Hiring a CMO is a chicken and egg dilemma for start-ups - Nick Freer

The chief marketing officer, or CMO, is an integral member of a company’s leadership team, including in fast-growth tech companies. At the same time, particularly in Scotland, finding the right person for the job can be a tough nut to crack.
Establishing a CMO academy in Scotland would help start-ups progress, suggests Freer. Picture: Stewart AttwoodEstablishing a CMO academy in Scotland would help start-ups progress, suggests Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood
Establishing a CMO academy in Scotland would help start-ups progress, suggests Freer. Picture: Stewart Attwood

Nicki Denholm, chair of Denholm Associates. which specialises in finding CMOs, explains how much weight should be ascribed to the role: “An experienced CMO should have a wide remit, with the insight and experience to represent the voice of the customer and the ability to challenge the CEO. A good CMO will also be able to help engineer the necessary pivots that most high growth start-ups will go through.”

Denholm’s view is supported by recent research from Accenture, which found that outperforming CMOs ensure the customer is central to their thinking and vision, not just in the services they provide but in how they react, change course and adapt as a company.

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There is something of a “chicken or the egg” dilemma for tech start-ups here in Scotland – do these companies bring a CMO on board as they plot for scale or do they wait until they reach the scale-up stage? Even when the decision to hire a CMO has been made, word on the street indicates that there is a distinct shortage of talent available to our most ambitious young tech ventures. As one tech founder put it to me last week: “You would be lucky to count scale-up standard CMOs in this country on one hand”.

Marketers must be left and right-brained

Perhaps one way forward would be the establishment of some kind of CMO academy in Scotland. A collective of top CMOs from Scotland, London and the international scene would allow us to pool experience and share collective know-how. Assuming the sum would be greater than the parts, this could help take our budding marketeers to the next level.

So, what are the key characteristics of a CMO in the tech space? Danae Shell, former CMO at healthtech Care Sourcer, which secured one of the largest ever investment rounds by a Scottish start-up in 2018, opines: “The CMO role in a fast-growing company is all about collaboration - you are often sitting at the intersection of functions like product, finance and sales, and the job is to make sure that you’re staying aligned and supporting each other towards a common goal.”

Meanwhile Edinburgh-born Leela Srinivasan, CMO of Silicon Valley-headquartered survey software provider SurveyMonkey, also a previous director of marketing at US tech giant LinkedIn and a former start-up CMO, said: “Many people underestimate the sheer scope and multifaceted nature of the CMO remit. I guide a team responsible for driving online business growth, feeding our sales team, determining how we articulate our value to the world, and equipping the entire organisation to spread that message.

"We partner with HR on inspiring our employee base, drive emotional connection at scale with our customers, influence pricing and packaging decisions, decide where to invest tens of millions of dollars – and we’re on the hook for measuring those outcomes. Marketing leaders have to be both left-brained and right-brained, strategic and executional powerhouses. It’s not a job for the faint of heart – and I love it.”

Last summer UserTesting, the on-demand human insight platform that is used by around half of the world’s leading brands, became the first Silicon Valley tech company to open an international office in Edinburgh. According to UserTesting’s CMO Michelle Huff: “Technology alone doesn’t often win markets. It’s the ability to pair technology with a need in the market.

Companies must communicate simply and clearly that their technology solves a problem in a way that folks understand. That’s the role of a CMO and why the CMO is so often one of the most critical components of a successful tech company.”

- Nick Freer, founding director at the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners