How to hire a VP Marketing
Valuable tips for making one of the hardest VP hires from experts at Delivery Hero, Zendesk, and more.
One of the most important hires a startup can make, usually between the Series A and the Series B, is a VP Marketing. It’s also one of the hardest hires to get right.
This post’s divided into five sections that’ll hopefully help you with this challenge:
- Part 1: Deciding what kind of VP Marketing to hire
- Part 2: Picking a hiring ‘anchor’
- Part 3: Assessing candidates
- Part 4: Interview tips
- Part 5: When things go wrong
Let’s dive in!
Before we get started, it’s worth noting that every VP hire is important — and never easy. Maddy Cross, Partner at Erevena and ex-Talent Director at Notion Capital, knows this well. She’s recently been helping some of our portfolio companies think through their VP hiring strategies. Based on her experiences, Maddy’s written an excellent post about the importance of VP hiring. She shows, based on loads of data, that companies on the ‘unicorn track’ focus much more on bringing in experienced leaders compared to a control group.
Jason Lemkin’s also written dozens of articles about hiring VPs, especially about how to hire a VP Sales. (If you haven’t read them yet, you should.) And our portfolio advisor Michael Wolfe has a great post about hiring your VP Engineering.
That said, many startups find the VP Marketing hire even more difficult than other VP hires. There are a few reasons why that might be the case.
- B2B marketing has changed a lot over the last 10–15 years. It’s become much more data-driven, consumer-oriented, content-focused, growth-hacky, and product-led. This means that B2B marketing is a pretty new discipline, so the number of people with significant experience in it is limited.
- Marketing teams are typically more specialized and smaller than sales teams. This reduces the size of the talent pool for marketing people in general. And it gets even smaller if you’re looking for people with broad experience across most marketing disciplines.
- Good marketing people are good at marketing and selling themselves. This can make it harder to know a great candidate from a decent one. Lots of founders have a product or engineering background, which can make it tough for them to assess sales and marketing talent compared to product and engineering hires. Make sure to put your candidates in front of advisors, investors, and your network in general to help you make the right call.
At the risk of stating the obvious, there are more startups looking for a great VP Marketing than there are candidates. So you need a solid pitch on why dream candidates should join your startup rather than one of the many others that want to hire them.
Part 1: Deciding what kind of VP Marketing to hire
Before you start your search, you have to ask yourself what kind of VP Marketing you’re looking for. Obviously, this is true for every hire.
For the VP Sales, for example, you’ll want to make sure that the person is the right fit for your company stage and annual contract value (ACV) range. Jason Lemkin has written about this extensively, including this post.
But as I mentioned, marketing is a particularly broad field. Think about the things that fall under marketing:
- Demand generation
- Brand marketing
- Product marketing
You can break down these categories further into subcategories like product-led growth, conversion optimization, SEO, SEM, social (paid and organic), media buying, content, community, events, account-based marketing, corporate marketing, corporate communications, pricing, and packaging. The list goes on.
No candidate will be excellent at everything, so you need to know what your “anchor” point is when you’re hiring a VP. I advise most founders to rank their priorities, hire for the need that’s most important for them, then look to complement the other skills with other people.
Part 2: Picking a hiring “anchor”
If you can’t have it all, what should you prioritize? I recently discussed this with some of Point Nine’s advisors and a few experts from our network.
Michael Wolfe’s one of my go-to guys for difficult questions. This is what he said when I asked him what founders should prioritize:
“The two backgrounds that most candidates seem to have are demand gen and/or product marketing. In my opinion, corporate marketing is a distant third, and very few startups need someone who is strong there if they’re weak in the other areas.
Ideally, you’ll find a candidate who’s strong in demand gen and product marketing (and they do exist) but there’s a good chance you’ll need to choose. You should make that choice deliberately based on what the company needs.
Demand gen people tend to be more operational/execution-focused, where product marketing centric people tend to be better at strategy and communications and supporting a sales team. Both can work — it just depends on the company and the candidate.
As a rough guideline, early-stage companies often need more product marketing help (product/market fit, learning how to sell, creating customer case studies). Whereas at later stages, demand gen might be prioritized more. In any case, you’re hiring a leader, not an individual contributor, so their ability to attract and keep great people and contribute to the company as an exec is the most important part. They can hire for areas where they’re weaker.”
“We generally see clients gravitating away from Corporate Marketing as a place to find a CMO since corporate marketing tends to include PR/Comms and other ‘softer’ marketing skills. It’s also common for brand or product marketing leaders to have skill set crossover. It’s more rare for a demand gen leader to also be strong in brand or product marketing (and vice versa).”
