One of our CEOs recently asked for advice and resources around interviewing and evaluating a potential marketing hire.
I realized at the time that the marketing discipline as a whole doesn’t have many formal resources or best practices when it comes to evaluating marketing candidates, so I put together a long-winded email reply with a few suggestions.
I’m sure this question comes up often, though, for many founders, CEOs, or marketing leaders, so I thought I would take some of those suggestions and share them here in a more cohesive way. Before I dive in, it’s important to stress the importance of understanding your needs before you hire someone — there are so many different aspects of marketing and you need to know what is the most urgent to move the needle for your company. This will keep you from hiring someone who is a great marketer, but won’t have a meaningful impact on your business (more on this later).
Below are seven questions and areas you should explore with potential startup marketing hires.
1. Are they a doer or a strategizer?
One of the first things I try to do is understand whether a candidate is a doer or a strategizer. I believe in marketing there’s a large discrepancy between the tactical doers and the leaders who will need a team of people or agencies around them to execute on marketing programs. The truth is, you really need both at different stages.
Especially if you are hiring your first marketer—who will be the only marketer—you need someone who is willing and able to roll up their sleeves and execute. They really need to understand the ins and outs of marketing automation systems, marketing ops, campaign and attribution tracking, etc., instead of just knowing the strategy behind these systems and tools without ever using or implementing them. This is a balance, though, if you also want this person to be your strategic marketing leader when you have the bandwidth and resources to build out a bigger team.
In the early days of a startup, your marketing should have a heavy focus on generating demand and finding customers. Because of that, you’ll want to look for someone who is both comfortable enough diving into the weeds with HubSpot and Salesforce campaigns, but can also put together an overarching Demand Gen strategy.
2. What is their marketing superpower?
Unlike other company functions, marketing has grown to encompass multiple specialties, touching everything internal and external, from prospects and customers to employees and investors.
While this diversity of responsibility gives marketing a seat at a number of different tables around the company, it also makes it extremely difficult to find leaders who can “do it all.” Today’s CMOs must be both a brand pioneer, analytics warrior, and an operator. They must be both right-brained and left-brained. Plus, because they are usually the face of the brand, they must also have strong presentation skills and be exceptional at building teams.
It’s abundantly clear the CMO is no longer a one-size-fits-all hire. It’s critical for CEOs to determine the true imperatives of the role as well as the areas they’re willing to sacrifice. It’s also essential to match the needs of the business to the skillset of the CMO.
Marketing is one of the most diverse functional areas in a business, and unfortunately, one person is usually never a master in all areas. It’s critical to know where a person feels they’re an expert and map that to existing expertise and what holes you need to fill in your organization. I might even suggest Tim’s article to the candidate and ask them what persona they think fits them best and why.
Uncover your candidate’s marketing “superpower” and make sure that aligns with what you need at that time in the business. It’s vital for you as the CEO to also know your strengths and gaps — match the business’s needs at your stage to your marketer’s skillset.
3. Do they have great writing skills?
I think good writing skills say a lot about a person, so I always suggest evaluating writing skills of marketing candidates. Your approach may differ if you’re bringing on a marketing executive, but with your first or second marketing hire, I would always recommend reviewing writing samples—both samples they provide and that you can find online. Also try to implement a writing test with a prompt that’s specifically tailored to your industry and business.
If they will be working at all with content, communications, or thought leadership—even if their role isn’t a “writer”—you will want someone who has decent writing skills. Good writing skills tend to showcase the ability to effectively articulate your thinking and good problem solving.
4. Are they metrics-driven?
Even though I tend be a very content- and brand-focused marketer, I’m also very metrics-driven. When talking to other marketers, I’m always interested in learning how they measure and track their funnel and demand gen programs. Being able to see even a snapshot of what their metrics dashboard looks like or how they communicate results (via a monthly update in Visible, for example) is really helpful to see inside how a marketer thinks and measures themselves. Even knowing off the top of their head exactly how their current programs are performing and where they are to their quarterly goal shows a lot about the importance they place on metrics and owning a number.
5. Do they have a team mindset?
If you’re looking at hiring a team leader, be very clear with them up front on when you might start to build out their team and what milestones the company would need to hit in order to expand the team.
Ask them what roles they think their first two hires would be—marketing designer, marketing ops analyst, content writer, etc.—and why. It shows where they see their own expertise, where they would want to double-down, and where they would like or need to augment their own capabilities.
6. Can they execute an effective campaign?
Another great “scenario-style” question is to give your candidate a potential marketing campaign with a specific budget and ask how they would spend it. For example, tell them they have $10k for a Q1 marketing campaign focused around a new joint benchmarking research report (or other major asset), and ask them how they would go about spending that budget? This can either be done ahead of time or there in the interview itself, but it shouldn’t take more than a few hours of the candidate’s time — you’re not looking for free work or ideas to implement.
There’s no right answer, but it’s important that they have an answer and can think creatively and strategically about how to execute a campaign. What follow-up questions do they ask? Do they ask about campaign goals, CAC, or persona targets? All of this helps you understand how they tie the creative side of their brain back to the strategic marketing goals of the company.
7. Do they understand the importance of messaging and positioning?
I also think it’s helpful to get a sense for their ability to help shape your messaging and positioning. Developing your brand’s messaging and positioning can be one of the toughest jobs in the company, but one of the most impactful on your trajectory. Marketing doesn’t need to develop your messaging strategy in a silo, but they should be involved and help run the process with the key stakeholders (CEO, product owner, etc.).
I would suggest asking a potential marketing candidate how they would explain your company in one or two sentences to their mother or grandmother. This kind of question is a good foray into discussing messaging and positioning. This is incredibly difficult even for those inside your company, so don’t expect them to have all the answers. Do they have a good grasp on the psychology of your buyers, your competitive landscape, and what makes your company truly unique?
I also recently stumbled upon some great advice from Viviana Faga that I thought I would end with. Viviana is an operating partner at Emergence Capital — a High Alpha investor and one of the leading SaaS investors in the industry. She previously led marketing at a number of high-growth, leading B2B SaaS businesses. In a recent Inc. article, Viviana also highlighted the broad discipline of marketing and the importance of aligning your marketing hire’s skills with the needs of your business. She writes:
“Throughout my career — formerly as a CMO and now as an operating partner — CEOs and other executives have asked me ‘How can I hire a great marketer?’ What makes a good marketing hire depends, in large measure, on your company’s primary goals. That’s because the marketing team should help every other team succeed and move faster toward those goals. I advise executives to identify their company’s big goals, prioritize them, and then map out the marketing expertise they most need to support them.
This is an important step because marketing is a broad discipline — it’s not a one-size-fits-all field. In most cases, marketing professionals’ expertise is focused on one of four areas: performance, corporate, product and brand/creative marketing. To get the best fit, it’s essential to ensure your hire’s skill set embodies the superpower that best aligns with your goals.
About Drew Beechler
I run marketing for High Alpha, a venture studio pioneering a new model for entrepreneurship, where I help our portfolio companies craft marketing strategies to build category-leading B2B SaaS brands.