June 24, 2024

Brad Marolf

Business & Finance Wonders

What does a chief marketing officer at a startup actually do?

At the top of most marketing teams, you’ll find a chief marketing officer, or CMO. And while the role does, obviously, entail a whole deal of marketing, there’s much more to it than that. 

What does a chief marketing officer do?

Primarily, a CMO is tasked with driving growth and boosting revenue by increasing sales. What that looks like in practice varies widely from business to business, but generally the role stretches all the way from creative design to corporate strategy (and much in between). A good CMO is an alchemist: blending brand and marketing with strategy and growth. 

Sifted sat down with some of Europe’s leading startup chief marketing officers to find out what they actually do, the challenges they’re facing and the skills they need.

Sarah Kiefer, chief marketing officer at Pitch

Sarah Kiefer, chief marketing officer at Pitch
Sarah Kiefer, chief marketing officer at Pitch

At Pitch, a collaborative software platform for creating presentations, Sarah Kiefer looks after each element of the startup’s marketing. That includes: 

  • Communications and PR 
  • Driving traffic and sign ups through search engine optimisation
  • Positioning and messaging around the product 
  • The brand’s visual representation and tone of voice
  • Paid marketing 
  • Website management, performance and conversion rates 

“We’re a B2B company, and within that Pitch is a product-led growth company, which has lots of implications for strategy, how we’re structured and the kinds of things we do in the marketing team,” Kiefer tells Sifted. 

“One of the first big questions was where would responsibility for growth sit and how would that be shared between product and marketing? That’s an age-old question, but for product-led growth companies it’s a particularly important one, because if you’re going to make it work you want a growth loop: new users of the product to share content or do something that leads organically and without cost to more people using the product.”

Approached through this lens, marketing is not responsible for getting every new customer. “I kickstart the growth flywheel and then product growth takes it from there and turns that one new sign-up into 10 more,” Kiefer explains.

👉 Read: The problems Europe’s COOs are facing

The symbiotic relationship between product and marketing means, unlike CMOs in other startups, business strategy doesn’t rest so heavily on Kiefer’s shoulders.

“Our role is often representing our customer base and our audience’s needs to the product team. The product team is in the nitty gritty: what should we build? Marketing then has to come in and give input on how this is actually going to resonate? How are we going to market this? Is this going to be easy for people to understand if they’ve never used Pitch before? You’re providing that external view, that market view, of how what the product team is doing will land with real human beings.”

There’s a need to focus, but also to experiment, because you probably don’t yet know what works”

The purpose of a CMO, from Kiefer’s perspective, is dual: growth (users or revenue, depending on the stage of the business) and internal customer representation. Kiefer’s team has targets for website traffic, signups, social media followers and the like. 

One of the challenges, Kiefer says, is that “you’ve always got to be thinking short-term and long-term”. That means asking things like, “is this going to help us hit our monthly growth targets and also reinforce the brand to create a sustainable competitive advantage over the next five years?”

Other challenges include deciding how to measure whether an advertising campaign was successful, what your attribution strategy should be and simultaneously how certain images on your website will make users feel.

That feeds into the need to walk the tightrope between creative experimentation and rigorous data-driven decision-making. “There will always be 2,001 things you could do. There’s a need to focus, but also to experiment, because you probably don’t yet know what works, and I don’t think there’s any marketing strategy that’s always going to work… It’s [about] finding that balance between focus and experimentation.” 

Hannah Wickes, CMO at Ecosia

Hannah Wickes, chief marketing officer at Ecosia
Hannah Wickes, CMO at Ecosia

For Hannah Wickes, chief marketing officer at non-profit Ecosia, a green search engine that uses ad revenue from user searches to plant trees, her role looks a little different. Much of it is content creation: things like storytelling on social media and curating video documentaries — such as telling stories from individual tree-planting projects, like the one Wickes is currently visiting in Uganda. 

“One of the positive impacts of being in the field is that you really get to see the impact that your company is having, see the stories, and then bring that back to your marketing strategy, your comms strategy or your climate work.

“It’s B2C, so it’s really important that we connect with our users on the channels they’re actually on, because they won’t always be on your website and you need to be where they are if you’re storytelling about impact,” Wickes adds. “It’s important that we really communicate the outcome of a person searching on Ecosia and their impact: they’re our shareholder to some extent.”

She adds that one part of your job as a chief marketing officer is to craft the story of your company and develop a brand around that. You need to be answering core questions like:

  • Why was the company founded? 
  • What value is it bringing to the community, to its users? 
  • What impact is it having? 
  • How do you tell that story and bring people with you, whether internally with your team or externally with your user base?

