A Survival Guide for Rising Marketing Managers

Congratulations on your new role! Your ambition has paid off, and now someone has entrusted to you a more senior marketing manager role…maybe a functional area like email automation, a solo marketing operation, or perhaps even as the head of the department.

The Successful Marketing Manager

But as compared to your roles in the past, something feels tangibly different about this new role. Prior to this, you may have felt more like a technical expert. After your boss mapped out what should be done, s/he turned to you for your input on how to execute.

But this time is different: For the first time in your career, people are asking you for your direction on what should be done.

It’s Not IF You Screw Up, But WHEN

I wouldn’t presume to tell you your business; you wouldn’t be the successful marketing manager that you are unless you had the wherewithal to distinguish yourself. Nonetheless, there are always certain traps or points of tensions that come with a role like this, and it’s on this point that I hope to provide some little guidance.

making marketing mistakes

You see, I have at various points completely screwed up each and every point I’m about to discuss, or at least could have executed them much better had I a little context.

I’m not trying to deprive you of the opportunity to make mistakes, by the way. Someone can explain to you what dog poop is, what it looks like, and impress upon you the desirability of avoiding it, but nothing quite wires those points up in one’s head like actually stepping in it. Knowing that mistakes are not only inevitable but potentially desirable, I would encourage you to make such preparations as would make your marketing mistakes small, manageable, and maximally instructive.

If you have now risen to a marketing management position where you must survive on your own wits, and can no longer rely on a technically-astute manager to bail you out, the following might be interesting to you.

These are the common tensions, traps and mistakes that I see (and have made), when arriving in a new marketing management situation.

Priority 1: Dealing with Covert Expectations

This is the very first thing that I tell all my team members when they move on to new opportunities: get control of the accountability conversation. Be very assertive in defining how the success of your work will be measured!

As a marketing manager, this shouldn’t be the first time you’ve heard the term “KPI” (Key Performance Indicator). These are the metrics by which your success will be measured (typical direct KPIs are ones like # of leads, cost per lead, and return on investment, while more indirect KPIs could include web traffic, collaborative content agreements, search ranking, etc.).

Key Performance Indicators

There are two common scenarios that lead to dysfunctional KPI conversations. The first is dealing with a micro-managerial management style. KPIs will typically be laid out in advance without giving you the opportunity to collaborate or contribute.

You will find, particularly if your manager is more of a “strategist” than a doer, that they might not lead this conversation in a specific or realistic way. Very commonly you may hear, “Well, let’s get the operation up and running, and we’ll benchmark it then.” Or, “Just generate as many leads as you can, and we’ll see what happens.” We’ll refer to this as the “tentative, clueless management style.”

Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want

The worst scenario is when your manager has a covert expectation, a vision of the riches that you’re going to provide them with by “doing your magic.” This is dangerously common, particularly in start-ups when you might report to the founder. Their conversation will start out sounding like this:

  • “We’d like you to help make the market generally aware of our offering.”
  • “We want to be regarded as thought leaders in the industry.”
  • “We know it will take a while to find the right mix, so you have complete freedom to test.”
  • “Why don’t you just tell me the marketing budget you think you’ll need and I’ll square it for you.”

Set your watch at this moment. Within four weeks, the conversation becomes this:

  • “So, are we getting any leads in? Where are the leads?”
  • “How long do you think before we see a return on this spend?”
  • “The investors might be getting a little antsy.”
  • “Where are my sales?”

You’re not being deliberately entrapped. It’s just that shit rolls downhill, and when idiots are put under pressure, all they know how to do is beat up the people below them.

Budgeting: The King of Covert Expectations

Your Marketing Budget
Some day, an idiot will come along and try to get you to spend too fast

This conversation is particularly radioactive when it comes to budgeting. In certain startup situations where investors are demanding high growth (and possibly suffering from self-deception), you will be pressured to spend a whole bunch of money as fast as you can. That might not sound bad until you realize that those giving you the budget are harboring a covert expectation that the money they give you will bring returns at 100% efficiency. It won’t, particularly if you’re new to the market.

Successful marketing managers need to assert their need for resources, time, and the flexibility to do things correctly and well.

So before you start on any actual marketing work, your absolute first priority is to get control of the KPI conversation.



  1. First, get your manager’s/boss’s/CMO’s/founder’s business goals, and vision of what success in the marketplace looks like. Ask, “What does success here look like?”
  2. Turn all of the covert expectations into overt ones. When you hear words like “awareness,” “publicity,” “thought leadership,” or any other ambiguous terms, PUSH BACK. Make them spell out the real goal behind the stated goal. Say, “As a marketer, I know that everything I do has to come back in some way to sales, so may I suggest we measure X?”
  3. Make sure your KPIs are within your direct control. You can be responsible for the quality and quantity of leads you generate for the sales team, but you cannot be responsible for the sales team’s success at closing deals.
  4. Make sure the KPIs are as reasonable as possible. Two things make this tough: first, you’ll probably over-promise because you’re trying to impress your boss. Second, you may not know what a reasonable baseline is. Some leads, for instance in the enterprise software space, are ungodly expensive by nature. Do research, come to the conversation prepared, and take your best crack.

