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Why do CMOs/Head of Growth have the shortest tenure?

Updated: Feb 22

// This post has strong opinions that are loosely held. I also acknowledge that I'm taking inspiration from other industries which might not be accurate. But it's a starting point to solve an industry-wide problem we face. I'm open to feedback and suggestions.


Everyone knows that marketing and growth teams are the first to be laid off. These teams have the shortest tenure in tech.

Often times, they get fired because of one of these reasons:

"The company has to pivot."

"We have a retention problem."

"Marketing can't acquire customers."

"Growth can't grow revenue anymore."

Not all layoffs are bad. Some are valid but there's a reason why marketers/growth people have the shortest tenures compared to other departments like product management, engineering, and customer success.

I was inspired to find a solution and asked a few questions to myself:

  1. Are growth/marketers fluffy?

  2. Can they really not sell?

  3. Are they all words and no results?

And assuming all of that is true, then

  1. Why is this the case?

  2. And what can we do about it?

This investigation led me to explore whether the problem lies elsewhere?

First, please walk with me through some examples. Then, I'll stitch everything together and share a hypothesis.


#1 Intuit's most successful vs. a total failure ad

Intuit is one of the most successful SaaS companies in the world with a valuation of $180 billion. Their earliest product was an accounting software.

Campaign #1

To run a direct advertising campaign in PC Magazine, Intuit had to bet its entire net worth of $125,000. If it failed, the company would be bankrupt again (they had almost gone under twice before, and at one point, they had to stop paying employees' salaries). The founders wrote this direct response ad themselves after consulting with a marketing friend.

Take a look at their old ad copy from 1986:

The result? Huge success.

The copy was drafted by Intuit's co-founder who had previously worked at Procter & Gamble. If you've got a few extra minutes, watch the interview below starting at the 33:42 mark.

Campaign #2

Eventually, Intuit hired a marketing agency. This agency created a two-page ad featuring a bald lady who had seemingly pulled out all her hair doing accounting. Do you think it would perform well?

The ad was expensive to produce, with all the agency fees. Worse yet, it brought in a grand total of 4 (four!) customers of the millions of people that saw it.

Yikes. No wonder the founders were upset.

I think tech is relatively easy to sell. There's a clear value-exchange and risks are offset by a subscription business.

"I think SaaS is beautiful because it's a pure value exchange between customer and company. And as long as the customer is receiving what they think is enough value, they'll continue to pay for your product. So it creates this really great incentivization structure for businesses to solve real problems." — Dave Burson, Head of Product, Growth & Monetisation at Canva

Intuit built one of the best products. They became the market leader in 2 months. They had done lots of market research. If you watch the interview above, you'll see they mention 'research' in almost every 3rd sentence. Founder was ex-P&G and that marketing background is incredible.

But who is to blame for the failed Intuit ad? The agency, the company, or just the process?

To answer that question, let's take a step back and see if companies outside of tech have solved this problem. Life's not so easy in other industries.

#2 FMGC companies approach differently

At bigger companies like Unilever or P&G, Marketing == Product team. Marketing decides what to build, for whom to build, why to build it, how much to price it, and how to sell it.

Sure, sometimes we end up with products that are over-optimized for marketing. Look at any supermarket aisle.

But the products sell. They aren't built by one team and then simply handed off to the marketing team to "sell." Revenue and product accountability lies with one team. It's why PMs at Airbnb are accountable for revenue.

In tech, product marketing often ends up with the task of "hey, we've built this, now let's get customers." This approach doesn't effectively address demand.

#3 Baskin Robbin's 31% Discount

Consider another example:

Baskin Robbins, the ice cream company, has maintained a consistent message since its founding in 1947. Their logo has always featured the number 31. This number wasn't arbitrarily chosen; it signifies the "31 flavors" concept, offering a different flavor for each day of the month.

If a user is well-retained, Baskin Robbins asks them to deepen usage by ordering more of the same flavor (get a tub at a 31% discount). The 31% discount is a clever trigger moment and a time-lapsed deal which, once expired, would require users to wait for about 60 more days. It associates Baskin Robbins with the 31st of each month.

Upon closer inspection, Baskin Robbins has effectively implemented:

  • Usage and Frequency Mapping: Something typically managed by Growth teams today.

  • Trigger Effects: Leveraging the 31st of each month.

  • Product: Introducing a new flavor to attract a new niche.

  • Activation: Encouraging the trial of multiple flavors.

