Should a CMO be a Startup’s First Hire?

By Jordi Lippe-McGraw Jordi Lippe-McGraw has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on July 29, 2021

All startups have the same goal: to be successful. Although, the way they go about executing that mission varies depending on the vision of the founder. Of course, having the right employees in place can make all the difference. Depending on the type of company, an engineering, creative, and finance person might be on the top of the list. But, perhaps one of the most important roles is the last hired: the CMO.

Yes, a CMO is often one of the last roles filled at a startup. After all, since the definition of marketing roles tends to be ambiguous, it’s easy to minimize their importance. But, ultimately, marketers are the ones able to understand many touchpoints at an enterprise. For example, beyond wordsmithing – marketing teams know how to build value propositions for different stakeholders, which mainly benefits a startup.

“The CMO has the unique ability to understand the marketplace, to create a need for a marketplace, and most importantly, grow the marketplace overall,” Nicholas Primola, Executive Vice President of the ANA’s Global CMO Growth Council, told me. “With startups, quick successes from stealing market share can help build the momentum for more sustained growth. Here, marketers are highly skilled at understanding the nuanced consumer insights that create the razor-thin competitive advantage the company can capitalize on to win.”

This competitive edge is thanks to the keen insight CMOs have when effectively aligning value proposition – aka connect with that marketplace effectively. In fact, some experts believe marketers are the ones primed to “hack” the minds of clients and consumers. All the while, CMOs help ensure the company avoids the inertia of short-termism with actions that build equity towards the brand’s long-term health. Dr. Yvonne Saini, a marketing lecturer at Wits Business School, once stated that hiring a strong CMO is the key to remaining relevant. 

 The anchor here is the founder’s purpose for starting the business. “The larger the company gets and the more quickly they move, the more risk that original purpose becomes diluted or conflated among multiple priorities,” said Pimola. “The marketer is well suited to be the binding agent that helps the enterprise keep that as the north star.”

Peloton’s CMO recently commented on the importance of this guiding purpose. “The most important thing that people care about is what’s your North Star?” Treseder said of trying to move past a few PR nightmares and reduced market value. “No matter what we come back to that – how can we improve the lives of our members?”

This keen focus and insight of a seasoned marketer is invaluable for any company, but especially a startup. The development of a brand is built on a complex collection of interactions. This requires someone to orchestrate these interactions making sure the sum is equal to the whole of the parts and consistent to deliver that experience and not take any of the experiences for granted. 

“Each experience is an opportunity or an opportunity cost,” said Primola. “The seasoned marketer is a skilled orchestrator and is well-accustomed to wearing multiple hats and working across organizational siloes. So the sooner you have that orchestrator on board, the better.”

 If hiring a CMO is not in the cards for a startup, Primola suggests some strategies a CEO could adopt from the marketing function to help drive growth.

  1. Identify and Prioritize Key Stakeholders: You need to know who you are serving to drive growth – consumers, employees, suppliers, society, investors, etc. Understand how creating value for those stakeholders will contribute to driving growth and competitive advantage.  
  2. CEO Should Drive the Action: The CEO must make sure that there is a way to create value for each stakeholder ongoing. They must be plugged into what matters most to all the stakeholders and create mutual value exchange at all points possible.  
  3. Keep Stakeholders at the Center of the Company’s Actions: There really can be no such thing as silos within the organization. If the CEO has a tight grip on the purpose of each division, they need to make sure that they are creating value for those stakeholders. Keep them in the center, and then the silos don’t exist. Everyone is performing for the same purpose. 

Ultimately, according to experts, it is an opportunity cost to not consider the CMO as a growth partner by limiting them to a service function for advertising and communications. CMOs are much more than executors of strategy – the difference between actions vs. ads. Certain CEOs may look at the CMOs as ads, but they should be looked at as vehicles of action, activating the CEO’s vision skillfully and effectively to drive growth.  

By Jordi Lippe-McGraw Jordi Lippe-McGraw has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a News Columnist at Grit Daily. A multi-faceted NYC-based journalist, her work on topics from travel to finance have been featured in the New York Times, WSJ Magazine, TODAY, Conde Nast Traveler, and she has appeared on TODAY and MSNBC for her expertise. Jordi has also traveled to more than 30 countries on all 7 continents and is a certified coach teaching people how to leave the 9-to-5 behind.

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