Once you have this established: MAKE A SIMPLE TRACKING SPREADSHEET that you can use to show progress on ONE OR TWO KEY METRICS, relative to goal. This is essential, because your boss will probably forget the goals or move the goalpost.

Priority #2: Emergency Triage

You’ll be working on priorities 2 and 3 at the same time. Priority #2 deals with extreme short-term measures, and Priority #3 deals with your 90-day plan.

Duct Tape Marketing
Get out your duct tape and fix the easy stuff right away.

Many times, you will walk into a situation where legacy assets are broken and/or shitty. Get out your duct tape, and as quickly and cheaply as you can, do enough repair work to get some kind of a system on its feet.

Largely this means taking a look at the user experience from the point-of-view of the visitor/prospect, and make sure they have a clear path to find the information they’re looking for and then buy from you.

For The Love of God, Get Control Of The Site

If you are in charge of the marketing operation itself (department-head, solo marketer, etc.), GET CONTROL OF THE WEBSITE. This will be your biggest point of failure. Once, as a new marketing manager, I came into a company where:

  • The phone number listed on the website was inoperable
  • The contact address was outdated
  • The web-form internal notification emails went nowhere
  • Inbound contacts were not transferred to the CRM properly
  • The navigation was not intuitive to the user
  • The services and value proposition were unintelligible
Wordpress...Learn This!
WordPress powers over 30% of all websites. Being able to edit WordPress sites on my own has saved my life.

The best way to do this is to do it yourself. The best thing I ever learned as a lead marketer was basic WordPress site operation. Clean up the language, clean up the navigation, and for God’s sake make sure people can reach you. It doesn’t have to be beautiful – you can hire someone for beautiful stuff later. It just has to answer questions. Get your first pass done quickly and cheaply.

This gets a little easier if you’re in charge of a functional area (like paid media or email marketing) because most of the details should be within your direct control. Do a quick audit of what’s going out now. Does your communication make sense and invite response?

Here are some general triage questions to ask:

  • Where and how can visitors and prospects fall out of the funnel? Where are you asking them to do too much, or have too much patience with you?
  • How are your customers generally voicing their confusion or displeasure? Do you have a chatbot on your site that will give you an idea of what people are asking? Is your product, service or company rated on a rating site, and if so, what are the negative reviews saying?
  • Talk to the employees who’ve been there longer than you. Ask them for their unvarnished opinion on what your company habitually screws up.
  • Similar question to your sales team: “What is the general prospect state-of-mind when they establish contact?” Do they seem confused/overwhelmed/displeased about any part of your user experience at the point when they establish contact?
  • When you look at your own website and communications from the customer’s perspective, is the value proposition and language both simple and understandable? Would you immediately know how the product or service in question would make your life better?

Priority #3: Your 90-Day Plan

Once you take over a function, you’ll have a honeymoon period of no more than three months to show value. By that point, the people who hired you will be anxious to see your own personal ROI.

Get your 90-day act together

But beyond the honeymoon, your first three months will ideally be your testing period. You’re going to want to pilot some tactics during this period, and see if they go anywhere. By the end of three months, you should have enough trial data to at least have an introductory strategy for the rest of the year.

You’re going to need a documented plan to define resources, goals and expectations. The first one you produce will tell everybody what’s going to happen in the first three months. Then, you’ll modify a version of this quarterly.

I was taught the long, excruciating way of doing it, which all marketing managers are taught in business school: by producing a 50-page document that no one will read. Don’t do that.

I recommend a very short slide deck. Your three month plan, slide by slide, should look like this:

Marketing Plan Deck: First 3 Months

  • Your mandate (what is the functional area or department supposed to do, broadly? E.g. “Generate sales demand,” “Let the world know of our greatness,” etc. This is a marketing-related strategic statement.)
  • Baseline success metrics (from Priority #1 above. I.e.: To the best of your knowledge, you can declare things to be going well if…what? Lead costs within X range? Some amount of traffic from organic search?)
  • S.W.O.T. analysis of current value prop and marketing effort
  • Quick fix opportunities (from “Priority #2 above)
  • Experiments and pilot testing to happen in the current 90-day window (What are you going to try? Ads? Sponsorship opportunities? New email campaigns? Keep these small and cheap, so the ones that don’t work well are easily written off.).
  • Resources required to try the stuff you want to try (usually $$, but also designers, contractors, developers, meeting time with other departments, etc.)
  • Long-term necessities to gear up for (This is a heads-up that some hefty, resource-chewing projects might be in store beyond the initial 90 days. Does the site need a facelift? Long-term content marketing program? Do the case studies need a revamp?

As you’re making it through your first 90 days, not only are you A/B testing different kinds of demand generation and marketing strategies, but you are also doing more in-depth background research on your industry. That info will go into the ongoing quarterly plan that you will revise every three months.

