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Seven Tips for the New SaaS CMO’s Survival

SaaS CMOs need to align with CEOs, own the customer, prove ROI

CMO tenure is going down in SaaS firms generally, and some SaaS firms are shedding the CMO and the role entirely. Why is this, and what can the newly-minted CMO do about it?

I know a fair number of CMOs and marketing leaders who are on the beach or new in their jobs. Recently I’ve also seen a few flair out early in their tenures. I’ve encountered a few SaaS companies where the CMO has been recently ejected but no replacement has been – or will be – named. What’s going on here, and how can CMOs thrive at a time when “Big M” marketing may not be in favor?

1. Align more closely with the CEO. I might have written, “maintain perpetual alignment with the CEO.” In our blog series on the new SaaS CMO’s first 100 days, we talk about gaining agreement on mission and measurement. Thinking a little more longitudinally as we are in this piece, my recommendation would be to have a specific and frequent cycle of revisiting CEO priorities and documenting any changes needed in marketing KPIs back to the CEO and his or her EA (or whoever keeps the dashboard). CEOs today are under more pressure to perform than was true only a year ago as VC and PE investors more closely scrutinize how management is spending their money and keeping its growth and profitability commitments.

2. Own the customer experience. Especially in SaaS, customer success is where important revenue gains are made and political power increasingly resides. Forrester touched on this point in a widely referenced report from October, 2019 in which it said, “CMOs are in a final, desperate fight for survival.” Importantly, though, this same report said that CMOs and other-titled executives who own the customer are well positioned to thrive as customer obsession becomes a major initiative. Those of us who study SaaS revenue and profits know already how important the customer is to the survival and outcome at SaaS firms, so this perhaps comes as no surprise to many. Nevertheless, CMOs and marketing leaders will be wise to focus their efforts, reporting and internal PR around maximizing customer experience and customer lifetime value. 

3. Measure and report your contribution. CMOs who think that they can reside solely in the space of the big idea are kidding themselves. Sure, there are firms that are (or were) drunk on VC largess and don’t need to report KPIs to gimlet-eyed superiors, but these situations are increasingly rare. Not only must you have good sensing and reporting, but you also need to be your own internal public relations person. It is important that marketing inform its peers as well as the c-suite about its contributions and how things have changed under your leadership. Of course, there’s a line between shameless self-promotion and lobbying for yourself and your team, but in my experience even the best CMOs can be undermined by under-promoting their plans, progress and successes.

4. Onboard with a balance of quick wins and strategy. I’ve seen a fair number of CMOs and marketing leaders bounced out of their jobs within the first year – and some within six months or less. Knowing these people to be pretty good at what they do, my thinking is that they’re missing something important to their CEOs, peers or a combination of both in sales leadership. And that’s the quick win. As marketing people, we think a lot about the big picture and making the impact we were hired to achieve. But the organization we are joining has needs that weren’t being filled, and that’s also why we were hired. Having a good 100-day plan will help you to kickstart your career at your new company. You can read our suggested 100-day plan for the new CMO here on our blog.

5. Political survival is key to your longevity. It’s really hard to join a new organization at a senior level and not cause some angst among your new peers and direct reports. But there are a few things you can do to get a grip on it. If you haven’t accepted the new position yet, insist on bringing in your own executive assistant or some right-hand position. Make sure this person sits where the bulk of your colleagues and the CEO report to work. You just can’t expect the informal lines of communication to open up to you, but you are going to need these insights, trust me. 

There might be someone who’s not happy that you got the job. You’ll need to either get this person on your side or get rid of them. And soon. If they’re not on your team, they’re working against you. And if they have political clout and savvy, it can be very difficult for you to succeed. Better to err on the side of firing them if you have any doubt. To be clear, I lack bloodlust in politics generally, but I’ve seen this blow up more than once.

6. Get an executive coach. This is especially important if you are a woman CMO in a mostly- or all-male executive team. This move is even more critical if this new post is a big step up for you. You will witness and be the target of behaviors in the c-suite that you’ve never seen in the trenches. Dealing with the motivations of the other sex can be confusing. The other side of this is that a well-coached female CMO has a much better chance of beating these guys at their own game.

7. You’re on a perpetual job hunt. You might feel like you’re being disloyal, but you need to always have your network working for you. Likewise, update your LinkedIn and keep it open to solicitation from recruiters, and keep that resume up-to-date as well. And speaking of recruiters, keep in touch with the people that have helped you in the past. Having your name on the tip of a recruiter’s tongue might be hugely valuable. I also recommend that you attend networking events, like Spencer Stuart’s CMO Summit, and put yourself out there in other ways, too. One great personal brand building tactic is to be a guest on marketing and management podcasts. There are a lot of them and they’re always seeking great guests. (Here’s a link to our blog on being a great podcast guest.)

Want to talk about accelerating accomplishment in your organization? About to take that new CMO job and wondering how to make the best landing? Click here to access my calendar. Happy to help you exercise your ideas and share more insights from our experience.

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