Marketing Snacks

BSMS 4: Why are CMOs fired more than any other executive?


In this episode, we're answering the questions:

  • Why do CMOs get fired more than any other leadership role in the C-suite? 
  • What are the pitfalls for marketing leaders joining growing software companies? 
  • What are some of the indicators for long term success in the role?

Episode transcript


Hello and welcome to episode four of B2B SaaS marketing snacks. Today, we are talking about why CMOs get fired faster than any other leadership role in the C-suite. And Stijn, this is something that a lot of our clients tell us, is one of the things that they like about what we do, is that it allows them to not have to make the mistake of hiring the wrong CMO and wasting a lot of time and money putting the wrong person into place when they're just going to get swapped out after six months, because they're maybe not the best fit for a small software company. I mean, we hear stories often where marketing leaders get hired and then they churn themselves or they get churned because they're not a good fit for the company and specifically in small software companies. And so I wanted to pose it to you to see if you had any thoughts about why we think that is a common occurrence. And if you could maybe just talk a little bit more about some of the common things you see there and why we think that's happening.


Great question. It's probably one of the main reasons I started this line of work and why we started Kalungi. CMOs indeed are under a lot of scrutiny and often seen as the major source and some of the major problem when it comes to growing technology companies. And that's why the tenure numbers are not great. CMOs gets fired, left and right, and that's tough, because it also is very hard to find good CMOs for a small software company or for a fast growing software venture. So let's talk about what I think are the main reasons for this challenge.

First of all, marketing is such a hard discipline to define. It means so many different things to multiple people. For some people, marketing is all about demand generation, it's just about lead generation. And if you don't drive the funnel, nothing else really matters.

There are other leaders or board members or CEOs that think of marketing as much earlier in the funnel. It's about brand awareness. It's about putting us on the map. Because we have such a great product. If people only would know about it, then everybody would buy it. And people would love it and they would stay and they would tell others about it. Marketing is often sort of put somewhere on a spectrum between what I call art and science. And many people will have different thoughts on how much you are supposed to be to one side of those two. And so we hire a CMO being super clear on whether you want someone who's more of a data driven marketer and drives, for example, growth marketing or someone who's more an artist who can really get you the beautiful brand positioning and phenomenal artistic work to make you stand out of the crowd and make your brand be so much more vivid and easy to understand for people because the artists that you hire, she really gets it. And she's able to communicate that very effectively, but she might not be as good in things like demand generation. 

So expectation management is critical. Because marketing is such a diverse discipline. Think of the five Ps, for example, the five Ps that are often used to describe, not even the complete marketing discipline, but maybe more product marketing. Positioning, pricing, where do you go to market? Place. How do you go to market at certain markets? What are the campaigns you run? What are sort of go to market strategy. People. What's the audience that you're catering to? Who are the personas? What's your ideal customer profile? And then Promotion and that's the P and the five Ps, it's more about the demand generation side.

How do you actually then drive the funnel? And these five Ps of course in themselves are very diverse. So hiring a CMO who's strong in all of those is going to be challenging. And if any of those is not in great shape, the CMO is often the first to be pointed at and for good reason, of course, the CMO is responsible for all these areas of marketing, but it also means that it's extremely hard for a CMO in an early stage company or a fast growing SaaS business to be successful in all the aspects that people expect her or him to be successful in. A great logo, demand generation, phenomenal influencer relationships, hire young interns that are not too expensive that can really scale up quickly, figuring out how to run an event for the first time with an audience that you haven't really got to know yet because you're such a young company.

How you define PR versus influencer marketing, because that has all changed so much. Are you focused on product marketing, product hacking, growth hacking, or more on content marketing? And both are great ways to drive long-term scale, but they're very different. And I've seen such a mismatch with certain candidates, CMOs who are really good marketers who came into a company with a great content marketing track record, but the company was looking more for a product marketer or the other way around. You have a phenomenal product manager who's now ready to scale up into a VP of Marketing role, but he or she has never done content marketing. So that’s something that could become an issue. So that’s the first area of challenge why CMOs have a hard time being successful in smaller or fast growing software companies and why tenure numbers are not great.

The other one, I think, is about how do you strike the right balance when you are leading a marketing function between short-term impact and long-term scalable growth. It's a very hard balance to strike. You are expected when you start as a marketer to have some quick wins, to solve the home page SEO issues, to immediately resolve friction issues in the funnel, to start doing conversion optimization, to understand where the traffic on the website is coming from and make sure you optimize for those channels that are performing well. You're also expected to drive long-term growth through, for example, SEO optimization through strategic content, thought leadership, things that take time to build. Where you have to understand “what is my audience really looking for? Who's it for? What's it for?”

And then building high quality content also doesn't happen overnight. Doing actual research to build something net-new, to be a publisher of interesting net-new insight. That takes time. If you want to build a great product, because you build product marketing to incorporate what you learn from your customers into your product and use that to improve your product marketing fits with your customers. That takes time. That's not something you do in a couple of weeks. So as a manager of the marketing function, as a CMO striking the balance between having something to show for on the next board meeting. A funnel that is growing, team members that you've hired, improved search results rankings in Google search, balancing that with thinking about price strategy and getting ready to launch your first big customer events for the first time, which take six months to plan.

Figuring out how you actually go do a great nurture campaign and driving retention of your customers and upselling across verticals which also requires you to really get intimate with those customers, understand what they experience, you need to do many interviews. You need to maybe do a customer advisory board, those things take time.

So how do you balance that sort of short-term focus and long-term focus? And especially because the marketing work that you do is so visible, you cannot really cut corners when it comes to quality. The quality buck stops with the CMO. If there's a spelling mistake in a press release, or if there's a mistake with a database, which maybe means you're not GDPR compliant and it gets you into potential legal trouble, those things are not excusable for a CMO. So you need to do everything top quality, whereas when you're in sales, or when you're in IT, or when you're in finance, a lot of those things when things are not perfect, they're not as visible. They're still extremely important. Don't get me wrong. But when a CMO doesn't do a top quality job, it is immediately visible by the whole organization, by many stakeholders, board members, et cetera, and especially the public, your customers. So that is important .

So, striking that balance short versus long term, doing that in a high quality way, and managing expectations as to the breadth of the marketing function and what people should expect from a CMO in the first couple of months, in the first year, and managing those expectations and do a good job reporting on progress is hard. And that's, I think, why CMOs have such a hard time succeeding in their first role with a software company, small or big actually, but especially when a company's still growing really fast and things have to change quick. Balancing that need for speed and being able to scale with top quality is just very hard.


And it's probably really different to when you're going from a larger company to a smaller company, like in the instance of a smaller software company where you're really building a lot of the foundation, it requires a lot of moving quickly, iterating quickly, testing, trying to understand which channels work best for you. Whereas I think a lot of larger companies, they really have a good understanding of what channels work. And a lot of it is about optimizing those channels and figuring out how to tweak them, to get the most from them, as opposed to “here's a blank slate, now go build pieces for each of these channels, figure out which ones perform, which ones to shut off, which ones to ramp up” and do it all with a lot of, like you said, a lot of quality. I think those are two very different things. So I'd imagine that definitely plays into it as well.


Yeah. That's sort of, Mike, where I think the average CMO has a little bit of a harder time than maybe other executive suite roles in these smaller software companies or companies that grow fast. Great question. And this is one of the reasons we built Kalungi. To help CMOs with some of these challenges by building playbooks that have proven to be successful recipes for execution, very focused on B2B SaaS companies. So that you don't have to spend time just figuring it out. You can sort of start with a playbook, and then you can just focus on high quality execution and not trying to understand what place you could be wrong.

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