Slide-for-slide, your ongoing plan will look like this:

Quarterly Ongoing Marketing Plan Deck:

  • Overview / industry background (doesn’t change with new updates)
  • Company vision and mission (doesn’t change)
  • Unique value proposition (doesn’t change)
  • Target market / buyer persona (doesn’t change)
  • Marketing mandate / strategic statement (changes only slightly)
  • Successful completions and wins from first 90 days / preceding year
  • Marketing goals for the year (major projects and metrics)
  • Competitive set / competitive strategic map
  • Proposed marketing mix / cost
  • Any new resources that are needed (freelancers, interns, etc.)
  • Projected KPIs / outcomes (spend most of your time here)
  • Beyond this quarter: notes for the 6mo – 1yr time frame

Again, even though this is build as a slide deck, it will probably never be presented formally. This is more or less for documentation purposes. If your boss walks in an asks, “What did you promise you would deliver?” you hand him this.

A Few More Thoughts on 90-day Planning:

A lot of this exercise is so that you officially pull your resources together. You have to know what you can draw from. This means being specific about budgeting, but it also means finding the people you can most rely on. Where are your graphics coming from, for example, assuming you’re not doing them yourself (which you shouldn’t unless you’re a trained designer).

Make nice with sales
Nothing will screw up your life faster than a rocky relationship with your sales guys.

While I’m on this subject, MAKE FRIENDS WITH THE SALES DEPARTMENT! This is going to be your primary source of customer/prospect feedback for a while.

There are natural frictions between the marketing and sales departments (usually having to do with lead quality) that you’ll want to proactively defuse. One thing I commonly do is give sales the prerogative to decide whether an MQL is qualified or not. That takes away a lot of the finger-pointing that can develop.

Keep your campaign testing relatively small, cheap and expendable. Remember the Pareto Principle: 80% of your good results will be determined by 20% of your efforts. Don’t promise a damn thing upfront. You might be shocked that something doesn’t work right away. Take you best guess, based on previous experience, at what is most likely to work. Don’t commit to anything long-term at this point (e.g. signing a year contract with a PR agency is NOT a pilot program).

Remember what I said about budgeting expectations in Priority #1: if your outfit wants to grow fast, you may be pressured to spend a whole bunch of money inefficiently because some idiot wants to impress investors. Fight for your freedom to test and iterate. Do NOT commit major funds to anything unless you have successful pilot campaigns that led back to completed sales. Make sure sales are closing well before attempting to scale anything up!

By the way, if you’re interested in other, more general small business success principles, check out my article dissecting learnings from the show Restaurant: Impossible (part 1 and part 2).

Priority #4: Create Processes for Training and Mastery

The single best thing you can do to create a great department or a great business is to set up processes where you and your team are constantly getting better.

A good marketing department is like a good farm team
Set up your operation AS IF it were the farm team for higher level opportunities: always training for the next step.

A good department or organization should behave a lot like a minor league farm team, continuously preparing its members for whatever next step is in store for them. You should think of it as a training center first, and a results-driver second. Why? Because if the structure is such that everyone is mastering skill, motivation and results tend to come along for the ride.

Constant learning is something that everyone talks big about, but no one actually does. In my experience, out of every ten firms that boast themselves as “learning organizations,” exactly zero of them have any discipline or processes in place to foster this ethic.

Even if you are a solo marketer, but especially if you manage and mentor others, you should start on the following:

  • Always try to structure the assignments of team members such that they face continual, progressive new challenges. You can usually accomplish this by delegating increasingly complex responsibilities over time. Every time you delegate more responsibility, you will explain what’s coming and why it’s different.
  • Reserve a single slot of time (at least three hours) every week for self-driven continued learning. Collaborate on a structured curriculum for each team member to develop them.
  • Alternatively, or in combination, have each team member pick a relevant marketing book that deals with skills they’d like to develop, and lead a chapter-review meeting every week when you teach your group how the principles apply to their day-to-day.
  • Routinely work on an accreditation as a team or department, where the goal is to have the entire team certified in the same specialty (say, Adwords Certification). This is useful cross-training, even for people who don’t specialize in the certification area.
  • Look for opportunities for you and your team members to volunteer as single-session guest instructors for a digital marketing class taught at a local college.
  • Make the generally high competence of your team a point of pride.

Training-style teams and departments do not happen on their own, just as good values and good culture do not happen on their own. Especially in busy organizations and start-ups, this sacred learning time tends to get trampled on by other things. It takes discipline to keep it up.

In Summary

In four quick bullets, here is what you do if you are ever dropped into some marketing wasteland, and you need to set up your survival preparations:

  1. Get control of the KPI conversation. Understand what is expected of you, and keep asking “why” questions about the company strategy until you’ve unearthed every covert expectation.
  2. Get out your duct tape. Look at your current user experience and start fixing problems/leaks. Make sure people can understand you and get a hold of you.
  3. Expect that at the end of no more than 90 days, you’ll have to start answering questions related to success. Create a 90-day plan that covers all the fixing and testing you will do to arrive at your post-honeymoon strategy. Revise said document quarterly, and include KPI benchmarks and projections, based on your resources. If your resources (especially you budget) are vague or dependent on immediate sales ramp-up, push back.
  4. Create a functional area, team or department that prioritizes skills training above everything else. Even if you are solo. Dedicate sacred time every week to progress on a structured curriculum. Create a department that makes its members great at what they do!

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