Are You a Marketing Leader or Laggard? Lessons for Every Startup CMO

Josh Z by

In 2014, a Verizon Enterprise and Harvard Business Review study reached an interesting conclusion: There’s a direct correlation between a company’s attitude toward new technology and the business outcomes it achieves.

In fact, the study found that “Pioneers” – companies and leaders who believe so strongly in the benefits of new technologies that they seek first-mover advantage – are more likely to lead in revenue growth and market position. By contrast, more risk-averse organizations – groups the study called “Followers” and “Cautious” – were far less successful.

How much so?

According to the study, just 10% of “Followers” matched “Pioneer” growth rates, while many “Cautious” companies weren’t growing at all.

The Benefits of Being First

Let’s presuppose that your marketing organization was one of the first to embrace blogging, Twitter or video marketing. How much better off do you think you’d be today? In all likelihood, you’d have a bigger, more captive audience and you wouldn’t have to fight as aggressively for attention.

This is precisely how “Disruptive CMOs” – approach new tools, technologies and trends. They don’t wait for something to become the norm. They keep their ear to the ground, roll up their sleeves and help to define what those new ideas will become. Why is that approach so valuable?

Here’s how former HubSpot CMO Mike Volpe explained it to me in a recent eBook:

“If you’re willing to try things before they go mainstream, that willingness — even if you’re not particularly good at that specific thing — gives you a disproportionate advantage. If something takes off, you’re already ahead of the inflection point. You’ve had time to test, learn, and get really good at it before everyone else jumps in.”

Put another way: You’re already sprinting by the time everyone else is tying their shoelaces. On the flip side, what’s the risk of being slower to adopt new technology or tactics? The study above conveys that pretty well, but Volpe’s thoughts are even more blunt.

“When you’re always late to the party, you’re doomed to a life of average results,” Volpe says. “You’ll always be swimming upstream. Tactically and strategically, that’s a huge problem. But it’s even worse from a culture perspective. Laggards aren’t able to attract the best talent because, by the time they’ve jumped on an idea, the best talent has already been snatched up.”

The DNA of Disruptive CMOs

So, if we acknowledge the value in being forward-thinking, what characteristics and qualities should you strive to develop to be more innovative marketing leader? In Volpe’s opinion, disruptive CMOs possess four common characteristics that help them stand out from their peers.

Those qualities include:

  • An entrepreneurial streak: The most successful modern marketing executives don’t take the lemming route. They look for new wrinkles that help them differentiate from the competition, build better relationships with customers, and play a bigger role in revenue generation.
  • A resistance to status quo: It’s not that “best practices” is a bad word. It’s that doing things a certain way only makes sense if it’s actually the best, most effective way. Disruptive CMOs tend to challenge best practices and experiment with new ideas sooner than their laggard counterparts.
  • A willingness to get into the weeds: When Volpe’s early team at HubSpot built the company’s blog in 2007, he didn’t delegate everything to people underneath him. He rolled up his sleeves, started writing, and played an active role in developing HubSpot’s content strategy and audience. That hands-on approach paid huge dividends because it communicated a sense of true executive-level commitment.
  • A propensity to take calculated risks: Pay attention to the word “calculated.” Volpe isn’t saying innovative CMOs dive into murky water before taking a peek at what’s under the surface. Instead, he’s arguing that they perform a risk-reward assessment. If the potential payoff exceeds the risk, these CMOs move first and ask questions later. “Leaders don’t seek risk for risk’s sake,” Volpe explains. “They accept risk as a natural byproduct of a worthwhile reward.”

The good news? Volpe says all of these qualities can be learned and developed.

“It’s a mindset shift,” Volpe says. “You can’t be so afraid to fail. You have to be willing to experiment, learn, and iterate. If you do those things, you’ll start to develop advantages your competitors can’t touch.”

Are You a Marketing Leader or Laggard?

Now, all of this isn’t to say CMOs — or marketing managers, for that matter — should suddenly scramble to be the first adopters of every new tool, technology, or strategy. Instead, your goal should be to remain open-minded about the transformative ideas that are relevant to your business. And when you find those ideas, you have be willing to act quickly and purposefully.

This means understanding how things like ad-blocking and evolution in marketing technology will impact your ability to execute intelligent strategies. And it means not waiting until you’re already behind to get started.

Want some help preparing for the future?

Check out Ambassador’s newest eBook, Peering into the Crystal Ball: An In-Depth Look at 6 Trends Shaping the Future of Marketing. It features insight from Mike Volpe, MarketingProfs’ Ann Handley, and former Campaign Monitor head of marketing Agata Celmerowski to arm you with the intelligence you need to give your business a head start on the competition.

Once you’ve read it, give me a shout on Twitter and let me know which trends you think will define the next decade of marketing.

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