Tuesday, July 23, 2024
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Why Most Marketers Suck

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.)



    • Thanks William,
      The problem is that the 70% can be different for PR vs. Product Marketing, vs. branding vs. lead generation. A person can be great at one of those things and completely fail at a job that requires them to major in something else.

  1. Great post as usual April. I read Fred’s post last week and as a marketer I was offended. But you’re right – the issue of fit for marketing people is huge. I hate it when I see PR or Branding folks get hired to do a job that’s essentially all about driving traffic and leads – that always ends in disaster.

    • Thanks Jacob – that’s exactly my point. I worry that CEO’s (and perhaps VC’s) don’t understand the differences between the different kinds of marketing folks out there and as a result expect all marketing professionals to have the same skills. The reality is that a person can be a rock star in one role and a disaster in another because Marketing is such a broad category. That isn’t just the fault of the folks doing the hiring – it can’t be because there are marketing folks out there that accept those jobs where they ultimately fail. That tells me that some marketers also think they can do anything, when of course they can’t.

  2. Great post, as always.

    I have never been in a position of hiring a marketer, but have had to work with some really sucky ones, and your comments above resonate strongly.

    Also, when you get a sucky marketer, or a single dimensional one (i.e. one who knows branding, but you really needed mostly messaging/positioning), often the high $$$ consultants are brought in to bridge the gap, instead of making a change to get the right talent, and ultimately, I often as a mere product manager am doing creative work for advertisements and promotional material to help patch up what these hired guns offer.

    Keep up the great posts!

    • Thanks Geoffrey,
      Consultants are probably the hardest to hire because they are motivated in some ways to present themselves as being able to do almost anything, when in fact they are like the rest of us – good at some of it, lousy at other parts of it. Companies need to really do their homework before they hire one.

  3. This is a great insight, April, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot myself lately. My conclusion seems congruous with yours: marketing needs more and better generalists. If we had them, they should be the first people to consider for a VP of Marketing position, and most of the time, that pool should provide the best possible choices. In the past 20 years or so marketing has split into so many specialties, and now we live with the complications. Just like in the medical field (at least in the U.S.), we’re undervaluing general practitioners and that creates a shortage.

    This problem makes it hard even for you and I to recommend good people that fit. The Fred Wilsons of the world or anyone really who’s not a marketer by trade is hopelessly lost trying to hire the right person. The specialists build their silos, and then we try to put one of them in charge of all the other silos, and they fail. Not only do we need to tear down all the marketing silos, but we need to put a generalist in charge, because everything’s that’s not integrated needs to be. My theory is that, regardless of level, all marketers today should learn to be generalists first, and like in the medical field, we should go for continuing ed on an annual basis. This is a big knowledge transfer failure.

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for the comment – and I totally agree with you.
      Part of the problem is that it’s hard to become a generalist. At large companies, junior marketing folks are automatically put into silos and it’s usually difficult to move across those silos. That’s one reason I like to hire folks with startup experience – by necessity they have had to cover a lot of different areas.

  4. April,

    Great post you have hit the nail on the head. BTW, the bad hire match in startups and venture funded companies is not limited to marketing people, for the most part it happens across all the key positions.

    Startups are a special breed of company and while most people think they need to hire very experienced people with lots of structure and knowledge (oh and an MBA as well) the fact is that is often a disaster for startups, which require a different mindset. I suspect if Fred went through his portfolio companies he would see just as many other positions that didn’t work out, where a highly experienced person came into a startup environment and failed.


    Ed Loessi

    • Thanks for the comment Ed.
      I agree that it’s hard to hire great startup people in general but I still think that the marketing positions in particular have a high failure rate. And you are absolutely right, “experience” doesn’t matter all that much because you are looking for a certain kind of experience.

