For the past several years, I’ve been conducting research on CMO roles. One area I find fascinating is the variance in the marketing role across industries and firms. Some tend to view marketing as the strategic, P&L driver of the business. Others view marketers as communication specialists. However, this across-industry understanding is largely opaque to marketers who may venture from a Johnson and Johnson to a Google and incorrectly assume that the role will be the same. See a recent Harvard Business Reviewarticle on the different roles.
One area that has especially interested me is the tech industry. I’ve interviewed a number of CMOs in tech, many of whom are engineers, and so I’ve been curious about how the marketing role in tech compares to that of other industries. To better understand the types of marketing positions that exist in tech, I reached out to Kate Bullis, Managing Partner at SEBA International, an executive search firm that specializes in CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) and CRO (Chief Revenue Officer) engagements across startup, growth and global Technology companies.
Kimberly Whitler: Tech is a bit of a generic term. Can we start by understanding how you define the tech industry? What attributes determine if a company is “tech”?
Kate Bullis: I think of tech companies as B2B players – those that make their money selling technology-based services or products to other companies. Examples would be Salesforce (software/SaaS), Intel (hardware), Oracle (cloud and platform services), etc. It becomes trickier when you think of companies like Amazon. Amazon is traditionally an online retailer but today they sell cloud services too. They are both B2B and B2C, technology and ecommerce. For purposes of this conversation, I’m referring to marketing roles on the traditional B2B side.
Whitler: How is the marketing role different in tech relative to other key marketing roles, such as a brand manager in CPG?
Bullis: In tech, the product marketer is the closest thing to a Tide brand manager. However, a PM in a classic tech enterprise doesn’t have the range of responsibilities of a classic Tide BM or the complete P&L. In tech, marketing happens across multiple functions that report to the CMO. Under the CMO in tech, you tend to have four broad categories: 1) communications, 2) demand and operations, 3) product marketing, 4) creative/brand.
In the communications role, you would have functions like PR, analyst relations, social, internal employee coms, corporate / executive coms, and influencer relations. The second group—or demand and operations (it could also be called something like digital)—is the big, increasingly important role in tech. It is where the biggest action is happening in marketing. This group tends to own demand generation, field marketing, data, Martech, predictive analytics, experimentation (e.g., A/B testing), and account-based marketing, etc. Up to 70% of a CMO’s spend can be in this category. The third department, product marketing, is your traditional role. It is the lever between sales and product. PM’s must be expert in the product and then be able to translate this to the sales team and then convert this into sales collateral. This is where segmentation, targeting, competitive intelligence, and positioning is developed—and then content created—to drive sales performance. You can think of this as a sales enablement role. The final function, the creative/brand group, is where you might create a brand level campaign. Creatives, designers, and production/implementation folks sit in this function. There is sometimes a fifth category and that is channel or partner marketing. Companies like Microsoft, Cisco and Dell/EMC have thousands of channel partners who help to sell product. For example, Accenture may partner with Microsoft to recommend a product solution. Channel or Partner marketers enable and equip Partners with content, programs, promotional deals, events, etc.
To be clear, the specific organizational structure can vary across companies and each CMO will organize a little differently. But, these general functions tend to be within a CMO’s area of responsibility in tech.
Whitler: How is a CMO in tech measured?
Bullis: Increasingly, the CMO is at the table from day one on strategy. Ten years ago, this was not always the case. Now, almost every enterprise start-up wants marketing at the table early because the CMO has access to tools and technology that give the company insight into the buyer. That insight feeds effective messaging and positioning. Marketers are the insight machine and voice of customer for the entire company and because of the contemporary access to information and sophistication with analytics, marketers in B2B tech firms today can more effectively drive business performance.
Whitler: What is the background of many of the CMOs in tech?
Bullis: While there are a number of different backgrounds in tech, today, we are seeing more and more people with engineering and quantitative science backgrounds entering the marketing role. This has everything to do with the need for analytical rigor. It’s not science vs. art, though, it’s science feeding art. If you can problem solve and effectively capture and analyze data, your insights will most impactfully inform all messaging, content and even product development. For this reason, we will continue to see more quantitative backgrounds in Marketing leadership.
Whitler: What would you encourage a young person who wants to enter tech marketing to do first?
Bullis: I would strongly encourage anybody interested in marketing to consider B2B tech marketing and to probably start in a PM role. I say this because the foundation of all marketing is in effective messaging and positioning of the brand or product and the PM role provides this foundation. PM is also the place where Sales and Product meet and voice of the customer can be injected into Product Development. This means PM is not only an ideal career jumping-off point from a marketing experience stand-point but also a cross-functional exposure stand point.
Whitler: Companies vary in their respect and belief about marketing. We know that tech companies revere technology. So how can you tell if a specific tech company has respect for marketing and treats marketing as if it is a strategic role rather than just a sales enablement role?
Bullis: There’s no one answer here but there are indicators. First, does the CMO report directly to the CEO? Second, look for companies that are very purpose driven or problem-oriented vs. product driven. When a company is mission-centric, they care about connecting the company with the world—or customers. This focus can be a leading indicator that more than the product they’re developing, the company values the ability to solve a problem and will therefore need a strong marketing team to connect their products to that overall purpose. Also, look for companies that have tremendous insight about their customers and put customers at the center of the product development process. Finally, seek out tech companies that view Marketing as the Growth Engine of the business. I’m not referring to those that see marketing simply as the demand or lead-generation center, I’m referring to those companies who harness the full power of all the marketing roles I shared. These companies see steady growth across brand awareness, customer acquisition, retention, satisfaction and ambassadorship.