What I Learned as an (Interim) Chief Marketing Officer

How to build your marketing department when you don’t have an 8-figure budget

Setting aside the specific title—VP of Marketing, SVP of Marketing, or CMO—the “Senior Marketer” is under incredible pressure. This isn’t just business hyperbole. I know of one well-respected, growing company in the Research Triangle that has had 10 different CMOs in the last 10 years. The CMO role has the highest turnover on the executive team, and likely has one of the most ambiguous roles. The job is getting even harder, largely due to:

  • Misaligned expectations. Too many Wall Street Journal articles on the growth of “digital marketing” and “big data” have convinced CEOs and boards that marketing can be reduced to a simple formula. It cannot. That’s not how customers actually buy.
  • Faster cycle times. Instant communication means imitation happens faster. After months of development, one client released a major new product. Within a week, a direct competitor had mimicked the release and featured their “answer” to the product on its website.
  • Convergence between IT and marketing. Marketers with traditional training are unaccustomed to the intensity of project management and product management processes required to bring digital ideas to market.
  • Tension between innovation and efficiency. One well-known CMO told us that he felt like his CEO was either going to beat him with the “innovation stick” or the “ROI stick.” Only half-joking, he said, “I know I’ll be whacked, but I’m never sure from which direction.”

Fundamentally, the growth of digital and social media has fueled a greatly increased level of complexity in marketing. The customer “funnel” is now a “journey.” Every piece of the journey is tracked and supposedly this “big data” can be collected, analyzed, and used. New capabilities—including application development, marketing analytics, digital media buying, and search marketing—must be built internally or sourced through partners. Most challenging of all, as this rapidly changing landscape continues to evolve, the Senior Marketer must stay current herself and also bring along the executive team!

Figure 1: Gartner’s Digital Marketing Transit Map

Critical Competencies of the Senior Marketer:

Peter Drucker famously said innovation and marketing were the two most important pieces of business—the rest is “just cost.” Above all else, the Senior Marketer is a champion of innovation and responsible for marketing that innovation to the customer.

Responsibilities the Senior Marketer Cannot Delegate
  • Understand customer needs and champion innovation on behalf of the customer. Nobody is better positioned to understand what the market needs, where it is going, and how the organization must improve its business to deliver customer value.
  • Master the external environment. Watch competitors’ moves (tracking the “4Ps”: price, product, promotion, and placement).
  • Tell the organization’s story through campaigns. Campaign planning—the ability to select strategic ideas, build them into stories, and run multi-channel messages promoting them—is the critical competency.
  • Manage up to the CEO and the Executive Team. Unlike accounting or operations, marketing is a discipline where almost everyone has ideas. Consequently, most marketing organizations suffer from “bright shiny object syndrome.” The Senior Marketer can focus the organization on the “big rocks” that will drive marketing performance and, ultimately, revenue.
  • Reinforce the Mission, Values, and Vision of the organization. If the organization doesn’t clearly understand and live by each of these, it will be beat by an organization that does.
Responsibilities the Senior Marketer Can Delegate
  • Data analysis
  • Public relations
  • Event management
  • Strategic partnerships
  • SEO, SEM, digital ads
  • Brand creative
  • Creative production
  • Project management
  • Market research
  • Competitive analysis
  • Marketing IT


Serving as the Senior Marketer is more than a full-time job. To do this job well, she must delegate a series of critical responsibilities. To whom!? Fundamentally, the Senior Marketer must decide what to build as an internal capability and what to buy. There is no single “right” answer, but a series of focused questions can help tailor the structure to the organization’s resources and capabilities.

Emma Battle, President of Three Ships Media, is fond of saying that “marketing is like spaghetti”—implying that oftentimes various tasks are multi-disciplinary. Well said! Very rarely is something, such as Landing Page Optimization (LPO), a single discipline. Rather, LPO relies on user experience testing, analytics, creative production, and copywriting to achieve an important business outcome: higher on-page conversion. However, to structure the work of the Marketing Department, we suggest considering four broad “families” of tasks.

The Four Marketing Families

  1. Business & Creative Strategy: Highly customized work that draws on an intimate knowledge of the customer
    1. Examples: Pricing; Branding; Campaign Development; Product Development
    2. Characteristics: Need deep industry expertise; Highly customized to the company
  2. Creative Services: Content-driven activities aimed at engaging customers
    1. Examples: PR; Creative Production; Email Marketing
    2. Characteristics: Clear outcomes; Clear process; Fairly scalable
  3. Technology Projects: Building the websites and applications that engage customers
    1. Examples: Mobile App Development; Front-End Web Development
    2. Characteristics: Construction versus maintenance is 4-to-1; Requires programming skills
  4. Business Process Initiatives: Data-driven, process-driven and technology-enabled tasks
    1. Examples: Pay-Per-Click Advertising; Marketing Attribution; Search Engine Optimization
    2. Characteristics: Ongoing activities; Quantitatively-driven; High competitive intensity

To Build or To Buy?

Within each of the four families there is a different set of considerations as we determine whether to “build” of “buy.”