  5. EHLO April, I read Fred’s posts and it appears he is approaching it from an investors perspective of money wasted on advertising, and incorrectly lumping it under the term “marketing”. He is also focused only on the social / friends / consumer space. What if your startup is making a product that does not lend itself to word of mouth marketing? (Yo, chex out my CRM, LOL!). You have to start getting the word out somewhere…

    I think a startup needs to focus on attracting traffic to generate leads, to convert to paying customers, to generate cash to stay alive until the hockey stick arrives.

    Your framework v2 is a great grid overview, but I wish I had a flow chart that walks us through the process step by step, looking at our market, figuring out a strategy, then executing tactics IN SUPPORT OF THAT STRATEGY, and measuring performance to see if it is working. I posit most of us in the pressure cooker (i.e. without Fred’s money) start tactics as a throw it at the wall & see what stixx, without adequately figuring out strategy. If it works, it could be a false start, a fluke, that won’t get us over the chasm to the rest of the non early-adopters.

    Another danger is when it doesn’t work immediately, how do you know which element is wrong? Maybe you just need time, a change in messaging, a different channel to reach prospects? All these unknown variables are like madness to a tech startup, which is familiar with the finite universe of programming language (it either works, or you’ve got a typo in your code).

    You are under the pressure of having to deliver results quickly, so you try changing something, without really understanding the knobs that you’re turning. All the while your heart races with fear as you imagine your idea is wrong, it’s not gonna work, etc.

    Hooboy, marketing is harder that we thought! It’s not just about handing out swag and drinking alot.

    I really liked your previous post about focusing on a niche, because that makes it easier to sell to others in the same vertical. you’ve been there before, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. That makes marketing a little easier to understand for me.

    • Hey thanks for the comment!
      You are right that the framework is by no means an operational model – it can’t tell you exactly what to do and when to do it, which frankly is the really hard stuff.
      Wouldn’t it be great if marketing really was all about handing out swag and drinking a lot (well, maybe without the swag 🙂 )
      This is exactly the problem with marketing and what makes it so mind-numbingly difficult. We can all sit around blabbing about theory all day but in practice, HOW you do stuff is always changing and that practical execution is what’s going to make you or break you.

      • so the marketing work comes down to your experience (or lessons learned from others) with what worked before, plus some heavy thinking? in other werdz… is there a tutorial for startups that can be taught? 😉

        You recently tweeted that you read Ash’s book Runnin’ Lean, anything about marketing in there? or is marketing for a startup, something that comes from the experience you gain from doing customer development during the discovery process?

        my big concern is going from what worked with the few early adopters you’ve worked with closely, then trying to apply that to the entire market, only to find the early adopters you’ve worked with were flukes, and now you can’t scale through advertising. thanks

        • I think that if you read Steve Blank’s book – 4 Steps to the Epiphany and then look at Running Lean you will find a lot of really good ideas about how to determine whether or not you have a good fit between a product and a market. That’s really what you are going for in the early stages. They both talk a lot about how to figure that which is how you determine that there really is a pattern in what you are seeing with your early adopters and it’s not just a fluke. Once you have a product that you are feeling comfortable is valuable for a particular market, then you are ready to start looking at investing some money in trying to scale your customer acquisition efforts (in my opinion anyway).

  6. This was a great post April – I think “lumping” all marketers into one category as “all sucking” is similar to the recent online discussions of articles in both the New York Times and TechCrunch about public relations’ “hacks” all being all the same.

    When it comes to finding someone to help you market or promote yourself – I think the two most over-used but under-utilized words in the English lexicon are “due diligence”. Hiring slow and firing fast is one way to look at it – but I truly believe that knowing exactly what you are looking for in a marketer or public relations professional and ensuring that there is a fit for both is one way to avoid these unpleasant experiences. If it doesn’t feel right in the beginning…it won’t in the middle and ultimately at the end of the relationship. As always great food for thought and positive reinforcement. Cheers, Andy

    • Hey thanks Andy!
      PR gets a really bad rap, particularly in the startup community – unfairly in my opinion. I have my opinions about why that might be (mostly the problem is that startups are managing their PR firms properly) but part of the problem is that many folks (particularly those that haven’t worked with an agency before) don’t understand what a PR firm can and can’t do for them.
      All of this is hard – if you had a marketing expert around to sort out all of this stuff, you wouldn’t be hiring a marketing expert, would you?

