When You Need a CMO. And The #1 Reason CMOs Fail.

To many of you, “CMO” will seem like an almost silly title.  At say $2m in ARR, when you’re just figuring our demand gen, SDRs and BDRs and all that … why would you need a CMO?  You need a VP of Demand Gen!  Maybe a VP of Marketing.  But the last thing you probably need is a fancy title running around, spouting marketing-ism.

But over time, things will change.  Roughly, once you (x) have an established brand, and (y) have a marketing engine that is working, and (z) most importantly, once demand gen has finally become somewhat routine … you’ll need a CMO.  Because you’ll need a marketing quarterback.  Most CMOs aren’t demand gen gurus.  Some are, but even if they were, they’ve often left the details a bit behind.  But you’ll need someone to manage a diverse team of professionals — demand gen, field marketing, customer marketing (to existing customers), product marketing, brand marketing, event marketing, analyst relations and marketing, growth hacking, and press, media and PR.  Phew, that’s a lot.  Yes, when you’re there, you need a CMO.  Maybe by $10m ARR, plus or minus.  Or maybe 12-24 months after you have the core marketing functions all built out, and working.

Ok so her or his job as CMO is to manage all these marketing functions — to success.  But it’s actually more than that for a true CMO.  A true CMO doesn’t just own marketing.  A true CMO doesn’t just manage the team to the company’s goals for the quarter and year.  A true CMO also executes the CEO’s vision.  How the customers, the prospects, the media, and the world should see the company and its mission.  And which tactics and strategies to prioritize to get there.

And this is where, once you finally are ready for a CMO, and make the hire, I see so many CMOs crash and burn.  Especially stretch CMOs.

Why?  They want to execute their own vision for how to scale.  Sometimes, if the CEO hasn’t been involved in being a public face or strategist for the company externally, that’s OK.  But that’s rare in SaaS.  Much more often, by $10m ARR or so, most CEOs have a strong vision of what they think works in marketing.  They’ve been on the road for years.  Meeting with hundreds of customers.  Getting the press and attention themselves.  Explaining the vision.

And by then — most CEO’s will have strong opinions on marketing.  They may like events and press, but hate webinars and prospect dinners.  They may love growth hacking and SMB marketing but not really want to spend tons of money getting leads for the mid-market or enterprise teams.  Who knows.  And this will evolve over time.

But where I see the disalignment is where the CMO makes her/his own decisions on what marketing initiatives are the most important for the company.  If you take the company’s strategic priorities in a very different direction than the CEO wants, you better be right.  And in marketing, it’s hard to be 100% right.

So if you are taking on your first CMO role (or even your second), or hiring your first CMO, my #1 bit of advice is sit down and take about all the things marketing does.  And see if you can get aligned on what the priorities should be for the next 12 months to get there.  If you aren’t … then stress will grow as the budget and hiring grows, unless the revenue follows almost instataneously.  Start instead with building on top of what already works, when aligns with CEO’s vision, and add experiments that aren’t too expensive.

Because the best CEOs really are great marketers, even if they didn’t start there.  See Benioff, Musk, Aaron Levie, even Stewart Butterfield and Eoghan McCabe and others in their own interesting ways.  They all became great marketers.  Because they ended up really knowing their market.  Follow your CEO’s lead, if they already have one.

And CEOs — don’t expect magic from your CMO.  Expect someone that can take what you’ve already build, and make it scale, and work better, through the next few phases of growth.  That’s enough.

Published on July 11, 2018

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