What makes a good first-time CMO?

What makes a good first-time CMO? Peter Franks is a Partner with Neon River and has spent his whole career specialising in placing senior executives into internet and technology companies. With a particular focus on working with venture capital and private equity backed clients, Peter has helped to build the senior management teams for companies like King, CurrencyFair, FinancialForce.com, Farfetch and Tesco.


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When a company hires its first chief marketing officer (CMO), it’s often a new experience for everyone involved.

The chief marketing officer is the heartbeat of most consumer oriented businesses, and for the marketing professional, achieving this role often represents the pinnacle of the function. Once this level is attained, only general management roles offer more influence or breadth.

At our executive search firm, Neon River, we are often asked to hire CMOs for our clients, who in turn, are often venture capital or private equity backed technology or internet businesses, looking to augment their senior management teams with a key new hire.

Those companies are often founder-led and typically prefer to hire – and can more easily afford – an unproven CMO stepping up into the role rather than an established alternative.

Stepping into the unknown

It’s worth pausing for a moment to understand the implications of this dynamic. Just as the candidate is likely stepping into a new level of responsibility, so the hiring organisation is fundamentally changing its structure and nature.

When a company hires its first CMO, they are likely hiring someone considerably more senior than before to lead their marketing team, or perhaps it represents the first marketing leader that the business has seen.

It’s often tempting for companies to view the first time CMO as a silver bullet; as the technical expert of all marketing disciplines who can instantly transform the business. This, of course, is a mistake.

The nuance of hiring a CMO means that you cannot expect your new hire to have all the skills that a marketing organisation needs to thrive. They are the architect, but they need lots of support too.

Viewed this way, the CMO hire is not the one-step panacea to all marketing ills, but rather a very important first step in building a more mature, scalable marketing function.

It’s important that the incoming person will be a good fit with the likely shape and nature of that function. Industries which are heavily performance marketing-oriented, such as internet or mobile, will likely require a CMO with strong analytical skills.

Conversely, industries like the luxury sector require CMOs with a strong appreciation of branding.

Companies are wisely stocking their marketing departments with analysts and seeking valuable insights from data

So the first-time CMO must have the right balance of performance marketing compared to branding skills, but they must also be able to think strategically and fit the different parts and disciplines together. If the CMO title represents anything beyond other senior marketing roles, perhaps it represents the level of responsibility in defining the commercial approach of the business.

Decisions must be made – does investment in PR offer insufficient short-term returns compared to more online acquisition? Or will it reduce CPAs in time? 

Hiring a CMO for the first time might also mean less influence for the founders as the new arrival assumes some of their responsibilities. This is where cultural fit becomes so key, as it’s vital that the CEO and CMO can forge a strong relationship and find the right balance of reporting and control to suit both parties.

Making the transition

Given the market dynamics, most growing companies will hire a CMO who is (to a degree) stepping up into the role.

Founders often prefer to hire those they perceive as hungry for success and somewhat unproven, and these are also much more easily obtainable candidates. So how can you give yourself the best chance of being promoted internally or externally into such a role?

Companies hiring a CMO will undoubtedly seek to test candidate’s strategic ability both in the sense of the breadth of their marketing understanding (and how the different disciplines fit together) and your ability to see the broader business and financial impact of different strategies.

It’s often difficult to demonstrate this sort of experience within large corporations where their management structures are very hierarchical, and you might want to consider gaining experience in a smaller company, even if it isn’t at CMO level.

Most companies make most of their key strategic decisions at (or very near) their headquarters, and therefore it can be difficult to become a first time CMO without this kind of experience. That said, if you have deep sector experience it becomes much easier to make the transition.

It’s also difficult to overstate the increasing influence of data and software on the marketing world. Even within traditionally brand-heavy sectors it seems very likely that companies will increasingly require a strong understanding of the latest technologies and analytics techniques.

Companies are wisely stocking their marketing departments with analysts and seeking valuable insights from data.

The first-time CMO hire is a step into the unknown, but it also provides a great opportunity for both parties. 

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