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Seven Traps CEOs Hit When Shopping at the CMO Store

By March 5, 2012Article

It seems like lots of CEOs are shopping for CMOs these days.

On the eve of its IPO, Facebook hired its first CMO from Levi’s to take the reigns of the company’s image. On the backend of a PR bruising, Netflix announced that it’s starting a new CMO search. Research in Motion is also on the hunt. RIM’s newly appointed CEO stated that their priority is hiring a CMO to sharpen their image. Let’s hope that gig offers war pay.

Hiring and firing CMOs is a hot topic. A quick search yields many inspiring headlines such as “What Should a CMO Do When the Gig is Up?” or “Why It’s so Hard for CMOs to Keep Their Jobs.” There’s even research devoted to tracking average CMO tenure, which by the way has increased from a low of, gulp, 23 months.

So, how can CEOs get off the hiring/firing carousel and pick the right CMO from the start? Unfortunately, finding the right CMO isn’t as easy as picking up a new suit from Banana Republic’s new Mad Men design collection.

This topic comes up quite a bit at Play Bigger. That is not surprising since we are a team of ex-CMOs who have been hired and fired. We see a lot of CEOs fall into common traps when looking for a CMO.

7 traps to avoid when hiring a CMO

1. Don’t hire a CMO too early

Be like Facebook. Don’t hire a CMO too early. It’s common to see recruiters beating the street for CMOs after a Series A or B round of financing. Why? Because the CMO was baked into the funding plan as the answer for how the company will build a pipeline and capture the top right position in the Gartner Magic Quadrant. In all fairness, hiring a CMO early can be a smart move in consumer markets where marketing serves as the primary revenue and traffic generation channel. However, in early-stage B2B companies, the product/market pairing takes time to form.

Take time to build out the product and confirm the problem you are solving before hiring a CMO. Hiring early can create a “make-work” problem. If there isn’t a business to grow, time gets filled with press releases, webinars, VIP events, etc. Before you know it, you flush 12 months of time and 24 months of your marketing budget with no tangible results. If you have any doubt on hiring early, take your CMO budget, chop it up and hire a great product marketing director and campaigns manager. They will be busy building pipeline and sales materials while you bide your time for the big hire.

2. Stop hunting the Unicorn CMO

Ok, so you have decided that you want to pull the trigger and hire a new CMO. Your VP of Human Resources has Googled up a few good CMO job postings and you are ready to start recruiting. Tread carefully here. If your spec reads anything like this, you are in trouble:

“Ding Dongify is a rapidly growing cloud based SaaS mobile application platform company that is looking to hire a dynamic marketing leader. The CMO must have 15 years of proven expertise in revenue acquisition, social marketing, thought leadership, channel and field enablement, and marketing operating systems. This leader will be responsible for positioning the company, driving pipeline, securing leadership positions in market reports, driving product strategy, and market thought leadership ….”

I credit a conversation with a database startup founder in coining the term for this person – the Unicorn CMO. The Unicorn CMO is the executive with the perfect mix of Steve Jobs’ innovation and vision, the lead-generation discipline of Bill Belichick (sorry, Pats fans), the social savvy of Zuckerberg and the persuasive POV delivery of Don Draper. So, what is the problem? This person doesn’t exist. The reality is you need to zero in on what type of CMO you really need and why.

3. Confusing the CMO with the VP of Marketing

A common trap is confusing a CMO with a VP of Marketing. The CMO is a seasoned business executive who understands how to utilize marketing to prosecute a business strategy. A VP of Marketing is a functional expert that understands the nuts and bolts of marketing programs.

Don’t make the mistake of hiring a CMO when you really only need a VP or director of marketing. If you are just looking for someone to “run marketing,” then hire a good functional marketing expert at a VP or Director level. This person can manage your core marketing functions like lead generation, collateral and events. Hiring a CMO to do this work is overkill and will cost you more stock and cash than you need to spend to get this job done.