Zack Urlocker, former COO of Zendesk and DuoSecurity, and Board Partner at Point Nine, has similar advice:
“Focus on demand gen and product marketing. If you can increase the pipeline you will increase sales and everyone is happy. Brand is a side-effect of having clear positioning. Branding was hugely important at Zendesk and Duo, but without good demand gen and product marketing it would not have been sufficient.”
Based on these responses, and other feedback I received, there‘s a broad consensus that you should focus on demand gen and product marketing.
Another thing to keep in mind is that the best option may be to start with two slightly more junior ‘Heads’, like a Head of Demand Generation and a Head of Product Marketing, instead of looking for the unicorn VP Marketing who can do it all.
Lastly, avoid the rookie mistake of hiring a CMO (or wannabe CMO) at the seed stage. A CMO is a senior executive who manages VPs (or maybe senior directors). Almost no company at the seed stage needs that. True CMOs know that, too. So if a seed-stage startup considers hiring a CMO it’s usually not a real CMO, but a marketing person with a few years of experience who thinks they’re a CMO. So in addition to creating the wrong role, you‘ll suffer from adverse selection.
Part 3: Assessing candidates
When I help Point Nine companies evaluate candidates for a VP or Head of Marketing position, these are some of the things I usually try to assess:
- Have they worked in demand generation before?
Did they have an MQL goal? How much have they been able to grow MQLs in their previous roles? If it’s a demand gen-focused role and the candidate wasn’t responsible for lead gen in the past, that‘s a red flag.
- Are they highly analytical and numbers-driven?
For example, when you ask them about examples of work they’ve done that they’re proud of, the candidate should be able to talk about the quantitative results of some of their campaigns or initiatives. If the answer doesn’t include any numbers, that‘s a big red flag.
- Are they familiar with the latest and best marketing software?
Great demand gen people use lots of martech (at later-stage companies, 10–20+ pieces of software), are excellent at lead qualification, and build super sophisticated flows for lead nurturing.
- Do they have a number of ideas for conversion optimization as soon as they look at your website?
And when you ask them about these ideas, can they point to specific learnings from past conversion optimization, or pricing and packaging improvements based on A/B tests?
- Are they creative and resourceful?
Have they shown creativity in their past work? Do they have examples of campaigns where they got a huge bang for their buck, like a campaign that went viral, or one where they successfully used guerilla tactics?
Unless the company is later-stage, the role is relatively hands-on. (In comparison to a Head of Sales, Head of Demand Generation is much more about doing it yourself with a small team than only being a manager.)
Part 4: Interview tips
Interviewing marketing leaders isn’t easy. As with any other role, you have to meet a number of people in order to “calibrate” and to learn what great looks like.
One CMO who’s extremely experienced with this is Mats Diedrichsen. He led Delivery Hero’s global marketing team from 2015 until 2021, playing a key role in the company’s growth from less than €100 million to almost €3 billion in annual revenue. Mats’ advice on the topic is so awesome that I’ve included a longer quote below:
“When I interview for a CMO/marketing leader, I always start with what the company needs. In general, I will look at two dimensions to narrow down the candidates:
1) Whether the company needs a more strategic brand-focused person or a performance marketing/acquisition-focused person
Ideally you will get a candidate that fully understand brand, brand research and can build out great brand strategies for your company and at the same time being able to be close to your performance marketing team, getting involved in the right bidding strategy for FB or helping the CRM team building out life cycle flows and the segmentation.
Unfortunately, the amount of people that can do both is exceptionally few so the first thing you need to decide is which part is more important.
2) How hands-on the person needs to be
This comes down to two things:
a) How demanding is the CEO around this?
I worked with CEOs that wanted to go through line-by-line the cost per month to CEOs that took a very hands-off approach. The CMO candidate needs to be comfortable with the demands of the CEO.
b) How is the team constructed?
A very small team will need a much more hands-on leader versus a marketing team with +50 FTE will have less demands on the candidate to be hands-on. In my opinion, all CMOs need to be able to be hands-on. So this part’s about how hands-on they prefer to be, and whether that fits with the company needs.
When I interview, I adjust the questions to find a candidate that fits the company needs (Brand vs Performance marketing; hands-on or not).
Look out for ‘professional managers’.
