Fred Wilson (whose blog I love) wrote a couple of posts last week about startup marketing. The first one ended by stating that “Marketing is for companies who have sucky products.”  The second clarified what he meant by marketing (paid customer acquisition more or less) and that he was only talking about the space where he invests (“big breakout companies in the consumer web”).  Whether or not I agree with him on that is NOT the subject of this post (I’ve never done marketing at a “big breakout company in the customer web” so I’ll assume Fred knows what he’s talking about there).  But something else he said in the second post got me thinking:

…I’ll also say that I have seen “marketing professionals” do a lot of damage to our portfolio companies over the years. Most of the damage has come from outsourced marketing relationships with agencies who charge too much and help too little. But I will also say that marketing hires in our companies have had the lowest success rate of any hire and there are many so called experts who have turned out to be bad and expensive hires.

I’m angry at the marketing profession for these transgressions over the years and it spilled out into my post. I’m not proud of that but it is what it is.

In short – it’s not really marketing that’s the problem, it’s those lousy marketers. Ouch.

My instant reaction to Fred’s post was “I know a lot of great marketers, why are Fred’s companies hiring the bad ones?”

But then I got an email yesterday from a friend looking for a VP Marketing at a very cool venture-backed startup.  “Know any kick-ass marketers?” he asked. And I could only think of 2.

I Agree with Fred! Wait, No I Don’t.

In addition to being a career marketer (17 years and counting), I’ve hired, fired and managed dozens of marketers. And yet, here’s an awesome marketing job and out of all the marketers I know, I can only think of 2 I would recommend.

“OMG!” I thought to myself, “I’m just like Fred – I think pretty much all marketers suck!”

But then I remembered who those other marketers are. They aren’t rotten marketers – they just aren’t right for that particular job. Some are branding folks and this job requires skill in lead generation. Some are specialists (writers, SEO experts, etc.), this job needs a generalist.  Some have only big company experience, this job needs an experienced startup marketer. Many of these folks are “kick-ass marketers”. Just not for this job.

No wonder Fred’s had such a hard time hiring marketers! There are so many different kinds of them out there, you need to be a marketing expert just to decipher the resumes!

Marketing Skill – It Isn’t Just One Thing

I refuse to believe that there are more bad marketers out there than there are bad programmers or sales people. But I also believe Fred’s right that the failure rate in senior Marketing positions at startups is high (I’ve certainly mopped up after a few). Why? I think companies often hire the wrong marketer for the job and marketers sometimes accept the wrong job. Both problems stem from the fact that “Marketing” means many different things.

The first step to hiring a great marketer (and for marketers to land a job they won’t suck at) is to clearly understand what you mean by “marketing”. It’s a multi-faceted job that can include (but doesn’t always!):

  1. Advertising
  2. Branding
  3. Product Management
  4. Lead Generation
  5. Install base/Customer engagement strategy and tactics
  6. Inbound Marketing and/or SEO
  7. Sales Support
  8. Market Strategy
  9. Messaging/Positioning
  10. Channel strategy/management/marketing
  11. Partnerships and partner marketing
  12. Media and Analyst Relations
  13. Content strategy and creation
  14. Other stuff that I don’t even know about

Don’t forget that skill in doing these at a large company is NOT equivalent to doing these at a startup and also how you do these things differs wildly for different types of companies (B2B vs. B2C, complex sales vs. non-complex sales, etc.).

Most marketers will have majored in some of these and minored in others. Determining which skills you want in a marketer is a good first step in narrowing down suitable candidates.  Marketers, on the other hand, need to acknowledge that they ARE NOT experts in everything and probe harder in interviews to make sure their skills align with the job requirements.

But Be Careful What You Wish For

Unfortunately even if you have a good grasp of how to identify the marketer you want, they still might fail because what you wanted wasn’t what you needed.  I spoke to a CEO recently that wanted a VP marketing with a background ONLY in inbound marketing where I saw a need for someone senior that could think strategically beyond inbound tactics. I talked to another looking for a “digital marketing expert” as their CMO while their current marketing mix included a lot of non-digital tactics that seemed to be working just fine. I might be wrong but I felt like the narrow way they had defined the jobs set the candidates up for failure.

But April, I’m Hiring a Marketer Because I Don’t Understand This Stuff – HELP!

In my opinion the best way to figure out what type of candidate you need is to talk to a lot of people. Talk to CEO’s and VC’s of companies like yours and ask them – Have they hired a bad marketer? What did they learn? Have they hired a good marketer? What made them good? (Aside – I wish Fred would write a post on THAT!) Talk to experienced marketing folks that aren’t potential candidates and ask them – What sort of marketer would be a fit for my company? What skills should they have? What should I look for on their resumes?  Do that and I think you will be less likely to end up with a marketer that sucks (for your marketing job that is).

(P.S. Back when I was running an consulting business I created this picture to help clients understand what I could (and couldn’t) help them with. B2B product marketing folks might find that helpful as a starting point to define what they do.)