For the past seven years I have filled in as an Interim Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) for B2B companies growing from $50M to $100M ARR. This article demystifies the role of the Interim CMO so CEOs can better understand when and how to take advantage of this unique marketing leadership asset.

Why is my CMO failing?

The average tenure of a CMO is less than 40 months – the shortest of all C-suite roles. Why?

While the role of a CMO is crucial in driving growth, building brand equity, and achieving marketing objectives, not all CMOs are alike. There are many types, and the CMO skills a company requires changes over time. This fact often frustrates CEOs who become disenchanted with their CMO and fire them. They wonder if they actually need one.

Some come with deep demand generation experience; others with strong product or industry knowledge. Some are skilled at navigating internal politics in big companies; others are more adept at being flexible and nimble having worked in start-up environments. The truth is that there is no single marketing leader that is best in all situations.

Most importantly, as Brian Gentile, CEO coach often says when he talks about CMO Scaffolding,

You are not hiring a CMO you need today; you are hiring a CMO for what you need tomorrow.

CMO Scaffolding refers to a support structure that aids both the CEO and CMO in order to groom the CMO to become the marketing leader the company needs him/her to be. This is especially true when companies are going through a strategic transition, such as a merger, acquisition, or repositioning for accelerated growth.

This is exactly why rushing to fill the vacancy left from a prior CMO is not always the best choice. An Interim CMO is specifically skilled at helping CEOs navigate this transition. They bring extensive experience to the table. They quickly assess the marketing team’s capabilities, identify gaps required to meet the company’s business goals, and develop a 90-day actionable marketing strategy & plan. They navigate this transitional period with agility, cleaning house, and providing stability while working with the CEO and HR/recruiter to find the right next CMO.

The CEO’s blindspot

Many tech companies are led by CEOs with strength in engineering, technology, or operations. It’s rare to find a CEO who has training and experience in marketing. Simply put, the CEO may not really know what “good marketing” looks like. The CEO has clear expectations of what marketing should produce, but they may not appreciate what’s required under the hood of a well-oiled marketing engine. (Read: Building a demand gen plan? Start with these 6 ingredients) This is their blindspot.

When I examine my Interim CMO assignments over the past seven years, the commonalities are clear:

  • Mismatched CMO leadership skills. In one case, the CMO brought deep product marketing skills, yet there was already a strong VP of product marketing in place. However, he was inexperienced in lead gen and designing go-to-market plans. He felt that asking for help or hiring an experienced lead gen director would expose his weakness. Instead, he hid the issue until it blew up in his face.
  • No strategic marketing plan in place. A marketing plan cannot just exist in a CMO’s head. It must be written down. This includes clearly describing the target persona, buyer’s journey map, and a positioning & messaging guide. Together, these three documents provide the Rosetta Stone upon which all integrated marketing plans will be built. The CMO must be a strategic thinker in order to design and execute clever and timely thought leadership/awareness, new customer acquisition, and nurture integrated marketing campaigns & supporting programs. Because there was no strategic plan, the marketing teams was completely reactive to the daily whims of a frustrated sales team. This created deep lack of trust of the marketing team. (Read: Marketers: It’s time to build your 2023 Go-to-Market plan and it will be very different from what you executed in 2022)
  • Ineffective marketing structure and an inexperienced team. Because of recent downsizing, junior people were put into leadership positions beyond their capabilities. No investment in training had been made to help these marketers. The organizational structure was also missing key experienced leaders (lead gen, content, product marketing). Worse, there were contracts with many vendors, most of which were not being actively managed. The result: everyone was moving so fast that they were only effective in producing random acts of marketing (and wasting money) hoping that some tactic would work. Alas, hope is not a marketing strategy. (Read: Integrated Marketing vs. “marketing popcorn”)

It is very easy to see why CEOs often become frustrated with their CMO. This frustration feeds a blindspot resulting in a type of post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) – the very real fear of believing the next CMO will be just like the prior one. Working with a skilled Interim CMO greatly reduces the risk of  hiring the wrong next CMO.