“Professional managers” are marketeers that might have a good general understanding of the marketing areas but most times they have never themselves “done it”. This means they tend to have a more superficial understanding of the different marketing areas. What I have seen myself is that people want to work for managers that they can learn from, that can coach them and who will inspire them.
Professional managers many times tend to over-delegate work & decisions to their teams. Due to the lack of “doing it themselves” they are also many times not able to help or coach their team members when they need help. So when I interview I try to go deep into the different sections to ensure the candidate is really knowledgeable. This is especially important to investigate for the area that is important for the company.
Below are some example questions I would ask:
Go through the latest market research you did.
- In which way is your positioning aligned with your research.
- What were the insights you got from this research?
- How did you put those insights into action?
Go through the most important brand KPIs that you measure.
- Why do you measure the brand with these KPIs?
- What’s good about your approach?
- What could improve?
Tell me about a successful campaign you did.
- Explain why this was a successful campaign.
- Explain how you measured the performance of the campaign.
- If you could redo the campaign, what would you do differently?
Why do I ask these questions?
- To understand if the marketing strategy and brand position is anchored in research and insights or gut feeling.
- How the candidate is ongoing evaluating if the execution of the marketing strategy materializes in improved brand KPIs or not.
Product marketing and acquisition
What’s the best steering KPI you worked with?
- Explain the steering KPI in detail.
- Explain why you think it’s such a good KPI.
- If you had no real limitations (within reason), how would you improve the KPI?
What’s the best attribution model you’ve worked with?
- Explain the attribution model in detail.
- Explain why you think it’s such a good attribution model.
- If you had no real limitations, how would you improve the attribution model?
I’ll also let them pick a channel of their choice. Questions will differ per channel but I try to go deep.
Why do I ask these questions?
- A great candidate will have a detailed understanding of the steering KPI and attribution model.
- There is no perfect steering KPIs or attribution models so every CMO needs to consider the strength and weakness when they evaluate the spend.
- The channel specific question is a good indicator of how deep channel knowledge the candidate has.
- If they fail to display a good understanding of the “channel of their choice” the understanding of other channels is probably limited.
In general, I never allow candidates to give general or theoretical answers. If they start to answer things in a theoretical way, I always stop them and ask them to use a real example.”
Part 5: When things go wrong
Let’s say it’s been a couple of months since your new VP joined and you’re not seeing good results yet. Maybe they’ve done a fair amount of good work but it hasn’t led to a big increase in leads, and you’re starting to wonder if you’ve made the right hire.
Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual. Even if you’ve followed all of the tips from this post, run a great hiring process, worked with an expensive executive search firm, and done everything you could to find the right candidate and help them succeed, things don’t always work out as planned.
So what do you do? Give it more time? Or let them go and start a new recruitment process? The right answer, of course, is highly situational and depends on a lot of factors. In my opinion, after 3–6 months you have to assess a VP (not just in marketing) based on results — and nothing else.
If you don’t assess a VP on results and instead try to convince yourself that it’s not their fault because of reason x, y or z, then you’re on dangerous ground — because there’s always an x, y or z. It’s a cliché, but you don’t hire a VP to tell you about problems — you hire them to deliver the solution.
In some rare cases, the job can be impossible. Scaling sales without product/market fit. Scaling marketing with a super leaky bucket and high churn. But it’s rare that the situation’s so bad that the VP has no chance at all to make an impact.
In general, you have to assume that it’s not an impossible mission — even if that means that, in very rare cases, it leads to a wrong and unfair assessment, and maybe firing a VP that shouldn’t have been fired. If you don’t do that and go into the rabbit hole of explaining why things couldn’t work, you’ll wait too long to pull the plug, losing another 3–6 months or more of valuable time.
A P9 Family founder told me the other day: “Ugh, recruiting [VPs] is bruuuuuutal”. That’s true. But it’s also one of the most rewarding things you can do on your journey from an early-stage startup to a fast-growing company. When you make your first successful VP hire and experience the magic of someone taking a huge chunk of responsibility off your shoulders — and delivering better results than you could on your own — it’ll all be worth it. Promise.
I’m Christoph Janz, co-founder of Point Nine. Follow us on Medium or subscribe to our weekly(ish) newsletter for more thoughts about SaaS, B2B marketplaces, venture capital, and occasional sneak peeks into P9’s kitchen.
Many thanks to Maddy Cross, Michael Wolfe, Zack Urlocker, Cameron O’Brien, Mats Diedrichsen, Bill Macaitis, and everyone else who contributed to this post, and to Luke Leighfield for the copy-editing support!