Just Say No to Marketing

Brad Feld puts into words something that I’ve told companies for ages, but never written here. There is this nigh-irresistible temptation to fight the scary amorphousness of consumer markets by dropping multi-million-dollar marketing-spend bombs on ‘em, all on the assumption that you can come back later and pick up the dazed customers. Not:

…I despise the word “marketing” – it’s often the weakest link in a startup company.  “Marketing” is vague and non-specific, often poorly executed and measured, and usually a huge waste of money relative to the output.  Oh – and while there are plenty of “tried and true” approaches (that any marketing consulting would be happy to charge you plenty of money to explain to you) – the effective approaches have been evolving a lot lately, especially as user-generated content becomes ubiquitious.

Several years ago, I suggested to my portfolio companies that they fire their VP of Marketing and hire a VP of Demand Generation (it could be the same person if the VP of Marketing was willing to accept a quota and meaningful, measurable variable compensation.)  Hopefully, this VP of Demand Generation understands the incredible power of having your customers so happy with your product that they’ll talk about it online. To see an example of this, FeedBurner has been doing a great job of highlighting this with their Publisher Buzz blog where they link to posts from “people who kind of dig FeedBurner.”

I suggested to both companies that I met with that they stop talking about “marketing” and instead focus on getting their existing customers to tell the world about their product through blogs, references, online interviews, and at cocktail parties (these are both products that the target customer will ultimately start talking to a friend about over a drink). 

Try something – for 24 hours, substitute the phrase “lead generation” for “marketing” in every conversation you have and see what happens.

I like it. I often tell companies I’m working with that too often marketing (and business development, for that matter) is a joy-ride, essentially sales without a quota. One test when hiring a marketing veep is to tell him/her that 20/30/50% of their comp is variable on revenue — say it even if you don’t mean it — and then see how they react. It’s usually instructive as heck.


  1. Good post!
    It’s an exciting time to be alive. The role of marketing is beginning to get outsourced to companies that do it on a pay-for-performance basis.
    I am not just talking about the obvious pay for conversion, search engine marketing (SEM) firms, snap.com, Ebay but even services like eatnow.com who specialize in selling other people’s stuff.
    Everyone’s back-office is turning out to be some body’s front office and that’s the way it ought to be.
    Pay for performance is the way forward and traditional marketers are on the chopping block.

  2. Cute post, but a bit myopic, don’t you think? What I think you’re saying is not ‘say no to marketing’ but ‘say no to ineffectual marketing VPs”. Too many marketeers want to come in to a company and change the logo and put up a new website. No measurement, please!
    When your company is mature enough and your market in the expansion phase, you move into sales-driven mode and then it makes sense to move marketing into a lead-gen function. Hand marketing to the sales vp and tie it to revenue. But when, really, is lead generation the primary problem of a fresh startup?
    Earlier in a startup’s life, when enterprise IT departments are just starting to realize that you have a solution for their pain, marketing may be the make-or-break factor. In this case, “marketing” (more precisely “product management”) is the leadership of the engineering team to build a great product that the market needs and leadership of the market to understand how their pain will be solved.
    Rare is the engineering team talented enough to execute on product development AND lead the market at the same time. Rare is the sales team that has capacity to lead product developers.
    I’ve been trying for years to figure out the best way to measure marketing/product management, especially before the company has any sales. How do you measure one’s contribution to product greatness? How do you measure capturing the attention of the market so that sales close when you’re ready? Now THAT’s a discussion I’d love to see here.
    And when the company’s need is leads, fine, comp me on leads.

  3. Michael Robinson says:

    Paul: “I often tell companies I’m working with that too often marketing (and business development, for that matter) is a joy-ride, essentially sales without a quota.”
    Hear, hear!
    My favorite pushback for marketing people who believe in their god-given right to make whimsical resource demands on the rest of the company (a plague endemic to small Internet companies) is to demand a business case: quantify the opportunity cost of the diversion of resources, and quantify the additional revenues expected due to the diversion of resources into the marketing-related program activity, make the assumptions reasonable, the logic consistent, and make a compelling case that the benefit exceeds the cost. Never, not once, ever, have I encountered a marketing person willing or able to touch that challenge with a ten-foot pole.
    That then helps rebalance the influence of marketing back toward the natural order.

  4. Michael Robinson says:

    And while we’re kicking around entire disciplines, my personal pet peeve is HR.
    Everyone talks about the importance of execution, but nobody seems to take that sentiment to its logical conclusion. In my long-standing opinion, HR should employ the smartest people in the company, and they should be responsible for business processes and process improvement, in addition to recruitment, performance evaluation, incentives, etc. If you don’t understand the process, you can’t properly measure personal performance, and if you don’t understand the personal performance you can’t properly evaluate the process. In my mind, these are inseparable.
    That is to say, the prevailing practice, where the company relies on every individual manager in every department in every specialty to be their own personal expert in sociology, psychology, business process engineering, performance metrics, etc., is objectively stupid. It’s why companies fail. This stuff needs to be measured, analyzed, standardized, and continuously improved into consistent, rational best practices by really smart people who are experts in what they’re doing.
    Needless to say, this is not what happens. What happens is that the HR function is relegated to the least importance and is staffed with the dimmest, least trained personnel. And if you did want to build an HR-centric organization dedicated to matching the best people with the best processes, you couldn’t, because where would you start?
    It’s really depressing to read The Principles of Scientific Management, and realize HR has made no progress whatsoever as a discipline in over 100 years, and all the waste that entails.

  5. Frankly if all your VP of Marketing does for you is lead generation then you’ve got one VP to many. How is the market going to hear about your product if you don’t know who you’re talking too; how to talk to them and what they’re interested in? That amongs other things is what your Marketing team should be doing for you.
    And to Michael Robinsons point this sort of “push back” is precisely why so much technology marketing is a waste of time. You have to do new things to stand-out … by definition this means you don’t know if they’ll be successful or not. If someone can quantify how successful something will be then you must have done it before to have data to use for prediction.
    I do think that more measurement in technology marketing would be useful. There’s a place for it as part of your mix of activities. But we need to be wary of what those measurements are and stripping out the ability to go from good to great.

  6. Michael Robinson says:

    Steve George: “You have to do new things to stand-out … by definition this means you don’t know if they’ll be successful or not.”
    I’m entirely in favor of doing new things. The question is not whether you can prove before the fact that the new thing will work, it’s whether you are able before the fact to construct a reasonable, persuasive, and logical case that it can work.
    An enterpreneur doesn’t go to a VC and say, “I have an idea for new thing; just give me a bunch of money and I’ll see if it works.” There’s an expectation of putting together a plausible case.
    Marketing should be no different.
    It’s a question of professionalism, responsibility and discipline, vs. rampant vacuous half-assery.

  7. ““Marketing” is vague and non-specific, often poorly executed and measured, and usually a huge waste of money relative to the output.”
    Being at a marketing company that does marketing things I have to agree that it is interesting how low the bar is set by most exec management when it comes to marketing deliverables.
    About the only way to change this is to be a reformist and redesign marketing so it aligns to the sales process, but how many boards or CEO’s have you run into recently with this type of courage? Marketing is definitely broken and requires fixing, it’ll be interesting to see how this fixing comes about.

  8. Spoken like a true techie.
    Rarely have I met a tech-centric person that understands the difference between sales and strategic marketing. And it gets worse down here in San Diego.
    As was pointed out in an earlier post, the start-up requires a firm understanding of it’s markets – their needs and wants – and then assistance in developing products that matches these requirements (something few engineering departments are able to do).