  7. Another home run, April,

    I’m impressed by the liveliness of the comments as you’ve hit the nail on the head. A point I’d like to make is honesty and the willingness to admit gaps is a big part of this. If you’re hired into a generalist position and aren’t strong in something, admit it and get someone to help (or learn it). Before you take the job, you also have to be honest with yourself about being up to the task. We all “love a challenge” and “learning new things” but square pegs/round holes apply. It might be a kick-ass job but you don’t want it to be yours that’s getting kicked. Fortunately I have the luxury (and an understanding CEO) to be able to get help outside where I need it. he doesn’t expect me to be able to do everything.

    Jim Holland had a fabulous post the other day about taking out the trash. http://pmtribe.wordpress.com/ I’ve posted his 7 questions on my office wall as a daily reminder.

    • Thanks Tim 🙂
      You’ve hit on a good point – the problem both that CEO’s expect marketers to know everything about marketing AND that marketers (some anyway) are afraid to admit that they don’t. I wonder how CEO’s will ever learn that we can’t do it all if we never admit it.
      (Jim’s blog isn’t coming up for me at the moment…)

  8. Insightful commentary and post as always April. I ran an Executive Search firm for 10 years before moving into the tech world and this was always the problem for the Executive level when hiring. A complete disconnect between who they think they need and who they really need. This is why my clients hired me…to be objective. I always started out interviewing the hiring manager, the “report to” and finally the team. I compare what they said they needed with the reality of the organization. Owners and founding partners were the worst…they would say they want a team player for instance, but all the performance criteria pointed to an SOB type!

    Best advice to everyone out there who needs a “Marketing ______” person…start with asking an outside hiring professional with integrity. If you don’t know any…I think I have an idea for a new line of business for April (need a partner?)

    Kevin 🙂

    • Thanks Kevin,
      I think a good search firm could really help on with this problem! But then you have the problem of finding a good search firm….. 😉
      You know, there might be a business there but I think I will stick with marketing for the time being 🙂

  9. Thanks for the different perspective. I was thinking the same way, most marketers suck. As it turns out most just excel at one aspect than others. I guess it would be like asking Mick Jagger to be the drummer in my band. He’s a great front man and shines there. On the drums, not so much.

  10. Thank you April. As a Product Management type, I’ve experienced some of this; what’s Product Marketing to some is Product Management to others. I think Fred’s original point–focus on building a great product first–is valid, but there’s a point where it doesn’t “sell itself” to use the old phrase.

    Maybe the operative question is “what kind of Marketer do you want?”. You wouldn’t hire a software engineer to design a circuit board, right?


    • Thanks Daniel,
      You’re exactly right and the big problem is that the folks doing the hiring often don’t know there’s a difference between the different types because they are all called “marketers”.

  11. Great and insightful post. But I have one nit to pick and that’s with this comment: “I refuse to believe that there are more bad marketers out there than there are bad programmers.” You might refuse to believe it but I’d argue that’s based more on your bias than an analysis of the roles.

    First, it is easier for programmers to know where they fit. A developer who knows PHP is not likely to take a roles that requires knowing Java unless both the developer and the employer know the developers limitations in advance. With marketers it is not so clear what skill set is required even if it appears to be known in advance. You could say an inbound marketer is needed only to find that the realities of the market require something different and how many marketers will disqualify themselves at that point?

    Second, programmers must at least master basic logic or their programs just won’t work. Bad marketers can stay in the “fuzzy” areas and continue doing so in each firm until they get called out or caught which may take quite a while.