CEOs should hire a CMO if they need a business executive to fill critical gaps in domain expertise and leadership. For example, an introverted product-oriented CEO may hire an extroverted CMO to help drive a market agenda, inspire people, and create urgency with customers. Analytical CEOs often hire big-thinking CMOs to attack business problems from different angles. True CMOs often are also the head of strategy. CMOs with specific industry expertise are often hired to drive industry thought leadership. CMOs must also “run marketing.” but that should only be one part of their role.

4. Searching for the Big-Time CMO

The Big-Time CMO is the person CEOs look for when they are out of big ideas from the executive team and BOD. This search usually starts after a three-day offsite with the exec team, PR agency and a few McKinsey consultants. Stacks of Post-It Charts are filled with ideas on how to reposition the company, create a new category, get the attention of the C-suite, etc. Then the search begins to find a big-time CMO that knows how to do all of this stuff.

Unfortunately most of the qualified CMOs are retired or are now CEOs. Avoid the trap of endlessly searching for an unrecruitable person. Instead, find a strong cross-functional leader in other areas in the company such as product marketing or product management to lead this charge. You can then use your big-time CMO budget to hire an execution-focused VP of Marketing and a team of experts to help roll out the new idea or strategy.

5. Don’t shoot the hunter

Deciding the nature of the person you are hiring is as important as the job title. Sometimes you need a hunter personality. A hunter will come in looking for problems to fix. This type of CMO is good for re-positioning, creating categories, attacking the competition, rebuilding the marketing team, killing agencies and fighting the Gartner mafia. Hunter CMOs have guts, are aggressive and have a never-ending thirst for driving change. You probably won’t invite a hunter to your home unless you want to finish off that select reserve bottle of Jameson.

The trap for hiring this type of CMO is that they often get fired in 12-18 months. Why? Because after the big changes have been made, the results are delivered, and the moose is on the hood of the pickup, most companies don’t want more change; they want stability. That’s when the skills of the hunter go from an asset to a liability. This can stress the organization and exec team and lead to the firing of the hunter and the hiring of a more pragmatic marketing farmer. So, if you are hiring a hunter, be prepared for change and have a plan to leverage this change agent for the long term.

6. Expecting the farmer to hunt

In less troubled times, a marketing leader with strong operational and management skills is needed. This is the role of the farmer CMO. Success for the farmer is defined by keeping the lead-gen crops watered, trimming the budget, caring for the team, picking new pictures for the website and feeding sales with customer case studies. The farmer usually lives a long life and is rewarded for not disrupting the organization.

However, if growth stalls, the farmer will be asked to shake things up, which is a trap. Ever wonder why you see companies change their logos, website design, or brand colors so often? Well, it’s the farmer’s answer to shaking things up. The farmer will go out and ask for a new branding and advertising budget to try to fix the growth problem. When the new brand design doesn’t move the needle, the farmer will go on the block. The farmer’s neatly organized office will soon be kicked in by a replacement, the incoming hunter.

7. Avoid the 18-month itch

So, the hunting and farming traps shed light on the final trap – the 18-month itch. Usually after 18 months, when the CMO has MC’d a few sales kickoffs, finally figured out what the products do, rebuilt the team and rebranded the company, the CEO begins to feel the itch. Growth has slowed, net new customers are scarce, positioning is getting stale, sales is still using the deck from two releases ago and the product roadmap is full of help desk tickets. These things trigger CEOs to go shopping for a new CMO.

Stop. When you get the feeling to go shopping, ask yourself what problem you want to fix with the change. Marketing-related problems come and go. People who are loyal, trusted by their teams and own the voice of your brand are valuable assets. Keep your eyes open and ask yourself if you are in the 18-month cycle.

Our advice: Hire a leader and business executive with one or two of the unicorn attributes and the ability to recruit a team of A-players to fill in the gaps. A strong leader will hire functional talent that is better than him/him at the core jobs. A strong leader will weather the seasons of change and adapt the team to meet the needs of the business.

Remember, you break it, you buy it at the CMO store.

Dave Peterson is a former CMO, now Co-Founder and Partner at Play Bigger Advisors.  Twitter: @playbiggeradv.