Startup CEO/Founders: 3 tips to set up your marketing team to succeed

It’s funny, the things we remember.

Back in my inaugural years in marketing, working as a first-year Brand Associate at Procter & Gamble, I was at our first ever agency meeting as we were about to kick off the process of building a new TV campaign.

These were pre-internet days so TV spots were the anchor of any good marketing plan and also ate up the lion’s share of your marketing spend (which was TV media buying). So, to say that nailing your TV creative was an imperative to success is an understatement. It would shape your message, drive demand and consume gobs of budget.

To kick off the entire creative process, our Account Lead showed us a slide with a quote from advertising legend David Ogilvy. The quote was already quite famous, and continues to be to this day, but as a newbie, it was the first time I’d heard it.

“You get the advertising you deserve.”

For the longest time, for some reason, of all the things I remember about my early days at P&G this statement really stuck with me. It was many, many years later as I worked with some great startup CEOs helping to build some great marketing teams and successes that I realized what it was about that statement that stuck.

As a leader, you have the power to set up teams to succeed.

What Ogilvy was saying was that his team could help you succeed, but your role as the client was just as important or even more important in that success than his. It took the adage “Garbage In. Garbage Out.” and really flipped it to become more about influence and choice. That as a leader of a brand (or startup) it’s possible to have your teams deliver greatness, or to flounder. Getting one or the other was highly dependent on how you, “the client”, set them up.

As someone that has led multiple startup marketing teams and ops, this was one of the most empowering and enabling insights that led to much of my success in helping companies build the marketing teams and ops that would be able to meet the expectations of the CEO/Founder (insomuch as you can ever meet a CEO’s expectations!).

So, how does this apply to you, a CEO/Founder of a startup looking to scale?

In my personal experience, there are 3 critical actions you can take to significantly tip the scales towards having your marketing team succeed. The good news is that they are all extremely simple.

Action #1: State your 1 and 3-year company goals

I’ll be honest here, this one’s way more for you than for your marketing team. In almost all my roles I came into a startup as the first or second marketer on the team. There was product-market fit and some good traction and, of course, my mandate was to scale growth like crazy.

To this day, that challenge continues to light a fire under me. But the real person running the show is the CEO. In fact, as the VP Marketing, the CEO was my client. Marketing success was only part of the bigger puzzle for the CEO. For me to be successful and meet the expectations of the CEO, I had to set myself up for success. I wanted the CEO to get the “marketing success they deserved” and this started with asking, for me, the most important question.

“Where does the company need to be in one year and in three years? And what is the critical role that Marketing will play in that role?”

For many of you, this may be a “duh” moment. But the truth is, more often than not, this is a missing conversation and the first blocker to having your marketing team succeed.

As a marketing leader, I absolutely need to know what expectations you have for the company and on me when it comes to delivering in the short term (1 year) and longer term (3-years).

Marketing needs context for both of those planning horizons.

Of course, you want your marketing team to kick-ass and deliver month over month growth and deliver Year 1 — but to really scale growth so you can hit that 3-year target, you need to put people, plans, and systems in place today that work towards Year 3. That’s why having goals, targets and expectations for both time horizons are critical. You need to start working Year 3 into Year 1 plans.

For the record, that doesn’t mean that Year 3 actions won’t deliver in Year 1. But it does mean that you can and will make some very different decisions on people, plans, and systems that may take a bit longer to deliver but will put you in the very spot you need to be in at Year 3. By the way, we all know what comes after Year 3, and that’s even more growth! So you need to continually revisit Year 1 and Year 3 each year (or more).

So, if you’re the CEO/Founder and looking to set your marketing team up for success –write down where the company needs to be across multiple dimensions (sales, customers, product, positioning, geography, etc.) so people get it and then have that conversation so it’s understood and locked in. It’s not just your marketing team that will thank you.

Note: If you’re leading a marketing team and your CEO has not done this, present the idea to them and work on it together. For me, this has always been one of the strongest “bonding” experiences I have with my CEO. Sometimes they need your help pulling this information out and going through the thought process together makes the results so much more permanent and empowering for both of you.

Action #2: Choose one key metric for marketing at a time

For a startup, scaling growth is always about physics. The size of the market opportunity is disproportionate to the size of your team and resources. You’ve got this massive growth mandate and opportunity in front of you and not nearly enough marketers or dollars to capture it all in one swoop. The number of things you could do is almost unbounded, but your resources are not. You don’t want your small team to struggle trying to push this big boulder uphill. It’s going to consume lots of effort, but not much in way of results. So what do you do?

You make a choice.

I’ve always said that “to go big, you’ve got to go small’. I apply that principle across many aspects of marketing but when it comes to setting a goal and mandate for a team it means picking one, and only one, primary metric to move.

Why?

Because by focusing on one key metric your team can apply its full force against that metric and actually move the needle. Again, this is physics.

If you are the CEO, let your marketing team know, at the end of the day, what metric you need them to move so that the business is where it needs to be. In most cases, it’s going to be one of three things:

Driving New Customer Growth/Volume

Improving Conversions

Growing Revenue

Each of these mandates is very different from the other and, if you know that the best way for your marketing team to succeed is by focusing on one or the other, the best thing you can do is be clear on which is most important, right now.

The “right now” is super important as this focus on what’s most important can and will change over time.

In my early FreshBooks days, it was first all about traffic and topline. We just wanted to accumulate customers. We were absolutely willing to be inefficient as we tested our way to this mandate (and that was really tough for the optimizer inside of me) but it allowed us to get everyone on the team to understand that driving 3 new customers at a CPA of $10 was less important than driving 200 new customers at a much higher CPA. Efficiency would matter more and have a greater impact once we solved for volume. And we nailed it.

One year later, while we were still driving volume, our top priority was conversions. We’d generated the traffic and the volume so now there was even more volume to be found in improving the conversion rate of that volume that we were attracting. It also meant that our marketing dollars would become much, much more efficient and we could re-invest those dollars into more traffic driving tests. See how focus works.

In year three, our focus was on revenue. We had lots of volume coming in and ever expanding, we were converting efficiently so now was the time to focus on revenue. So we put our efforts towards plans and pricing tests. And we saw revenue spike, without any meaningful change in all our other metrics.

The point here is to illustrate how focus on one critical metric can liberate your marketing team to really dig into and impact a critical part of your marketing. And how that one thing can absolutely change when it’s time. For many of you, you may stay on one like New Customer Growth for many, many years. But it’s important that you know that it can change when needed and having that single focus really does set your marketing team up for success.

So, what one metric do you need your marketing team to deliver on right now?

Note: Marketers, if your CEO has not shared this with you, ask them.

Action #3: Help your marketing team stay on course

If you’ve done #1 and #2 above then congrats! You’re on a winning path to creating the core conditions your marketing team needs to succeed. Now there’s only one thing left to do.

Keep them focused.

Even though you may not know this, as a CEO/Founder, your ability to keep shit straight is often at a much higher level than most. Also, your opinion matters more than any other. Every day is crazy at a startup. New “stuff happens” all the time, your marketers are working like crazy and dealing with lots of change and ambiguity and desperately trying to hit targets. It’s also very likely that some of them will want to change paths (“but I have to improve the CPA!”) as their natural biases kick in.

As the CEO/Founder, the most impactful role you can have for them, in supporting their success, is to continue to remind them of their focus and goals. Repetition and reinforcement and ongoing reminders from the CEO on the goal and mandate at hand for the marketing team, and the company, has a calming, reassuring and focusing impact beyond what you can imagine.

How can you do this? There are a few ways.

Operationalize it. Mark the goal somewhere permanently. If their focus is on new customers — write that down somewhere where they can see it or put it as the one marketing metric on your company’s digital dashboard on that big screen in the office. Ask them to update and report on that one number. If they email or ask you questions about marketing activities that don’t line up to their core focus, challenge them with questions like “how will this help support our goal of X?”. Tell the rest of the company what marketing’s top priority is. Be a rock for them. Make sure that every day they come in they know exactly what they need to focus on and that it matters to you.

Don’t distract them. Yes, you are the CEO and you want everything! But your team hangs on your direction. For example, sending them daily emails about stuff that is not really about the main goal will distract them. Asking them “should we do this?” when it has nothing to do with the main goal can get in the way. I’m not saying that you can’t continually feed them new ideas and challenges, but if you are doing this without establishing, very firmly, that no matter what you say, you need them focused on X, then you are going to lose the team.

If they don’t hear from you over and over again what their focus should be they may lose their way. If they hear from you and you are forever changing your mind, they will never achieve.

Be the rock of clarity that gives them the confidence to march forward and deliver for you the way you deserve.

Now what?

Of course there is a lot more that goes into setting up a startup marketing team for success. But let’s focus shall we! If you’re finding that your marketing team is not meeting your expectations, start here. Get this right and then you’ll really see what you’re team’s got. There’s always more work to do, but if it’s broken at the top, it’s gonna look ugly at the bottom.

Set’em up for the win and see what they can do. After all, they deserve it.