How to Hire a CMO or VP/Head of Marketing

So, you’re a founder and a CEO with no or little experience in marketing who needs to hire a CMO, VP or Head of Marketing.

You know you want to grow revenue fast but you might be skeptical about marketing. How can you ensure that whoever you bring on board is going to help you build a rocket ship?

As with any key hire, the impact on the company success is hard to overstate. An “A” player will help the company achieve and exceed its goals. An “A player” will also build and continually develop a team of “A+” players. They, in turn, will help you fill key marketing leadership roles from inside.

A lot of smart and experienced people tried addressing this topic. I think I can bring unique perspective coming from marketing myself.

So, how do you recruit the right professional?


First, timing matters. Not every company needs a CMO. A common misbelief is that hiring a Head of Marketing will solve all the growth problems. This is not true. Marketing professionals are best at accelerating the growth – not creating the first momentum.

So, how do you know it’s the right time? You might consider bringing professional marketing talent onboard after reaching certain milestones. One of them is the initial product-market fit.

How do you know you’ve reached the initial product-market fit?

This depends on the type of the product, industry, and other factors but here are some good signals:

  • Best: You have paying customers and their number has been growing consistently without any marketing
  • Good: You have a growing number of free customers who love the product and have a high propensity of purchasing additional services
  • Weak: You have secured written statements of intent to purchase the product for a predetermined price from a number of leads

Another common milestone that is often associated with finding the product-market fit is raising a round of funding. Let’s say you’ve just raised your Seed or Series-A round and are now getting ready for the takeoff. What’s next?

Define Criteria

First, get clear on the criteria. As a CEO, you would know better what type of people you’re looking for but here is an example of where I would start:

  1. Functional and industry experience
  2. Personal traits: intelligence, integrity, and motivation
  3. Leadership: people management and cross-functional communication

In my experience, #2 and #3 on the list are incredibly important and sometimes can even compensate for the lack of #1. For example, intelligence – when defined as an ability to learn and solve new problems – can help quickly gain sufficient knowledge and experience. But for purposes of this post, I will exclusively focus on #1 as a lot has already been written on #2 and #3.

Identify Key Marketing Skills

Just like “engineering” is too broad of a term, so is marketing. There are so many different types of marketing and no one single person knows all of them.

Recently, a concept of a “T-shaped” marketer has been gaining some popularity and for a good reason. Basically, a T-shape concept means that a good marketing professional should have both:

  1. High-level understanding of broad range of marketing strategies and tactics, as well as their interdependencies. This is the horizontal bar on the T.
  2. Deep understanding and experience with a subset of those strategies and tactics. This is the vertical bar on the T.

Here is an example of a T-shaped marketer who’s particularly good at email and content marketing but knows about many other things:

T-shaped marketer: CMO - Chief Marketing Officer, Head of Marketing, Marketing Director

The image credit goes to Brian Balfour.


So, let’s address talk about the width of experience first and about the depth of experience later.

The Width of Experience

Marketing professionals who meet the first criterion typically have a wide range of experience. They might have managed demand generation paid marketing campaigns in one role, did product marketing and strategy in another role, and created content in the third role.

You can get a sense of how wide one’s marketing experience is by reading the résumé and then asking follow-up questions during the interview. Listen carefully and understand how candidates think about problems. Some will focus on their narrow area of responsibility – whether it’s data analysis and conversion rate optimization or branding and interactive content. Others will explain how what they did impacted other parts of marketing and the organization at large.

It’s even better if a candidate has worked in different functions, countries or cultures, and industries – including outside of technology. The former is particularly useful. As working effectively with other teams is crucial to a CMO’s success, having some first-hand experience in Sales, Finance or Product can help them tremendously, even if this experience is limited.

I can personally attest to the importance of having broad experience. Working in Finance, completing assignments in Sales, and building my own tech products allowed me to speak the same language with Finance, Sales, and Product. Likewise, having a working experience in multiple countries came handy when I had to lead global marketing campaigns for Adobe Creative Cloud and interact with our regional leaders in APAC, EMEA, and Japan on a weekly basis.

The Depth of Experience

The depth of experience is harder to assess if you’re not a marketing professional yourself.

Here are two ways you can approach this:

  1. Identify specifics of your space
  2. Get to know main types of marketing
  3. Get help

First, let’s talk about the #1. As a CEO you should know how the market you’re targeting is different from other markets. Based on your past success acquiring first customers, you should also have a rough understanding of how they make purchasing decisions. For example:

  • Do customers in my space research vendors online and search for specific keywords or is this a new category that isn’t defined yet?
  • Do customers find out about companies at industry trade-shows and exhaustively research alternatives?
  • Do they find your products in retail stores and usually make spontaneous decisions?

Once you have a basic understanding of how customers make decisions when purchasing products like yours, you’ll be able to see what type of marketing experience will be most impactful in your particular situation.

So, what are the main types of marketing?

