Hiring a Chief Marketing Officer?

What to Ask Before Your Start Your Search
Mar 11, 2020
Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith
Managed Recruiting
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Marketing has changed dramatically over the past decade and continues to evolve at a rapid pace. What many organizations used to view as strictly a sales support function is now a strategic business development driver, and in many cases, the primary revenue generator.

The explosion of digital--data, content, automation, programmatic, and more--has not only made marketing an exciting aspect of the business landscape, but also a much more segmented and complicated competency area to hire for. 

If you're in the market for a marketer, make sure you're hiring at the right level or focus in leadership.

Here are some questions to ask internally before hiring your next marketing executive:

1. Why are you looking for a Marketing Leader?

  • If you're looking to add someone new--
    • What is prompting the change? Think about your motivations for creating the role--whether you have a new set of marketing priorities that require specific experience, whether you need someone with a more strategic background who can better determine what those priorities should be, or if the team is growing and you need someone with larger team management ability.
  • If you're replacing an incumbent-- 
    • Think about why the role warrants a replacement. For companies undergoing tremendous growth, it's very common to outgrow the initial person overseeing your marketing function. The person that built your site and initial digital strategy may not be the same person to lead a large omnichannel team.
    • Does the incumbent know you're making a change? How do you plan to let them know?

2. Which role are you actually hiring for?

  • Titles and levels can vary greatly in organizations depending on the company's size and structure, but CMOs, VPs, and Directors of Marketing have very different experiences and profiles.


  • First, list the skills you absolutely must have in this role-- and make sure everyone is on the same page. The skills and experience of someone coming out of a Fortune 500 CPG company are completely different than someone coming from an early-stage, DTC ecommerce start up. So focus less on the title, and more on the skills and responsibilities that matter.


  • Prioritize across three main areas: Strategic Vision, People Management and Executional Experience.

Here's how you can envision each marketing leadership role:

  • CMO - This is the hire to make when you need someone who can manage high-level strategy and management of a large, omnichannel organization. If you have a team of fewer than 10 people or expect this person to be very hands on in the day-to-day execution, you may want to rethink the title. The CMO will be responsible for conceiving and taking ownership of the marketing plan.


  • This person:
    • Often presents to board-level audiences
    • Has a broad understanding of omnichannel marketing approaches
    • Came up through the marketing ranks, but most likely is 5+ years past any day-to-day, hands-on marketing execution
    • Has strong people management skills
    • Is a strategic thinker


  • VP of Marketing - Consider this role if you need this person to be somewhat executional on a day-to-day basis or if you need someone with a very specific focus area (e.g. digital, product, creative, etc.). They will be responsible for executing the marketing plan coming from the CEO or CMO.


  • This person:
    • Can be executional in nature, though that's not likely their primary responsibility
    • Is great at leading and communicating with their team
    • Could have a niche focus (e.g. digital), which may or may not be the entirety of your marketing plans.
    • Offers an equal mix of strategic leader, people manager, and executional expertise.


  • Director of Marketing - This role has the greatest level of variance in meaning from one company to the next. At small companies (less than 10 people on the marketing team), this person will oversee the whole department or they may not have any reports at all. They may be a strong generalist, a strategy lead or a very strong individual contributor. At larger organizations, this role will be more focused on leading one specific team.


  • This person:
    • Typically has a stronger executional focus than a VP or CMO.
    • Could be a subject matter expert, strategist or people leader.
    • Can frequently be the head of marketing in a smaller organization.

3. What about the rest of the organization?

  • Consider the org chart. Who will this person report to? If the CEO/founder is very opinionated on marketing, you will need to determine who will ultimately make strategic calls. Who will they oversee - digital, brand, product, creative, etc.?


  • Identify whether the person will be building out their team or inheriting an existing structure. Hiring marketing talent involves people with a lot of different backgrounds. You’ll want a well-networked leader that can retain existing employees and attract new talent.


  • Think about who will be involved in the selection process. Does the panel have a clear, transparent view of what to look for and how to assess candidates? Is a board of directors, external advisors or private equity involved? How are you going to vet candidates? This is a particular concern when the rest of the executive team does not have a marketing background.

4. What else should you be thinking about?

  • How critical is industry-specific knowledge? Do you want someone who knows your space, or perhaps someone from a more progressive industry? Is a focus in B2B, B2C, D2C, etc., needed?


  • What is your real need for marketing, e.g. acquisition, retention, or engagement? Make sure you can articulate your goals to prospective candidates, and make sure their experience aligns well.


  • Know your marketing voice. This is especially important if you want a CMO with a creative focus. Some marketers are well adept at tailoring their approach while others have a strong niche and like to stay in it.


  • What's your channel focus? Are there certain channels that will be your main focus, or will it be a truly any-and-all, omnichannel role?


  • Is your organization sales led? Product led? Marketing led? Target candidates who are comfortable working in that type of environment.


  • What sort of data do you have on your current marketing effectiveness? Candidates at this level are cognizant of wanting to walk into situations where they can make an impact and be successful. Being able to articulate and quantify your current situation will make the position more attractive to strong candidates.


  • Will you need a candidate who has a deep understanding of your brand, or will you want someone to reestablish your brand? These are two very different knowledge bases.


Final Thoughts

This is a lot—we get it. We’ve also seen a lot of companies miss on crucial hires, because they didn’t take the time upfront to think about these things. If you don’t have an expert managing the process for you (i.e. someone who has facilitated the hire of numerous key executives), there’s an even higher likelihood of making the wrong hire. 

The key is implementing a thoughtful process before you even begin your search, followed by a thorough process to identify candidates and vet them well. (Shameless plug for Hirewell: We’ve been doing this for 15 years. Our process is unique and blends the best of utilizing an internal resource and an external search firm. Call us.)

Jeff Smith
Jeff Smith
Managed Recruiting

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