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Carving out the CMO Leadership Role and Executing the Brand Strategy


Meeting the CMO Startup Challenge: Part 2

Written by Sharon MacLeod, an Advisor at Portag3 Ventures and Sagard Holdings.

Photo by Nathan Lemon on Unsplash

In Part 1, I discussed Understanding the Brand Strategy Challenge and Taking on Incumbents with your Challenger Strategy.

Next we’ll look at how CMOs can effectively execute the brand strategy in startups.

In this article, I cover:

  • Carving out the CMO Leadership Role
  • Making the Most of your Marketing Network
  • Defeating the Inevitable Distractions

Carving Out the CMO Leadership Role

We’ve talked about the early stages of a startup where the founder CEO owns the brand, refining the proposition with every pitch to investors, businesses and consumers. In the early days, the CMO obsessively focuses on uncovering pockets and levers of growth; 100% performance marketing.

Challenging yourself to step into a leadership role, carving out a space as an executive standing in the face of challenge, defending your position, advocating for what you believe is best for the brand.

Honouring the brand with your best as a marketing professional is, ultimately, equivalent to honouring the CEO and the early heroics that brought the product or service to the market.

But the transition to a formal brand identity is bound to meet resistance, testing the CMO’s leadership role.

There are three fundamentals to effective CMO leadership through this transition.

Carving out the CMO leadership role in a startup requires more than great marketing skills. It takes a pioneering spirit, tenacity and collaboration.

First, the CMO must recognize that resistance to a brand strategy is a natural, even important, part of the growth cycle of a startup. Proposing what the brand stands for takes courage, people who are passionate about the brand may have different and strong views. Debate is healthy. Some people might feel uncomfortable being confined by a brand strategy even though the strategy will provide freedom within a framework. There is nothing “wrong” with meeting resistance at this juncture.

Second, speak the language of the CEO.

Most products or services of startups have met any number of technical hurdles before they reach the market, the CEO has had early leadership wins often technical in nature. The CEO is also laser focused on financial results and performance metrics, reporting progress to stakeholders.

Successful CMO’s translate marketing programs into technical and financial terms with specific investments and timelines, measurable results and trackable implementation. They are also aware of the financial goals of the moment, knowing that these change according to the current situation, and flex initiatives to meet the needs of the business.

Third, CMO leaders understand the need to deliver and refine a growth vision that leads to success for the whole team.

Transitioning to a brand strategy isn’t easy work, and the CMO must be prepared to “sell in” the value proposition repeatedly. The brand strategy that lands fully formed and is immediately implemented is a unicorn. Building understanding and trust is an essential part of carving out the CMO’s leadership voice and landing an effective brand strategy. Ideally the brand strategy and business strategy dovetail perfectly to drive growth. A collaborative approach in defining the business and brand strategy with the CEO is the best way forward.

What you can do

Collaborate with the CEO, understanding that you are stepping into a space they have occupied and be open to an evolving relationship that might not be exactly how you imagined, knowing it will continue to evolve, particularly as you deliver. Adding a Chief Growth Officer to the mix, creates more opportunity to collaborate and evolve roles.

Deliver a growth vision, where you are seen as a leader who helps the whole team succeed.

Making the Most of your Marketing Network

Often the startup marketing team is small, with varying levels of experience and busy to the point of distraction. The CMO challenge is made tougher when they are the most experienced and have no one on-site to collaborate with.

Relying on agencies and media partners to bounce ideas off of is one potential avenue for collaboration, however, they will have a natural predisposition favouring their own services and channels.

CMOs benefit from networking with others who have walked in their shoes, partnerships with other CMOs and marketing advisors can shortcut the learning curve.

What you can do

Seek out like-minded marketers, through startup CMOs and Advisors within your network, such as those found within Portag3.

Defeating the Inevitable Distractions

The one thing a startup CMO is not short of is distractions. It just goes with the territory.

There is not much that can be done about the first rule of a startup business — the urgent always distracts from the important (sometimes the CMO just has to pack boxes!). The best way to minimize distractions is to be fully aware of all the potential projects on your team’s plate, align projects with objectives, size of opportunity and specific timeframes that create (and maintain) urgency.

What you can do

An innovation/project funnel with clear objectives and timing agreed by the executive team, can help gain alignment, keep the team focused on what’s determined to be important and avoid rework. Take the opportunity to kill projects too.


Meeting the CMO startup challenge isn’t easy. Leadership (literally showing the way) never is.

Carving out the CMO leadership role in a startup requires more than great marketing skills. It takes a pioneering spirit, tenacity and collaboration.

Going it alone is the hard path to creating and executing a brand strategy while developing the CMO leadership role. Reaching out to those who have walked the path of marketing leadership makes the journey easier.

We empower and invest in visionary financial entrepreneurs. Learn more about Portag3 Ventures at

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