Types of Marketing

The following is a wild oversimplification but marketing can be roughly classified into three buckets:

Product Marketing. Product marketers typically “own” a product and work very closely with product managers. Main stakeholders are Product, DemandGen, and Sales. Main areas of responsibility:

  • Go-to-market strategy: what markets, segments, geographies or industries to target and how
  • Product launches: bringing new products to market
  • Market/customer research: customer needs/drivers and competitive intelligence
  • Enablement of Sales and other teams

Demand Generation (“DemandGen”). Demand generation or performance marketing professionals are responsible for acquisition of new customers and leads. They own all paid marketing channels and continually optimize them. Main stakeholders are Sales, Product Marketing, and Finance. Main areas of responsibility:

  • Website conversion rate optimization.
  • Paid channel budget allocation: think Google/Bing/Facebook/Instagram advertising.
  • Optimization of organic channels.

Customer Lifecycle Marketing is usually focused on marketing to existing customers with a goal of either retaining, expanding or upselling existing accounts.

Brand Marketing and Creative teams are responsible for defining the brand, its tone of voice and visual style, as well as translating these things into actual content, advertisements, and other forms of collateral.

Marketing Communications team (“MarCom”) is responsible for ongoing external communication, mostly through PR and social media.

Field– or Event Marketing is responsible for in-person interaction with customers, often at the industry trade-shows or corporate events.

Partner or Channel Marketing is responsible for creating distribution channels through resellers. For example, tech companies typically partner with platforms and online stores, while consumer packaged goods companies partner with retail.

Now, put these types of marketing into the context of the space you compete in and the criteria you defined for this role. Where do you need help most?

Get Help

You’re likely already reaching out to your friends or acquaintances and asking how they approached similar decisions and what they have learned. If you aren’t, I’d definitely recommend you consider this – the best candidates are very likely to come from your own network. Getting advice from other CEOs who hired for similar positions and from marketing professionals from your network can be incredibly helpful.

If nobody you know has relevant experience, consider asking them if they know someone who might be interested in talking to you.

Not only doing this will help you make better hiring decisions but you might also find some of the best candidates from your network.

Recruitment Process and Interviews

First of all, let’s address job description. Of course, researching how companies in your space this might be a good start. But once you have a template you’ll need to customize it to your specific criteria.

Here are some good thought-provoking questions that can assist you in creating a job description*:

  • The reason the company created this job was: ___
  • The most important ways to spend time in this job are: ___
  • The 2-3 most important duties of this job are: ___
  • What this job takes to be successful is: ___
  • The easiest way to tell if this job is being done well is: ___

Now that you know what to look for, how do you select the best candidate?

If I learned anything from all the hiring I did and from my UC Berkeley MBA, it’s that interviews should be:

    1. Structured: questions should be written ahead of the time and asked in the same order to all interviewees
    2. Behavior-based: questions should be prompting candidates to describe their experience
    3. Scored immediately afterward

Here are some good questions to ask:

  • Start with generic “Tell me about yourself” and “Why do you know about our company and why are you interested in this position?”. Then, move to behavioral questions. For example:
  • “Describe a situation you realized that you needed to do things differently. How did you arrive at this conclusion and how did you convince others?”
  • “Tell me about the time you had to give negative feedback to one of your direct reports. How did you make sure that he or she was motivated to behave differently in the future?”
  • “Describe a situation when you had to balance ambitious growth goals with spend effectiveness? What metrics did you look at to course-correct?”
  • “Tell me about a time when you analyzed data to make a decision or a recommendation? How did you choose what data to look at and what conclusions did you make?”
  • “Describe a situation when you had a hard time collaborating with another team. What did you do to fix the relationship?”

Finally, ask candidates to prepare their own plan for the first 30, 60, and 90 days on the job and present it to the broad leadership team. In my experience, these presentations have been extremely helpful and revealing. Not only you can understand candidates’ thinking process and main functional strengths but also get a sense of their motivation based on the amount of research they did into your specific market and product.

Typical Mistakes

  1. Optimizing for the short-term.
    The company might be small right now and you might need someone who can roll the sleeves and do a lot of work themselves. Or you might want someone who can bring a lot of leads quickly. The major risk of making short-term hiring decisions is that you might not get the skills and the experience you need for the long-term. You want people who can also grow with the company, effectively lead people, and scale the team. So, don’t forget to think long-term and look for leadership skills. After all, companies that are successful in the long-term have predictable, repeatable, and scalable business models. And they cannot be built with short-term “hacks”.
  2. Focusing exclusively on metrics (sic!).
    As the saying goes, not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts. Contrary to the popular belief, most marketing leaders actually love looking at numbers and quantify the impact of marketing activities. But following data isn’t hard – it’s easy. What’s difficult is coming up with smart project ideas that are grounded in reality and can be tested with data. The fact that candidates talk about specific numbers is generally good but keep in mind that this is only part of the story and try to understand the underlying systems and mental frameworks that allowed them to achieve the results.
  3. Forgetting that the best candidates interview you as much as you interview them.
    The best candidates always have the best options and are usually not motivated by money. Make sure you clearly communicate why this opportunity is unique, how it’s different from other opportunities, and why what you do matters. Make sure candidates have a chance to meet the whole team and ask all their questions. Make sure you answer all the questions directly and in-depth – even the ones that they left unasked.

Hiring a strong CMO can be a real game changer for your business, so good luck!

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* The credit for these questions goes to the Manager Tools podcast.

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