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CMO vs. VP of Marketing: Which Should You Choose?

Posted by Lauren Kendall on June 24, 2021
Originally published on LinkedIn by Paul Manning, Managing Director, Software and Technology at The Bowdoin Group and co-authored by Sean Walker, Partner at The Bowdoin Group

Finding the right person to lead marketing is a make-or-break decision for any organization. Putting someone in place with the appropriate mindset, expertise, seniority, and team-building abilities is critical—and yet a conundrum for many growing companies.

So what’s the best choice for your organization—CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) or a VP of Marketing?

To help you make the call, my colleague Sean Walker and I compiled primary responsibilities for each role and “back of the napkin” compensation information for the average small to mid-sized company—all based on our combined 45+ years of experience hiring for marketing leadership roles.

What to look for in a CMO

CMOs are typically brought into companies where there is some level of complexity.

Either the organization is approaching a milestone (like rapid growth or exit), the company has a wide range of different products or services (or both products and services), or there are a lot of marketing communications functions and team members that need to be managed (for example, product marketing, branding, digital marketing, PR, SEO, etc).

If the CEO owns the roadmap and vision for the business, the CMO owns the communication of it—both internally with investors, the board, and the team, and externally with clients, partners, and prospects.

The more complex a business, the more complex it is to communicate on its behalf, and thus the need for a savvy and modern CMO.

In my experience, companies look for the following skills and experience in a CMO:

  • Strategic and leadership skills
  • Experience setting go-to-market strategies and sales and marketing plans
  • Ability to partner hand-in-hand with other C-suite executives to achieve the company’s vision
  • Ability to interact confidently with board members and investors
  • Experience leading marketing functions and teams
  • Ability to plan, execute, measure results, and drive improvement both real time and on a continuing basis
  • Expertise building and scaling a marketing team

Importantly, companies should find a person who wants to lead, not just do.  Some marketers are more comfortable focusing on program and campaign-level tactics rather than company-level strategy.  Make sure your CMO can delegate and be a true head of marketing – a leader of their people. 

Think of it this way: The CMO is the pilot setting the course for the marketing function, viewing the company from the 30,000-foot perspective and keeping it moving toward its intended horizon.

The Cost of a CMO

If you’re gearing up to hire a CMO, you know that it’s an investment, but just how much should you plan to spend?

Here is what it costs to hire a CMO for the average small to mid-sized company. Keep in mind that compensation can vary extensively from an emerging Series A round company to a large company.

Base salary: Ranges from $225-250K
Bonus: 30%
Equity: 1 point (for Series B or C round companies)

What to look for in a VP of Marketing

A VP of Marketing is inherently more hands-on than a CMO. VPs of Marketing are in charge of keeping the trains running on schedule and ensuring that marketing KPIs are being hit, like driving pipeline for the business. Growing companies almost always ask us to find someone with demand generation expertise—revenue is top-of-mind for them.

In addition to keeping the trains on schedule, they could also be doing the same work that a CMO does (like messaging and positioning, setting the go-to-market strategy, and product and services architecture), but for an earlier stage company where less complexity exists.

The best VPs of Marketing we’ve witnessed have a gift for bringing in the right talent to lead functions like demand generation, social media, and public relations. When necessary, they get into the weeds alongside these individuals.

In my experience, companies look for the following skills and experience in a VP of Marketing:

  • Strong leadership skills
  • Ability to manage up to the C-suite
  • Ability to manage other rising marketing leaders and stars
  • Knowledge of all facets of tactical marketing and deep expertise in at least one
  • Ability to partner hand-in-hand with executives
  • Collaborative worker who can work across marketing functions to drive GTM strategies
  • Experience implementing marketing campaigns
  • Ability to plan, execute, measure results and drive improvement on a continuing basis

You’ll notice some overlap in the skill set of a VP of Marketing and a CMO. VPs of Marketing are often on a fast track to CMO, although many are proven veterans at the VP-level and enjoy being involved in execution to some degree. CMOs, on the other hand, are orchestrators vs. executors.

The Cost of a VP of Marketing

Here’s what a compensation package for a VP Marketing looks like:

Base salary: Ranges from $175-$200K
Bonus: 20-25%
Equity: .5-.75% of outstanding

Which Should You Choose: CMO or VP Marketing?

The answer to which of these roles you should choose comes down to your goals, your growth stage, and the current composition of your team. Consider the following:

  • Your goals: If you need someone to focus entirely on meeting a certain number of MQLs (marketing qualified leads), you may need a VP of Marketing. If you’re already hitting your numbers, but you need someone overseeing and setting the strategy for the entire marketing function, you may be ready for a CMO.
  • Your growth stage: If you’re in the process of growing and scaling, you may want to hire above what you need. If you’re focused on stability and sustainability, what you need now is likely what you’ll need long term.
  • Your current team’s skills: One (seemingly obvious but often overlooked) factor that affects the talent you need is the talent you already have on your team. For instance, a CEO or COO might want to own some of the responsibilities for the position you’re hiring for, like setting the go-to-market strategy. Alternatively, they may be ready to offload tasks completely. Determining the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities on your team can help shape your thinking on whether you need a CMO or VP of Marketing.

What is your take on these roles and how they function within organizations? Is there anything you would add to this? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

For more information on when it’s time to hire for more marketing muscle, check out Sean’s blog post, Hiring a CMO: Timing, Skills, and Salary Info You Should Know.