Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Handing the CMO role to a head of digital performance can be a dangerous miscalculation

By Toby Strangewood, co-founder, Wake the Bear

When you first launch a business you will quickly start dabbling with digital marketing to drive customer acquisition. Whether you’re a one-person band or a small team, this is almost certainly the first thing you turn to when it comes to spreading the word about your business.

That’s because it’s flexible and has a low barrier to entry – associated costs, such as creative and digital assets, can be created fairly inexpensively and managing basic, top-level digital marketing is something that can be self-taught and adjusted through trial and error.

It’s fairly easy to track and attribute uplift against your spend, even for the less-sophisticated marketing minds, and the analytics and in-platform attribution tools also make it fairly easy to understand key metrics, whether that be ROI or ROAS.

The starting point of digital therefore means one of the first marketing hires for many start-ups will be either an in-house or external digital expert to take that dabbling to the next steps and help founders start to take a more considered approach to their platform presence, probably even expanding across other digital formats and channels.

So far, so good. Marketing is going well, platform use is expanding and sales are – hopefully – on the rise to reflect that investment of time and money.

However, for far too many start-ups looking to scale this is where they arrive at a crossroads and, more often than not, take a questionable turn.

They have reached the point at which a marketing lead – maybe a CMO or simply a head of marketing – is required to oversee the expansion in budget and activity, to ensure dots are connected and processes are optimised for growth. To make sure a strategic plan is in place, that the company has the right presence on and offline, the right messaging and tone of voice and suitably consistent and impactful branding assets.

And, because budgets are still tight, founders promote the in-house digital expert – the one who has been managing the digital advertising so well – giving them full marketing responsibility. However, this will almost certainly be something that, by design, they don’t have the knowledge or experience to do. It’s equivalent to asking a highly skilled carpenter to also be the entire foreman of the construction site. They could fudge it but there will be money and time wasted and the end will almost certainly not be the best it could be.

This puts a huge mental strain on someone who is an expert in one particular field to be expected to deliver the broader roles and responsibilities of a CMO. This is a job title after all that can include a vast array of specialisms. That could include creating the annual marketing plan, managing the creation of marketing materials and campaigns, monitoring market trends, the competitive environment and customer behaviour and analysing the marketing strategy, ensuring goals are reached and suggesting improvements.

Save for the extremely rare marketer who not only knows their way around Meta’s ad planning infrastructure, is an expert on performance and has a strong understanding of the intricacies of marketing, most are unlikely to be naturally equipped to make the switch because it is simply a different skill set.

But there are ways to get around this catch-22 of budget constraints and the need for marketing expertise. Firstly, consider collaborating with other departments to guide a unified approach to customer service, distribution and a smooth customer journey. Secondly, consider a fractional CMO, or agency team, to manage that side of the business for you.

Our Growth Project team acts as a factional marketing team for some of our clients, delivering everything from the in-the-weeds digital marketing management through to broader CMO responsibilities. They bring their extensive expertise but offer a flexibility that’s harder to achieve in-house with inevitable financial restrictions.

By allowing your digital performance lead to stay in their lane and focus on what they’re great at, supporting by a marketeer who may not be full time or in-house but can bring years of experience to the table, may cost more but will pay dividends in the long run and make for a happier, more efficient operation across the board.