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Posted On January 10th, 2018 by Crowded Ocean

Startup CMOs Are Today’s Executive Unicorns

Virtually every industry has some version of the saying: “You want it fast. You want it cheap. And you want it good (or ‘of high quality’). Pick any two. That saying applies to one of the most valuable and strategic positions on the executive staff today: The CMO. And it also explains why everyone from Venture Capitalists to corporate recruiters refer to quality CMOs as ‘unicorns’, as in ‘impossible to find.’

Why is the CMO such a difficult job to fill? Much of that is attributable to the changing nature of Marketing. In the old days Marketing was a qualitative, or “feel” discipline: there were no real measurable standards. And so the CMO (called a ‘VP of Marketing’ in the past) was someone with a good feel for the market, who knew what strategies to adopt, what ads to develop, and how to communicate the intangibles of their value to the leaders in the executive and Board rooms.

But in the past two decades Marketing has transitioned from ‘feel’ to fact. Software platforms such as Marketo have created a tangible, measurable dimension to Marketing that never existed in the past. So the CMO, who might have been the only primarily right-brain (creative-focused) executive on the staff in the past, is now most likely as left-brain as the rest of his/her executive peers. According to the 2016-2017 survey by Gartner, enterprise marketing budgets as a percent of revenue continue to rise with a lot of growth driven by the shift to data-driven digital marketing investments. And yet the CMO has to still be able to recognize and manage individuals of a highly right-brain nature—and to communicate and sell their output to the higher-ups.

And that is only part of what makes CMOs so unique—and rare. In high tech companies, the CMO needs to be, in essence, a 3-headed beast:

  • Head One is steeped in product to the point that the CMO is welcome in engineering and product management discussions and is active in shaping the product roadmap.
  • Head Two is strong in traditional product marketing steeped in customer needs, technology integrations, trends and issues, and able to drill down on specific use cases or applications to help translate customer needs to product management/engineering.
  • Head Three is strong in both traditional “corporate marketing” and its derivative, “digital marketing,” with its proliferation of tools, channels, content marketing, and metrics.

Good luck finding a CMO with all of these qualities. Because individuals with all of the above often have a different job title: CEO.

In the world that we inhabit—technology startups—the CMO is often the last hired and the first fired. Why? In addition to all of the above, there is the issue of sequence. Founders often do the Product marketing themselves and then bring in a CMO with strong go-to-market, Corporate Marketing skills to launch the company and generate early sales success. But once that launch takes place, the need for those skills diminish and the need for a product- and technology-centric CMO rise. Which often means the initial CMO is shown the door—or demoted.

On the flip side, if the company goes with a product- or technology-centric as their initial CMO, that person has probably never launched a company or developed an initial go-to-market strategy. Which means they’re just as likely to be shown the door as their Corporate Marketing peer.

So the challenge for today’s CEO isn’t always finding the right CMO—it’s keeping and developing them once they’re hired. Which means recognizing their orientations (right-brain vs. left-brain; product vs. corporate marketing), helping them develop the sides where they are weaker, and hopefully winding up with a unicorn of unique and lasting value.

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