The other part is growth. “How do you grow your user base? A lot of this relates to digital marketing and performance marketing,” says Wickes. “It’s a very different mindset, very numbers-driven, based on strict KPIs and really delivering.” 

As a social impact business, operating in a number of key country territories in Europe and the US, Wickes’s team’s marketing strategy encompasses: 

  • Running localised growth experiments — so testing different marketing tactics (like a billboard campaign in a certain city, for example) and seeing if the learnings hold true in other cities or regions.
  • Feeding back on the performance numbers across markets, the traction of different campaigns and pulling that into the company’s broader strategy. “It’s really important that if we’re in the French market, we’re able to localise for people in France, because it’s different stories and partnerships than what you would do in Germany or the UK,” Wickes says.

We’re really conscious of spends because if we’re not profitable or a campaign’s not working that means less trees planted”

Straddling the tech space as a non-profit also means “you’re up against companies that are for profit, so you have to be creative and try different things in order to cut through, because you have less money to play with”. 

It’s a double-edged sword — and in situations like the current downturn, sometimes an advantage. “When times get lean, you have more skills you can rely on,” explains Wickes. “You’ve tried and tested. We’re really conscious of spend because if we’re not profitable or a campaign’s not working, that means less trees planted.” 

👉 Read: What do chief impact officers actually do?

While Ecosia has been profitable pretty much from the get-go, according to Wickes, and isn’t reliant on external funding, she has advice for chief marketing officers currently buffeted by the winds of the tech crunch. “You need to be running leaner experiments on new channels and probably pull back a bit from the channels that require huge amounts of creative investment, like TV ads,” she says. Look to run smaller scale tests on, and get learnings from “digital channels, social channels, channels that people trust in this time,” which might include traditional media and podcasts.

“Budgets are smaller… There’s a big push for profitability over growth numbers. And that shifts your marketing strategy quite drastically.”

Iona Carter, chief brand officer at Olio

Iona Carter, chief brand officer at Olio
Iona Carter, chief brand officer at Olio

Many of the facets of Iona Carter’s role as CBO at Olio, a neighbourhood sharing app for food and household items, are underpinned by an ability to “zoom in and zoom out and zoom back in again,” she tells Sifted. “From a management perspective, my style is very much one based on autonomy and empowering people, but what I’ve learnt over the years is that it’s all about the phasing of your proximity to someone.” So Carter might be very close to a new recruit when they first join, for example, but over time phase that away. 

On a day-to-day operational level, the skillset is similar. “It’s that ability to be able to zone in and be close to the detail where needed, but also to be able to see the bigger picture and bring the enterprise-level view to conversations, to the input you’re giving to team members. So sometimes that will be wearing your marketer hat, and sometimes wearing your enterprise, C-level hat.”

As a senior executive, there is a lean towards the business side, Carter says. “A lot of the role becomes about being board-facing, fundraising decks, interfacing with externals and engaging on the broader strategic direction of the business… Ultimately, my role is driving forward the vision of the brand. And that’s a role that sits across the organisation.”

We’re starting to see different kinds of splicing of roles that used to be marketing, and there’s certainly increasing specialisation”

Olio has some 100 employees, which means Carter is still quite close to the “functional detail”, as she puts it. “But hiring the right team who you can coach and trust to be all over the granular detail is fundamental to that model working.”

Part of the expertise of a chief marketing officer is in keeping “up-to-date with what other businesses are doing, having peer learning structures in place for that… but also bringing that to the team so we’re having those conversations, continuing to think about how we can innovate and be inspired by what else is going on outside the four walls of Olio.”

One of Carter’s most prized resources for this is a WhatsApp group she has with other chief marketing officers. “It’s a very, very fast-changing discipline,” she says. Even over the past 18 months, the landscape has changed. “We’re starting to see different kinds of splicing of roles that used to be marketing, and there’s certainly increasing specialisation.” As well as CMO and CBO, there are chief customer officers, chief growth officers, chief revenue officers. 

Building the right teams around that is crucial. One of the big challenges, Carter says, is “hiring great talent”.

“The marketer skill-set is quite unique in that it’s historically been creative driven, but ultimately you need people who are really strong on the numbers side as well. It’s the ability to introduce rigour and discipline to measurement and reporting, but also have that wonderful qualitative empathetic ability to understand what makes humans tick, and build creative briefs that really resonate with people.”

At the top of that totem pole, people skills are critical. “You need to be able to operate within an ecosystem that is built on people. The ability to communicate your ideas really effectively and tell stories is fundamental to delivering — but also galvanising a team to make that happen.”

Jessican Rawnsley is a freelance writer. Find her on LinkedIn or Twitter