You might think this entire strategy [read case study] was conceived by someone at Baskin Robbins.

However, the idea for "31" actually came from the Carson-Roberts advertising agency (which later became Ogilvy & Mather), in 1953.

So, the difference is clear

And it makes sense why.

Marketers don't understand the possibilities that tech can build.

That's why in tech we have product managers. People with the ability to do market research and communicate to devs.

So, you have sales, marketing, and growth teams all working on leads. The product team is good at identifying a pain point and making the best possible product in the world.

But then, product managers might not have revenue accountability. If it doesn't sell well, the short-term solution is always to market more.

Here are some examples of what is written in my college marketing book by Philip Kotler:

  • Growth is essential for the success of any firm. Thus, to be a long-term market leader is the goal of any marketer.

  • Marketers can try to increase the amount, level, or frequency of consumption. (What Reforge Growth courses talk about)

  • In targeting new customers, the firm should not lose sight of existing customers. (Poor line expansion in SaaS).

  • Ironically, some food firms such as Hershey's have developed smaller packaging sizes that have actually increased sales volume. (Pricing and packaging).

  • While trying to expand total market share, the dominant firm must actively defend its current business. Boeing against Airbus. Staples against Office Depot. And Google against Yahoo! and Microsoft. How can the leader do so? The most constructive response is continuous innovation. (Marketing does product management).

  • Six types of defense strategies when you're a dominant firm: position, flank, preemptive, counteroffensive, mobile, contraction (PM work).

  • Market challenger strategies: attact the dominant firm (high risk, high payoff), attack similar sized firms that are not doing the job well, attack regional firms, attack status quo (lemonade insurance).

  • Market follower strategies..

and so on..

What you'll notice is that marketing does everything except manage the supply chain. So, it decides what to build, when to build, what to price it at, and where to sell. It does NOT decide how to build it. That resides with the R&D teams and manufacturing plants.

Going back to our Intuit case where the bald lady ad failed...maybe the problem isn't with marketing or with the company. It's with the process.

The reason why the agency failed is because they didn't quite get it. And they didn't help shape the product. They didn't understand the nuances. And potentially, they might not have been allowed to do so. Who knows?

One of the agencies I worked didn't do any research, forget shape the product. They just interviewed clients and delivered work. Things would obviously not perform. I would spend extra time outside work on the weekends to get user research done.

Taylor does a good job summarizing the idea:

My recommendations

If we want to solve this in tech, I've got some recommendations. These are just starting points:

1) Involve growth/marketing early on.

Maybe they're called the "Growth" team. But they should be a part of the process much earlier on. It's hard to market a product you don't love or have faith in.

2) Growth/Marketing should understand tech opportunities and limitations in a better way

At GitHub, all their marketers know how to code. At Streamline, I took one of the most intensive design courses to speak the same language as our designers. But, I did not put the same effort into learning about frontend/backend terminologies when that would've probably been a more meta skill to develop.

3) Let marketers/growth teams write their own briefs

When recruiting agencies, see if they're writing their own creative brief. Mediocre ones will do as you ask them to. Top-tier ones will write their own. A friend of mine shared Ogilvy's campaign brief if you wanted to see how it's done.

#4 Ogilvy's Client Brief

An example brief for Fanta.

Just look at some of the questions.

What do they need to know? Product facts are not usually decisive when people choose between brands, but if they are, list them here, or attach an addendum to the brief.

What do they need to feel? Emotive campaigns usually sell harder. What emotional response are we looking for? (Avoid clichés like “friendly,” “trusted,” etc.)

Why should they care? Brands that address issues bigger than their own category earn more time and attention. Why should people talk about our brand?

Marketing has always been doing growth

All this growth stuff around A/B testing, in-product tests, statistical significance has been used by marketing teams since ages.

Even when there was no tech.

Marketing gets a bad rap because, well most marketing is bad.

So, I'd say if you worked in marketing/sales/growth or any of these ancillary functions and were laid off, it could because of one or more of these reasons

  • You didn't truly influence the product.

  • You haven't considered the full impact of the marketing lifecycle (awareness, activation, monetization, retention).

  • Or maybe your work wasn't good enough — that's ok! We live and learn :)

I'm happy to see that the industry is moving away from spammy marketing and looking at user journeys holistically.

If you liked this article, you should read up "The Top 5 Reasons CMOs Get Fired" by Carilu Dietrich who's taken Atlassian public and is an advisor to hypergrowth companies.

Thanks for reading!




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