrics.
It’s critical that your candidate is in lockstep with both you and your finance leader about budget and outcomes. Get specific with candidates about the size of the budget, how they’ll use it, and what specific outcomes you expect. What’s the media mix they are going after? What’s their hiring plan? And how will they measure if it’s working and not? Your candidate might also ask what budget you have set aside for marketing and how you’ll balance that budget between OpEx and CapEx—so come to the interview prepared with that information.
Additionally, make sure you’re not hiring a CMO to fix someone else’s problems. Some of the high turnover for CMOs results from CMOs getting blamed when the actual problem may lie elsewhere. No number of Google ads or amount of slick branding can fix a bad product.
Because successful marketing can be so difficult to quantify, it’s not unusual for leaders to look at what others are doing and then use that to inform their own marketing plans. For instance, many CMOs leap at the chance to get their company on a new social media channel, even if that new channel might not be a good fit for their brand or goals. To test whether your candidate can build a marketing plan for your company, get into the specifics during the interview process. What media mix would they use when running a campaign, and why? If they point to what other companies are doing and struggle to explain why following suit would benefit your company, that’s a red flag.
Since companies often replace marketing leaders every couple of years, you may see strong candidates with shorter tenures in previous roles. Even though shorter tenures are somewhat common among CMO candidates in particular, you’ll still want to understand whether your candidate was running away from a problem at their previous companies or running toward new challenges. Understanding why your candidate has some shorter tenured roles on their resume, who they’ve worked under, and who can vouch for their skills can help you get more specific about the experience this person can bring to your company. Great candidates who have shorter stints on their resumes should be able to ask specific questions about failure modes they saw at their previous companies to assess if you’re setting them up for success at yours.
Most executives know they can’t code as well as their engineering team, but almost everyone uses social media, sees billboards, and writes emails, and so most people in your company will have an opinion on what good marketing looks like. As a result, when marketing comes up at an executive meeting, there’s rarely a shortage of ideas or opinions. What level of input do you want other leaders to have on your marketing plans? With a new CMO, you’ll want to set expectations on how and where to seek input and manage the personalities on your team.
If a candidate can’t effectively market themselves to your technical leaders, then they probably aren’t the right marketer for your company. Oftentimes, technical and product teams don’t view marketing as a function that moves the needle when it comes to product. But many leaders describe product marketing as the voice of the customer while the product is being built and the voice of the product when it’s launched to the public. If a CMO needs to collaborate with product and engineering for in-product marketing but marketing is the last item on every roadmap, then they’ll be relegated to sharing some ideas for outbound campaigns. This is also why we generally see so many product marketers come up as CMOs in technical companies: they know how to communicate and align with technical teams.
Additionally, you’ll want these leaders to assess whether the CMO can work with them to make sure the message about the product reflects what the product actually does. And if the CMO will have product marketers or more technical resources reporting into them, you may want your product leader to interview and assess if your candidate can manage more technical talent—especially if they haven’t come up through a product marketing track.
A common failure mode in enterprise marketing is that marketing hands off ineffective marketing–qualified leads and sales enablement to the sales team. Get clear on how the candidate has worked with sales in the past. Did they have a weekly call between SDR and demand gen? How often did they meet with their CRO or sales counterpart? How were product and product marketing set up in their previous orgs?
Thanks to Katie Baynes, Brett Browman, Michael King, and Will Wong for contributing their hard-earned wisdom to this piece.
We’ve drawn insights from some of our previously published content and other sources, listed below. In some instances, we’ve repurposed the most compelling or useful advice from a16z posts directly into this guide.
Hire a CMO, Jeff Jordan
You need to hire a CMO to grow, but every company has unique marketing needs. From consumer to enterprise, artists to scientists, Jordan breaks down types of CMOs, the characteristics to look for, and the CMO’s job functions to help you uncover your own needs before making a hire.
Boss Talk #10: The Story Is the Strategy with Dave McJannet, a16z Live with Dave McJannet, Zayd Enam, Ali Ghodsi, and Ben Horowitz
How do you position your company for growth? In this episode of Boss Talk, Dave McJannet talks about the repeatable marketing framework he’s used at GitHub, HashiCorp, and Hortonworks. We drill down into marketing strategy, a minimum viable audience, and capturing versus creating a category.
How “Going Direct” Changes Everything: For Brands, Retail, Marketing, and Advertising, Jeff Jordan
In today’s market, brands and consumers have a direct connection, which has changed online-to-offline strategies. Here, Jordan highlights what you need to know about changing marketing trends and how this shift may affect the marketing skill sets you’re looking for in a CMO.
4B with Margit #9: What Exactly Is Growth Hacking?, a16z Live with Morgan Brown, Fareed Mosavat, Andrew Chen, Tina Wie, and Das Rush
In this episode, we talk to three long-time growth hackers to learn what growth hacking is and which techniques are effective. We dive deep into budgets, how brand building fits into growth strategies, testing and validating new channels, and measurement.
Build Your Personal Brand, a16z Podcast with Alex Constantinople, Margit Wennmachers, Hanne Winarsky
Everyone has a personal brand, whether they like it or not. Some people just choose to control theirs. In this episode, a16z marketing partners discuss what a personal brand is and examples of effective branding. By looking at your potential CMO hires through the personal branding lens, you can get a feel for who they are and how effectively they can market themselves.
Brand Building Ideas… and People, a16z Podcast with Margit Wennmachers and Sonal Chokshi
A great idea isn’t going to sell itself. You need a brand, and your next CMO is going to build it. Learn how brand building really works and why you often need invisible PR strategies to do it.
The Cold Start Problem, Andrew Chen
The “network effect” can help your company rapidly scale through viral user adoption. But what is it and how can you build it into your products? Here, Chen offers his expertise, as well as interviews with CEOs and founding teams at Airbnb, Uber, Zoom, and more to help you understand network effects and use them to successfully scale.
Andrea Simon is a partner on the Talent Network team, focused on executive talent.
Brian Curran is a partner on the Talent Network team, focused on executive talent.
David Belden is a partner on the Talent Network team, focused on executive talent.
Stephanie Doppelt is a partner on the Talent Network team, focused on executive talent.