“When I was at Microsoft we…” and other things you don’t want to hear from a VP of Marketing

January 14, 2013

It’s hard finding great PR people – I mean really hard.  Everyday we imagine how awesome it would be if a really talented PR person showed up on our doorstep – someone who hadn’t been corrupted by years “working” (term used loosely) on a big brand.  As it turns out, we’re not the only ones looking for this person given the number of recruiters relentlessly hitting up our team with promises of great opportunities to work with global leaders, blah blah blah. But it’s not just good PR people in demand; we regularly hear from clients struggling to find solid VP of Marketing candidates.  The only hiring woe we hear more often is about finding engineers. I suppose these are good problems, but problems nonetheless.

Since the subject is top of mind, I thought it would be interesting to look at what makes a good VP of Marketing, especially from the perspective of a PR flack. I know this is a topic most agencies would not discuss since they might offend someone, but I feel a professional obligation to shine light on this issue.

Having a really good marketeer can genuinely make or break a company, especially true for emerging tech start-ups. This person points the organization in a unified direction and makes sure everyone is marching toward the same destination. As I write I have visions of Scout Master Ward, played brilliantly by Edward Norton in Moonrise Kingdom. Each morning Scout Master Ward rallied his troops, even if they didn’t want to be rallied, and led them to accomplish the task at hand.  Like Scout Master Ward, a solid marketing veep should have the ability to motivate others and lead the troops through whatever may lie ahead. It’s also critical that this person have ideas of their own (read: original thoughts) and be able to demonstrate to the team  “I still got it.”

Too often and out of desperation start-ups become intoxicated by an ex-big company dude laying claim to being the driving force behind the launch of XYZ product, from gigantic company with multi-million dollar marketing budgets. Maybe that person actually was the driving force but without the Benjamins spent on advertising, PR, product placement, launch parties, branded merchandise, lighting up skyscrapers in corporate colors, celebrity endorsements etc. the outcome of the launch would not have been the same.  This brings me to the subject line of this story. I’m not picking on the fine folks from Microsoft, it’s just that in these parts of the woods it’s almost inescapable, the dreaded sentence no PR person wants to hear from a marcom VP: “When I was at Microsoft we…(fill this in with outlandish statement of accomplishment)…”   To this I say “Well a) no you didn’t and b) you’re not at Microsoft.”  For the purposes of this exercise I’d like to focus on what, from a PR perspective, makes a great marketing veep/director/manager/CMO.

Understands What is Real News:  In an ideal world PR folks would not need to spend much time educating the client on what is and what is not newsworthy. A smart marketing exec understands that press do not care about product (point) upgrades, website redesigns, or new branding/taglines.  Just because you launched a new site doesn’t mean its news. Marketers understand this and wouldn’t want to waste cycles trying to promote.

Willing to Take Calculated Risks: We often hear clients say how they want to be different, really shake things up, stand out, make noise, get loud; we love hearing this. But then the fire in their belly is diminished to a smoldering ember by the time execution rolls around. Good marketing folks embrace risk and take it – even if it means going against what company execs and investors might deem appropriate.

Understands the Difference Between PR and Marketing: One of these things is not like the other: briefing document, press tour, sales collateral. Skilled marketing folks know the difference between what’s considered PR and what’s not. As a species us PR people tend to be very helpful; we’ll run errands for you, buy clothing for you to wear on TV, watch your kids if you’re in a bind, whatever you need.  I’ve written everything for clients from obituary notices to a best-man speech. But on a regular basis it’s best if PR people do PR work and a good client understands the difference.

Knows What is Realistic: “I want 59 top tier pieces of coverage this quarter.” Okay so I’m taking creative liberties but we’ve heard absurd comments like this. Smart marketing folks have realistic albeit aggressive goals and realize they shouldn’t tie their ego or path up the corporate ladder to a ridiculous metric that would never be met.

Not Blind to Company’s Position In The Market: We are tremendous advocates and fans of our clients, which is easy since we only work with companies and people we like. We’re also realists and know when a company is “a” leader vs. “the” leader. One of the most frustrating characteristics of a less than savvy marketer is the delusional thinking that their company is NUMBER 1. A great client understands their place in the competitive landscape and recognizes what it’ll take to get to the next level.

Has a Spine: It’s amazing that some marketing folks hold the big-title but are spineless and fearful when it comes to standing-up to the CEO or Board of Directors.  To wear the badge of Marketing Sheriff the ideal person should confidently and respectfully be able to push-back on members of the executive staff when they believe their recommendation is the right approach. In order to do this effectively they must earn the trust of the CEO, which of course comes over time and by doing great work.

Is a Thought Leader: Being a thought leader requires constant work including an active voice in discussions relevant to your business and beyond. Thought leadership doesn’t happen overnight or because of a creative sound bite. Rather, it happens by making investments in activities such as conferences, panels/keynotes, bylines, social media channels, standards organizations, etc.  As a PR person it’s great to work with a marketing veep that does the hard work to become a thought leader rather than simply referring to themselves or the CEO as one.  There is no silver bullet to thought leadership; it takes time, consistency, and dedication. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you’re declining speaker invitations and interview requests.

Builds a Great Team and Has Their Back: Show me a successful VP of Marketing or CMO and I’ll show you a person that’s done an excellent job of surrounding themselves with smart, loyal people. The marketing gig is tough; a job where budgets, ideas, and teams are constantly questioned.  We’ve worked with enough good and not so good execs to recognize how critical it is to have a leader that supports the team through thick and thin. There will be days when everything falls to pieces regardless of the amount of planning; shit happens. What’s important is how the veep rallies his troops (internal team and outside partners), supports them under harsh scrutiny and builds loyalty in times of adversity.  If this is done, they’ll have the lifelong devotion of the team, a group likely to follow them throughout their career.

Happy Trails.



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