What to expect from an Interim CMO’s 90-day plan

Because every company is different, the key to success is helping the CEO identify the three most immediate objectives that must be delivered in 90-days. To be clear, your Interim CMO will become deeply engaged in a variety of activities – both strategic and tactical. However, it is imperative to have a core set of three that are most important. At the end of the assignment, the CEO will remember and appreciate the things that matter most. Here are examples of my core objectives for two recent assignments:

Company A

  • Assess the marketing team & restructure it. This included a skills assessment of all team members and determining and documenting clear MBOs and KPIs that align with the company’s business objective(s). Result: I crafted a new org chart, cleaned house, and reassigned proper metrics.
  • Craft a repeatable product introduction process/blueprint. Result: I acted as interim “launch boss” and led a cross-functional team to launch of a major new product. This became the process for all future announcements and product launches.
  • Find the right next CMO. This included rewriting the CMO job description (because the prior one wrong) and guiding the leadership team (along with HR/recruiter) to effectively screen candidates. I also created a complete executive-level interview process with specific questions for each interviewer. This accelerated the evaluation process. (Download the case study whitepaper) Result: Within 3 months we found and hired the ideal next CMO.

Company B

  • Define and document the company’s positioning & messaging strategy. This had never been done before. This single document became the source of truth as it included the following: company vision and mission statement, target audience and persona, buyer’s journey map, elevator pitch, key differentiators, etc. Result: Working with a cross-functional team, I wrote the Positioning & Messaging Guide, trained the marketing team in how to use it, and presented it at sales kickoff. Together, we achieved sales and marketing alignment.
  • Create a “rolling thunder” go-to-market plan and design clever awareness/thought leadership, new customer acquisition, and nurture programs. Result: Rather than producing “marketing popcorn”, the team embraced the best practice of designing effective integrated marketing blueprints. These new marketing activities aligned with the buyer’s journey.
  • Find the right next CMO. I rewrote the CMO job description and guided the leadership team (along with HR/recruiter) to screen and rank the best candidates. Result: Within 3 months we found and hired the ideal next CMO.

Is it worth it?

Working with a skilled Interim CMO brings immediate benefits:

  1. Reduce risk of hiring the wrong CMO
  2. Stop the bleeding & improve the ROI of go-to-market campaigns, programs, and activities
  3. Reduce the onboarding time of the next CMO by cleaning the marketing house and ensuring fundamentals are in place

Hiring a permanent CMO is a significant financial commitment. It involves recruitment costs, compensation packages, benefits, and long-term employment contracts. Unaided, it may take a CEO and recruiter 6 months or longer to find the ideal next CMO. That’s a long time to wait for marketing to get its act together, especially since the demand gen programs you initiate today may not ripen for 3-6 months.

More importantly, there is a huge cost associated with hiring the wrong CMO.

The benefit of an interim CMO is that they have experience working with CEOs and leadership teams during times of transition. They redesign the marketing organization, speed the recruiting process by filtering out the wrong candidates quickly, and identify the best leader to take you where your company needs to go. If your company is going through a transition and you are worried you don’t have the right CMO in place, conferring with an Interim CMO can help.

About the Author

Mike Gospe is a skilled marketing strategist acting as an Interim CMO helping B2B technology companies grow from $50M ARR to $100M ARR. He brings nearly 4 decades of marketing expertise and leadership experience across demand gen, product marketing, and brand disciplines. As an Interim CMO, Mike designs and delivers a 90-day plan tailored to address specific marketing needs, cut “marketing popcorn” (random acts of marketing), and improve efficiencies, all while guiding the executive team to hire the right CMO. Mike is the author of several marketing “how to” books including, Marketing Campaign Development, and The Marketing High Ground.

Mike is the co-founder of KickStart Alliance, a marketing leadership consulting team. He is also a Customer Advisory Board (CAB) strategist, with more than 20 years of experience and 250+ in-person & virtual advisory board meetings under his belt. His CAB Resource Center, a website sharing a variety CAB strategies and best practices, has become a trusted resource for CAB managers and executive sponsors around the world.