Marketing Shouldn’t Be a Dirty Word in Silicon Valley

Why the best people don’t go into marketing, why it matters, and what we can do about it

Jul 17, 2015 · 5 min read

You could say that I got into marketing (or “growth”, if you prefer that euphemism) mostly by accident. It was a right time, right place kind of thing: Upstart had an awesome product and killer team, but they needed a growth strategy. I figured I could maximize immediate impact by running our early growth experiments and transition into product when the time was right. After all, marketing (along with sales, business development, HR, and operations) tends to be a backup option in the tech industry — something to do if you’re not technical enough to be an engineer, designer, or product manager. But somewhere towards the end of a wild two years with what is now one of the fastest-growing lending platforms in the world, I started to understand that while marketing is commonly considered a second-class profession in the tech industry, it really shouldn’t be. The companies who believe in the narrative of marketers as second-tier talent are perpetuating a dangerous myth.

The difference between an A+ marketing team and a B+ marketing team is the difference between success and failure

Without a great product a company won’t survive for long, but even with a great product, weak distribution strategy is one of the most common causes of startup failure. The best product doesn’t always win. Engineers are foundational to the success of a tech company because without engineers there wouldn’t be a product. But both engineers and marketers are necessary; neither is independently sufficient.

Consider a company that relies heavily on advertising to grow. A huge portion of the company’s available cash goes towards distribution efforts. An excellent advertisement with clever copy and a compelling image performs 3–4x times better than a more generic ad overall — this takes into account higher click-through rates, conversion rates, virality, and branding. If an advertiser is rigorous about getting the right ad in front of the right people at the right time, she can further improve performance by 2–3x using smart targeting strategies. Most importantly, an advertiser needs to be data-driven and make sure that she identifies and takes advantage of high-performing strategies. Since each micro-optimization has compounding returns with iteration and scale, and sometimes much larger gains can be found, the difference between a mediocre strategy and an excellent one can be 10x or 100x over a period of months or years.

The same kinds of gains can be realized by having an excellent business development team working on partnerships. Especially in the early stages, when a company is unproven and there are no other major partnerships to point to for credibility, the first few major deals can lay (or destroy) the groundwork for all the rest. Partnerships tend to follow the 80/20 rule: 80% of value from partnerships comes from 20% of partners.

When it comes to viral growth, the viral loop you attempt to create either works or it doesn’t. Making virality work takes deep, creative thinking and data-driven iteration. Again, viral marketing can’t be left in the hands of someone who just wasn’t good enough to get any other responsibilities.

Almost any roadblock is surmountable by a strong enough team. Failing to grow is an execution problem.

The best talent doesn’t go into marketing because… the best talent doesn’t go into marketing?

How about we kill the chicken and eat the egg?

Smart people like working with other smart people. They’re attracted to brand names like Google and Facebook in the tech world, or Goldman Sachs and McKinsey outside of it, because they know that the hiring bar is high and even if the work they’re doing may sometimes be less than fascinating, at least they’ll be working with other bright people alongside whom they can learn and grow. They’ll gain useful skills, be compensated well, and have strong exit opportunities in their future.

There’s a reason that graduates of top universities go into consulting instead of marketing. Marketing agencies can be a great place to learn, but they’re considered the lower-paid, less prestigious cousins of management consulting firms when they’re even considered at all. They charge clients a percent of spend to manage media buying, creative, ad operations, and analytics for companies of all sizes. In recent years, as these processes become increasingly automated, the opportunity for a few capable people to effectively manage and massively scale budgets has grown, creating huge profit opportunities for agencies. Yet trying to recruit from agencies remains disappointingly difficult given the caliber of talent and training overall.

Marketers are supposed to be good at branding, but we’re not doing too well with our own industry.

Marketing teams need to adopt a more rigorous approach to hiring

It’s not easy to evaluate whether somebody is really exceptional at what they do. A study on technical interview methods found that programming quizzes were far more accurate predictors of interview outcomes than asking about previous experience. Even consulting firms and hedge funds have highly refined interviewing methods that test for exceptional problem solving ability or quantitative reasoning. It’s rare to see the same level of rigor applied to marketing interview processes.

Part of the problem is defining the traits necessary for success in a specific non-technical role. Sometimes you need technical and quantitative ‘growth hackers’ to run growth experiments in a data-driven way, but brand personality relies heavily on the creative prowess of more right-brained thinkers. It’s a mistake to assume that these skillsets can’t be measured as accurately as technical skills. They can be measured, it just takes effort and creativity.

If we’re being honest, marketers and salespeople are also better than average at BSing, making it even more important that interview processes are skills-based and hiring decisions are made with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Hire people who know the answer to the question “How long do you run an A/B test?” should be “Until you have statistically significant results through a full cohort’s lifecycle” rather than “Oh, a couple of weeks” or “I like to get about 10,000 impressions”. Hire people who will open up a statistics textbook if that’s what it takes when they’re stuck on a hard problem. Hire people who won’t just “do” branding and content marketing— they’ll tell stories that make your audience feel something, the way fiction writers make people feel something for the characters in their books.

Hire marketers because marketing is what they’re best at, not because they can’t do anything else.


Stories from the startup journey around the world.

Vishal Maini

Written by

Strategy & communications @DeepMindAI. Previously @Upstart, @Yale, @TrueVenturesTEC. Views expressed here are my own.



Stories from the startup journey around the world.