Why you don’t need a CMO… yet
Your startup most likely doesn't need a full-time CMO. Consider working with a fractional CMO in the interim and prove your model first.
Marketing is a requirement for growing organizations. It’s not optional. And it makes sense to have a savvy individual in the driver’s seat to ensure that your marketing efforts dovetail together, connect with your KPIs and overall business goals and move the organization forward.
However, most likely, you don’t need a CMO. At least, not yet.
Why argue against hiring such a pivotal figure in your C-suite? There are plenty of reasons to hold off on hiring an in-house CMO, ranging from the effect on your bottom line to a CMO’s inability to build successful marketing efforts without an established sales cycle to extrapolate from — let alone a team to build out content and campaigns.
For companies and funded startups under $10M in revenue who are seeking demand generation marketing, the following information on fractional leaders should be helpful.
What is a chief marketing officer (CMO)?
Before we dive too far into the conversation about why you might not need to hire a CMO just yet, let’s establish a baseline. What is a CMO? What do they do? How does their presence (or lack thereof) affect different organizations?
Many business owners, CEOs and other decision-makers will find that the role of the CMO has evolved a great deal in recent years. Once upon a time, CMOs were just experienced marketing professionals who oversaw the marketing department and liaised with other executives. There was a lot of trial and error and measuring results was more than a little challenging.
All that has changed with the advent of digital tools and modern marketing methods. Today, CMO positions are more than just higher-level marketing supervisors. They blend technology with traditional marketing capabilities while thriving in a chaotic, ever-changing environment and masters of creating demand. Once separate from other executives, CMOs are now part of the C-suite and can help you achieve strategic goals.
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Consultants vs. CMOs
Marketing consultants have their place but are quite different than CMOs. Consultants tend to focus on a very specific, niche area to help you get out of the mud, so to speak. (Like D2C marketing.) Full-time and fractional CMOs are there for the long haul, solving a multitude of problems you have and avoiding ones you don’t have yet.
In the case of a brand strategy consultant, a strategic marketer can make good sense, since branding, for example, is typically a big, “one-time” thing that you establish and continue to adhere to and build out indefinitely.
Of course, CMOs can consult on specific needs. But most often, they’re more interested in being part of a bigger solution, like go-to-market planning and execution that achieves your business growth plan.
Responsibilities of a chief marketing officer
What does a CMO do? Today, they have four primary roles within the organization. Regardless if they focus on products or services, they:
- Take specific actions to drive growth.
- Are an innovation catalyst.
- Are a capability builder.
- Are your brand’s storyteller.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the main chief marketing officer responsibilities.
CMOs are responsible for creating and managing a profitable growth strategy. However, many do not feel prepared to actually drive growth in important areas like market share and gross margin.
This disconnect between responsibility and ability can create big problems for organizations that are relying on their CMOs to help them grow.
Innovation is critical to creating stand-out brands and marketing collateral that truly moves the needle. However, it’s not just a vision that must be harnessed to fuel innovation and forward momentum.
It also requires data and intelligence, which means the CMO must be tied into relevant data streams and those often lie outside the traditional boundaries of the marketing department. Dig deeper into the need for innovation and the challenge surrounding it.
I will admit, branding can be a big departure point between CMOs. There are mostly numbers-focused CMOs — and for billion-dollar brands milking a cash cow, that’s probably perfect.
But for SMBs and mid-tiers? You need a storyteller. Brand storytellers create and tell your brand’s story through multiple channels and touchpoints.
The CMO must act as both a storyteller and an orchestra director, ensuring that all outreach efforts, customer service efforts and the entire customer experience communicates the story you want to tell. Interested in learning more about storytelling for your brand? Check out my piece, How to be charismatic: Marketing with charm, heart and personality.
CMOs must also be capability builders. Because of the need for technology, they are centrally involved in the purchase of new tech that will have wide-ranging effects across the entire organization over time and help you avoid the headache of technology.
To support those roles, CMOs have a laundry list of responsibilities that includes the following:
- Creating and implementing marketing campaigns.
- Overseeing market research.
- Analyzing metrics.
- Overseeing all PR and public-facing communications.
- Working closely with other members of the C-suite.
- Balancing strategic vs. tactical initiatives.
Technology has not only revolutionized the role of the CMO, but also the consumer experience. That means CMOs must now be able to manage all aspects of the business related to customer expectations and service, not just heading up marketing campaigns.
It’s a fundamental shift from product-centric roles to customer-centric processes. It also means there is a consistent need for innovation in terms of marketing and outreach and greater importance placed on creating a seamless customer experience.
We also need to respect the fact that a good CMO will come with a vetted, outsourced marketing department or has the capacity of building out a great marketing team, if need be.
Their understanding of strategy vs. tactics will make all the difference in prioritizing your marketing needs.
Pulling right from the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) “rocks, pebbles, sand” analogy… If you fill a jar with large rocks first, the sand easily slips into all the spaces. But if you put all the niche details in the jar first (sand!), the rocks will be harder to fit later.
Most companies focus on too many objectives at once. However, it is more efficient to focus on the big, strategic stuff (rocks) first and everything else (pebbles and sand) will follow. In marketing, focusing on rocks is a vital tactic to meet your business’s essential needs.
Qualifications of a CMO
To uphold and fulfill CMO roles and responsibilities within the organization, a chief marketing officer should have specific qualifications. These include:
- A bachelor’s degree in business administration or a related field, at a minimum.
- A minimum of 10 years of experience in marketing departments, including significant marketing leadership experience. Big advertising agency experience is also a plus.
