Diary of a first-time CMO
Hey B2B marketers 👋
Here it is. Four years, $50m+ ARR and 200 pages later… My journey as a first-time CMO.
Covering the key learnings I've gathered in four years of leadership. This diary reveals the lessons that helped me scale Cognism from $3m to $50m ARR, build a team from 3 to 39, and transform our set-up from a classic lead gen function to a demand gen engine.
It’s my handbook for B2B marketers looking to thrive in leadership.
(especially if you’re as daunted as I was when I started out!)
Day 1 as a marketing leader
Did I fear getting fired in the early stages?
Yeah, every day. Even now, I still have a fear of getting fired. That’s something that sits in my stomach every day. But especially in the early days.
Thing is, I knew I could offer energy, relentless hard work and ideas that I could execute. Which I hoped would at least help me become one of the cheapest, most operational CMOs out there, and that had to hold some value.
That was the mentality I had: just continue to work hard, continue to execute, as long as you continue to add value then you’re going to be okay. That value is going to compound over time and it will drive impact incrementally.
So initially, I wasn’t the high-level strategic thinker that I evolved into, I was definitely more hands-on and operational. Trying to execute as much as I could, and that was the mindset I tried to instil in my team as well.
I think if you’re action-biassed then things tend to fall in your favour.
When I reflect on my plans when I joined Cognism, I think I had set out some steps for myself, like:
- Look under the hood, what’s working and what’s not?
- Understand our personas (specifically the B2B sales persona that I knew much less about)
- Start building out some short-term plans - what was going to have the biggest and fastest impact with minimal investment?
I didn’t want to have to go to the CFO asking for £20,000 to do XYZ because I didn’t think that would go down well.
But I was also starting to look at the long-term plays too.
I think it’s really easy to get lost in the easy short-term wins, but if you want to have any chance of scaling, you need long-term compounding plans. You need to do both.
Because I was doing a lot of the hands-on day-to-day work, like setting ads live, creating landing pages, building reports and UTM infrastructure, I found it much easier to find the long and short-term wins because I could see them. I was involved in everything.
Now, something I need to be super-honest about…
I don’t have some secret time machine that meant I could be across all things everywhere, while also making the plans for what’s next.
This time had to come from somewhere, and it often spilled into my evenings and weekends. I don’t want to pretend that there’s some easy other way for this to be done.
It was a lot of grind, and a lot of it was in my own time. For example, I once took 2 days of annual leave just to focus on strategy. I needed out of the day-to-day work, so I ‘took some time off’.
I suppose my fear was that if I’d been in the role for a month or so and hadn’t really delivered any of the day-to-day stuff, and had focused only on strategy, then that wouldn’t have been acceptable.
I had evaluated in my head, ‘what’s the worst outcome?’
I felt I’d be happier if I was told to get less hands-on, and become more strategic after being in the role for a month, versus if I were asked ‘what have you actually achieved within this month?’ and had nothing to show.
I still hold that philosophy today. If someone asks me what I’ve done in the week, I want to be able to list off exactly what I’ve managed to execute. I can show them what I’ve delivered, plus the outcomes of that. Not just fluffy high-level strategic plays.
And to this day, my most common bit of feedback from the CEO is ‘allow yourself to be more strategic, you can be less operational.’ And I work on that gradually, but I still believe the value of my role often still sits in the operational side of things.
At the time when I wrote this post on LinkedIn, I think I was trying to share that there are more ways to be a CMO - and I wish I’d had a resource that taught me how to get started as a marketing leader.
So I suppose I was trying to share my learnings with other potential aspiring future leaders. The glamorous bits, and the not-so-glamorous…
From an outside perspective, some people may think being a CMO just means being in lots of meetings and making a couple of decks but it isn’t, and that’s especially true in an early-stage organisation.
You don’t start out with a big team full of resources and budgets to chuck around. You have to start scrappy and make growth materialise.
You need to have an idea that could move the needle. You need to be able to create an actionable plan for how you’ll get there, and actually be able to follow through on it.
A creative CMO who has amazing ideas is useless unless they can make it come to fruition. Because if you can’t then ultimately you’re not making any impact.
I think it’s actually a massively underrated skill to be able to see an amazing idea out in the world and be able to operationalise it into your business. Taking the parts that fit your organisation, and adapt the bits that don’t.
We can all share a great idea or example on a Slack channel, but it takes a certain type of person to actually deliver that back in value to your organisation by executing against it.