    OTOH, had you written “I refuse to believe that there are more bad marketers out there than there are bad software architects” I would have had no choice but to violently agree with you. 🙂

    Hope this helps.

    P.S. If you research me it will appear at first that I am a programmer. But I have also been lead marketer for a startup in a role titled “CEO”, and will be in a same-named role in the near future. And I’d say that title needs about as generalized a marketer as you can get!

    • Thanks for the comment Mike.
      On the first point I think we are in agreement. Because folks (including the marketers themselves) can’t figure out where the marketers fit, doesn’t make them bad marketers in my opinion.
      The second point is an interesting one. I think it’s true that a lot of lead generation and branding tactics get executed without any regard to tracking the results. In those cases you might be right that there are some folks that can be running a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work and nobody knows it (including the marketers themselves). That said, being an engineer myself I can say with absolute certainty that you can write a awful lot of sloppy code that still “works”. So I still stand by my statement that I think there are just as many lousy marketers out there as there are lousy programmers.
      CEO – now THERE’s a job that’s really hard to figure out figure out if someone is a match for! 🙂

  12. I think this article was brilliant. When interviewing potential clients I can give a much clearer structure to what their expectations for what I am to do will be.

    Thank you, I totally saved that list to evernote!

  13. Fred is right, most marketers suck, but so do most engineers, programmers, sales people, controllers, CFOs, and all others. I’ve worked with numerous start-ups for more than 15 years, and those exceptional people in any profession are exactly that – rare. You can’t build an company based upon the assumption that you’ll get superstars, you have to build it based upon the average or above average.

    The problem in start-ups is it easy to cast the blame on marketing person, after all there is usually only one. Start-ups can’t hire a college hire for marketing, they have no one to guide them and most have no real experience. You can’t hire from big companies because experience tends to have specialized in one small area of the overall marketing function. You need a start-up marketing person and they aren’t easy to find. Less funding over the last few years, means fewer start-ups and hence fewer people with the overall marketing experience needed to be the lone marketing person in a start-up. And finding someone with start-up marketing experience from the bubble doesn;t work either, start-ups in the bubble didn’t have the pressure to perform like today and the operated in a more serial fashion.

    Start-ups don’t fail because they can’t develop the product. The first big hurdle is marketing. Yet, how much money is dedicated to marketing versus product development. Most start-ups are 80%+ developers. Yet, marketing is 1 person and sometimes a part-time job attached to the founder. If you look at publicly traded companies, you’ll find marketing expenses are often 1.5x to 3x development expenses, so why is it that marketing gets less the development in a start-up. Saying that marketing sucks may be the easily identified symptom, but I suspect the cause of the problem is deeper.

    • Thanks for the comment Cynthia,
      I agree that there are times when the Marketer is the expendable crew member of the startup team and can take the fall for what is a more strategic problem with the overall business. I also agree that marketing at startups is often under-funded, not so much in terms of programs but definitely in terms of what startups are willing to give up for great talent. Great startup marketing talent is really RARE! It’s not going to be cheap!
      On the program spending side, I think the problem is more that startups often don’t know when to put their foot on the gas in terms of spending. They tend to want to start small with the budget and then gradually increase it. In reality, startups often should be spending nothing on customer acquisition in the early days while they are still working on product and figuring out their market. Once they know they have a great product for a market that is willing to pay however, they need to invest as much as they can. That step-wise function increase in spending is often really hard for startups to get their heads around.

  14. When I’m hiring a marketer its not the marketing disciplines/skills experience that is top of my list. It’s their mindset. Do they have a passion, natural curiousity for wanting to learn about and understand their customers/audiences/products? If they are they’ll succeed. Smart people can learn a discipline but it’s harder to change a mindset, especially an experienced one. A lousy marketer will probably not be listening and learning enough. And there are a surprising number out there who don’t exhibit that marketing 101 behaviour.


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