Business & Creative Strategy Creative Services Technology Projects Business Processes
What questions to ask before building?
  1. Do we have the necessary skillsets?
  2. Do we have the necessary bandwidth among the senior team?
  3. Can we appropriately focus?
  4. Will we be hard enough on our business?
  1. Do I have the necessary skillsets?
  2. What utilization of each skillset do I project?
  1. Do we want a project completed or an ongoing development effort?
  2. Do we have clarity or “product vision” to attract great talent?
  3. Do we have the compensation and benefit structure that will be most exciting to technical talent?
  1. Will we be able to keep up with the pace of competitive change in these tech-driven areas?
  2. Do we understand how to measure the outcomes I want to achieve?
  3. Do we understand how to measure (and adjust) the inputs?
  4. Are we able to avoid dependency on any single individual?
What questions to ask before buying?
  1. Can my advisor learn my business?
  2. Do I trust my advisor’s judgment?
  3. Do they have experience translating the “answer” into the change we’ll need to achieve results?
  1. Is it better?
  2. Is it faster?
  3. Is it cheaper?
  4. Is it less risk?
  5. Is their network good (especially for PR)?
  1. Have they already built something similar, thereby minimizing my risk?
  2. Can I shift fixed cost (employees) to variable cost and save?
  1. How much has my vendor actually invested in their tools and operating systems?
  2. Does the vendor have the depth to ensure steady manageability?
Who should build?
  • Companies that have a CMO and internal analytics capability
  • Companies that have a Creative Director
  • Companies with $2mn+ marketing budget
  • Companies able to attract strong creative talent
  • Ecommerce with $10mn+ online sales
  • Media
  • Large companies (25+ person marketing department)
  • Ecommerce with $100mn+ online sales
How to Build – Minimum scale needed?
  • Strategically-oriented executive
  • Analyst
  • Creative team
  • Designer
  • Writer
  • Interactive Content Producer
  • Front-end Coder
  • Architect
  • Front-end coding
  • Back-end development
  • QA
  • Architect
  • Manager
  • Analyst
Success at Building
  • Sageworks develops data-driven plan for launch of new product and lead generation
  • Marketing technology firm HubSpot creates internal editorial team to evangelize “inbound marketing”
  • Rent the Runway, a rapidly growing fashion website, builds customized web applications to engage users
  • University of Phoenix builds PhD-led in-house search marketing team to manage $200mn + of annual spend
Who should buy?
  • Companies that have a CMO
  • Companies that have internal analytics capability
  • Ecommerce with $10mn+ online sales
  • Ecommerce with $10mn+ online sales
  • Media
  • Large companies (25+ person marketing department)
  • Ecommerce with $100mn+ online sales
Success at Buying
  • The Economist uses boutique branding firm Charley to redefine their style guide
  • Robert Allen Design Group asks Three Ships Media to create a five year roadmap for 15% increase in web sales
  • Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon uses Three Ships Media to produce webinars better/faster/cheaper
  • The International Culinary Center uses PR firm Baltz & Co.
  • Johnston Health uses New Media Campaigns to redevelop their website in three months
  • Skookum consulting builds a custom application for Lowes
  • Rackspace outsources digital media buying to Three Ships Media
  • FastMed outsources all search advertising and SEO through Three Ships Media
General “rule of thumb”? 75% insource

25% outsource

50% insource

50% outsource

25% insource

75% outsource

5% insource

95% outsource


Achieving Excellence in Digital Marketing

The Gartner graphic in Figure 1 illustrates several important points that even enterprise marketers should consider:

  1. The level of sophisticated technology surpasses our ability to assimilate it.
  2. Companies face challenging choices on what to build versus buy.
  3. Marketing innovation and marketing efficiency are a dual mandate.
  4. C-Suite frustration over measurement fuels high turnover and misaligned expectations.
  5. Absence of standardized measures, pedigree, eloquence, etc. becomes a proxy for performance.
  6. IT and marketing are increasingly partners.
  7. Left brain, meet right brain. A dizzying array of capabilities are required to achieve success: strategic planning; design-driven product innovation; technology expertise; brand strategy; public relations; corporate communications; market research; partnerships development.

For Amazon.com and a few select companies that have crossed the billion dollar Ecommerce threshold, innovation may be the path to achieving marketing excellence. Lacking this scale, mid-market brands do not even realistically have this choice. However, as Jim Collins observed in Good to Great, usually fast-followers and excellent executors win the day.

In the mid-market, brands will have access to similar tools, making adoption and execution the key drivers of marketing success. Those who execute well are focused. They ruthlessly prioritize, generally answering these four questions:

  1. What is my scorecard for what’s working?
  2. How do we maximize our paid advertising opportunity?
  3. How we translate those learnings about conversion into owned media, particularly through SEO?
  4. How do we build the tightest possible conversion funnel?

The Pros and Cons of Single-Sourcing

Some Senior Marketers will seek a single “Agency of Record” to manage and integrate the various aspects of marketing. Having met individually with more than 1,000 marketers, built two agencies and advised several others (including Edelman, FD, and SKD), let me acknowledge a practical reality. Marketing efficiency and marketing innovation rarely cohabitate. Marketing innovators (“here is ‘the big idea’”) make their money occupying the innovation seat. Organizationally, they cannot devote their best people to developing the “best practices” or invest the capital in systems, processes, and technology automation to efficiently manage PPC or SEO. Generally, marketing efficiency suffers when it is bundled with marketing innovation.

We believe this Golden Age of marketing offers a new formula. Companies can build top strategy talent internally, work with boutiques on creative and design (where scale is irrelevant) and source highly focused, efficiency services from digital marketing solution providers.

The Internet democratized information and in many ways it has democratized marketing for the firm. Think of how viral hits propelled new businesses forward, such as Dollar Shave Club, or reinvigorated old brands, such as Old Spice. New entrants and incumbents alike have a massive opportunity—if they will seize it! The role of the CMO is “Conductor” in this symphony.