Hiring a CMO 

An impossible task?


A common theme across many of our portfolio companies is the difficulty of hiring a great CMO (or growth hacker, head of growth, marketing director — call it what you will).

It is rare that the CMO is part of the founding team of a startup. Where they are (e.g. Alex at Top10, Ian at Qubit) it is a great asset. But 90% of the time CMO is a role that you are going to have to hire in.

The challenge in most startups is that they want to open up multiple acquisition channels requiring very different skills: SEM, SEO, growth hacking (i.e. viral/product), brand, social, offline — the list goes on. At the same time they can only afford to hire one good person. So they are looking for a candidate who has all of the following:

  • The quantitative skills and experience to really know what they are doing on SEM
  • The product skills to be a good growth hacker
  • The creative visual mind to create a strong brand identity
  • The writing skills to create and edit great content
  • The experience and discipline for strong SEO
  • The knowledge base on Display/native/affiliate to navigate a complex and sometimes murky space
  • The network and interpersonal skills for good PR
  • The abstract thinking to draw insight out of funnel and conversion analytics, and turn this into action
  • The focus and organizational ability to deliver world-class CRM
  • The agency network and experience to run effective offline campaigns

I would love to meet the polymath who can really cover all of the above.

Three factors make this search even harder:

  • Experienced digital marketers are in high demand and paid well. Often a good CMO’s salary expectation is 50% higher than founders and other senior managers are paying themselves.
  • Finding someone who really has their finger on the pulse. Marketing is marvellously complex and the pace of innovation and change is rapid. It is very easy to get stuck with methods that are/were working well and miss new innovation.
  • Marketing is a harder area than most to weed out people who just talk a good game from those who really get things done .

The result is often long and fruitless recruitment assignments and/or hiring mediocre people.

What to do?

I wish I knew a great answer here. I don’t. What I have seen work across the portfolio are combinations of the following :

  • Hire a ‘T’. Someone who is deep in one area of marketing, but who also has broad shallow experience. For example a great direct response marketer who also has some experience of growth hacking techniques and can recognise a good brand. Ideally they are deep in the most important marketing channel for your business. In other areas they can take the first few steps themselves, then can hire in a good dedicated resource or agency/contractor. Good people like this aren’t cheap, but they do at least exist.
  • Skip experience. Hire very smart young people who will work hard and learn fast. The argument being that marketing changes so fast that you are almost better learning it from scratch.
  • Hire ex-founders. People who have grown their own business through sweat and blood. Might lack knowledge base in some areas but will be imaginative and frugal, wih a broad set of skills.
  • Use consultants. Bring in experts on SEO / SEM / growth hacking for a burst of a few months, to set things up and train up junior team . Then bring them back every few months for a quick review. Can work well, but the danger as with all consultants is they write a great report which doesn’t translate into action. Also that it is very easy to criticise existing marketing, harder to fix it. The key is finding a really good person (get references), hiring them for long enough to make a difference, and having clear responsibility in your team to take this forward.
  • Pay up. Hire great full time people in all key marketing areas. Only really feasible post Series B…

These are just some initial thoughts. I’d love to hear other ideas. Thanks to Jane Reddin, our Talent Director at Balderton, for the better ideas above.

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