- A wide range of technical skills that apply to marketing, including SEO, software design, social media channel lead generation, sales management technology, CRMs and email, for instance.
- Strong interpersonal, communication and leadership skills.
CMO salary and pay structure
No discussion of why your organization doesn’t need a full-time CMO just yet would be complete without touching on pay and salary structure.
PayScale points out that CMOs today earn $89,000 to $273,000 per year, a not inconsequential amount for startups and SMBs that need to maximize profitability to focus on growth and agility. The average is $175,000. Of course, that will vary depending on whether the CMO is in a B2B or B2C or even a D2C brand.
Why you don’t need a CMO yet
Most startup companies don’t need a CMO. In fact, they probably can’t afford one. Small businesses struggle to turn a profit, so paying a large salary to a full-time, in-house chief marketing officer doesn’t make a lot of financial sense.
It’s also important to point out that early-stage companies rarely have the replicability that most CMOs need to do their jobs correctly.
Maybe marketing agencies can fill that gap for a while. But over time, you want someone who really understands the levers that make your business grow short and long term.
When to hire a CMO
Product launches can be a perfect moment to take that plunge, for example, but it can be incredibly difficult to tell when it’s time to finally decide to hire a dedicated, in-house CMO. After all, if your company is earning less than $10 million, there’s rarely a need for a full-time professional in this role. The sheer cost is the primary downside.
There’s also the fact that most CMOs require an existing pattern from which to extrapolate — think of an established sales cycle. Startups and small businesses usually lack that kind of history, denying most conventional CMOs the tools they require.
Does that mean you need to fly by the seat of your pants? Should the CEO handle all the marketing-related decisions? Who’s responsible for all the duties the CMO traditionally shoulders in an organization that doesn’t yet need to hire a full-time professional? How do you make informed marketing decisions that allow you to compete with more established firms?
The answer is simple. Hire a fractional CMO, instead.
What is a fractional chief marketing officer?
Fractional leadership is nothing new. You most likely have encountered a fractional CFO or legal counsel on a need-to-use basis.
A part-time CMO is an unconventional type of chief marketing officer. In this situation, the CMO only works with your organization on a freelance basis. They are usually found in early-stage startups because they are much more affordable.
A virtual CMO usually emphasizes digital marketing and strategy. The position, typically held by someone with experience in social media, content creation, advertising and digital media, is an emerging role in marketing. Don’t feel too bad if it’s unfamiliar to you.
Another way of looking at it is this: A fractional chief marketing officer is a CMO who does not have a full-time position, but nevertheless has the authority to lead and manage your branding, marketing and advertising efforts. They also become a member of your C-suite with the primary responsibility of overseeing all marketing functions, including advertising, public relations, sales promotion and customer service.
CMOs are typically pictured working for billion-dollar brands, yet I find that even the smallest companies need the same thinking implemented just as the biggest companies do. This is why I’ve offered fractional CMO services for my own clients who are seeking longer-term support, whether we run projects through my agency or not.
The CMO spot is a strategic position, so a small company just getting started may not need full-time strategy assistance. Instead, they will benefit more from a quarterly strategy set-up around tactics for internal marketers to execute with a CMO supervising their marketing team. The good news is that a fractional CMO can come in, design everything and set your organization on a course for success and they don’t have to be behind a desk for 40 hours each week to achieve that goal.
At the $3M–$5M revenue mark is where companies start to develop a clear sales cycle and a traditional CMO can step in and drive. However, it’s not unusual for (non-venture funded) companies to take years to achieve $1M–$3M, much less $5M. A fractional CMO can help you get there in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the cost.
This is important because your content marketing needs to focus on that timeline to speed up the sales cycle. Or if you’re an e-commerce, getting your entire funnel to perform flawlessly and automatically. Quite often, once that is addressed, you may not need a CMO until you are ready for the next phase of growth, like growing from $10M to $50M.
What is the difference between the role of the CMO and a marketing director?
Do you require a CMO, though? Couldn’t a marketing director do the same job?
Actually, the chief marketing officer and marketing director are two very different positions, with drastically different responsibilities and required skills.
For one thing, a CMO is an executive, whereas a marketing director is not. A CMO also needs to keep pace with other C-suite members, while a marketing director does not. Finally, a CMO has many of the same responsibilities as a marketing director, but also several different ones.
A fractional CMO does all of the above. Quite often, they bring with them an experienced marketing team that can execute things as needed.
Defining your need and choosing the right partner
Whether you need full-time or part-time help is really a matter of where you’re at in terms of business growth, as well as your capacity to meet and match that growth. It may be tempting to hire fresh, affordable talent that’s easy on your cash flow.
But, again, if finding the multipliers in your business growth more quickly matters to you right now, you may be better off with a seasoned and experienced marketing head who can make a few key decisions out of the gate that can produce multipliers of 10x and as high as 50x ROI.
At least from my own experience, I know this to be the case. This means that cost is irrelevant since that talent pays for itself.
Before you seek a CMO for hire, understand that creative execution is more important than tech at the beginning of your marketing. You need to nail your story first. I’ve seen that journey take a company years to resolve.
The right partner can help you get there 10 times faster than if you try to go it alone. Some CMOs know how to develop your brand story, which is the most critical part until you’re a billion-dollar brand.
That said, be aware that a majority of CMOs focus more on metrics based on predictable flow, which is reporting the outcome. The outcome can only be as strong as what you put into it. Hopefully, that means building brand experience.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.