Why the CEO is actually the CMO

Why the CEO is actually the CMO

Scrappy business people are fantastic people to work with — lean, mean, execution machines. But there comes a point where all scrap and no strategy results in a hard working team that are running to stand-still.

Many small company CEOs lean too far into the COO role, at the expensive of setting — and ensuring execution of — the strategy. If anything, CEOs need to lean more into the CMO role.

A good marketer is invaluable (and hard to find), but CEOs need to be careful not to think marketing and strategy are interchangeable. Positioning the company (the market facing piece of the over-used, often mis-understand term: ‘strategy’) is the CEO’s job.

For decades the responsibility for missed targets would fall on the sales leader. “If only we had a great VP of Sales who knew this market, then we’d grow!” Those stop-gap hirings would come and go, being blamed by marketing for poor execution and product for a lack of detailed understanding.

Now it’s the marketer who’s being taken to task. “We just aren’t getting good leads, or enough of them, and we’re not being creative enough or running a wide enough variety of campaigns and channels”. So the marketer goes, and the impossible search begins again.

Turns out — in a startup or small scaling business — the CEO is the Chief Marketer. At least in terms of what often, wrongly in my view, gets delegated to marketing — figuring out what position you want to occupy in your customer’s mind — and making sure every word written and uttered internally and externally promotes that position.

Some of the best marketers I know are running companies — and lots of them don’t consider themselves (and have never official worked as) marketers. Who was Apples CMO? One of the best marketers of all time — Steve Jobs. Tesla’s CMO — Elon Musk. Less obviously — it was Larry and Sergey that drove Google’s marketing efforts early on — with growth campaigns like the Search Toolbar browser plug-in.

Marketing should be expected to execute great tactical campaigns; deeply understand the funnel and data being generated within it; and bring channel expertise to bear as it’s needed. Marketing has a very wide remit already — there are so many channels, campaign opportunities, and parts of the funnel (top, middle, bottom; conversion rates, MQL qualification…). Anyone who is generally good at a lot of them is already an overachiever!

But marketing, in startups and early scale (sub $20 million) companies, should not be expected to figure out the position of the company, how to create value perception in the minds of customers, how to differentiate against or substitute competitors, or how to price to maximize positioning power and revenue.

When you tell a CEO they need to take the lead of this kind of marketing, it seems to elicit a phycological aversion. I think ‘marketing’ has, unfortunately, become a stigmatized term, that brings to mind an oxymoronic mixture of big data analytics and fluffy content writing, ads and design.

At my company, I’ve started using the term ‘Positioning’ with CEOs instead of marketing.

Positioning work entails strategy, the macro content writing of the category name and the few words you want customers to hear from your team and read over and over again. Positioning is the unique spot you occupy in your customers mind — or finding one if you don’t have it already.

Good positioning will make your job, your team’s job, and your prospect’s job of pre-selecting the right vendor (and therefore making the job of selling to them) much easier. With good positioning you’ll find your teams instinctively making good decisions on what’s obviously right for the company.

Don’t fret the near impossible hire of a strategic marketer — if you’re the CEO of an early stage company  — tag, you’re it.

Read next: Why your phone's notifications are the way they are