Anticipating tradeoffs when hiring your marketing leader will save you time and energy

You’ve probably heard this before. You’ve probably even said it yourself. Hiring a great marketing leader is like finding a unicorn. It’s elusive and challenging to find ‘the one.’

But! What if there was a different way to think about it? What if we could move away from the “I’ll know it when I see it” quest?

From recruiting marketing executives for the better part of the past decade (gulp!), I’ve learned that there is no one perfect candidate. Instead, there are simply….tradeoffs.  And those tradeoffs are predictable.

By getting to know those tradeoffs ahead of time, you can save yourself so much time and hand-wringing. Here goes – let me know what you think.

The 12 Tradeoffs


  • Behind the scenes versus evangelist:
    • The person who is heads-down and team-oriented may be so low-ego that they shy away from opportunities to evangelize publicly. On the other hand, the natural evangelist may interview wonderfully (since they are so good at storytelling!) but make sure you observe how well they play with others when they are not on the stage.
  • Specialist versus generalist:
    • The specialist who’s great at the marketing tactic that you see as critical to growing the business may have trouble seeing the forest for the trees. Meanwhile, the generalist may need to be amplified — but could bring a very necessary business-first, marketing-second approach to marketing.
  • Analytics whiz versus storytelling savant:
    • A candidate who is a 10 out of 10 in analytics may be only a 5 out of 10 in her ability to translate math into English. Meanwhile, the person who is a 10 out of 10 in storytelling may be only a 5 out of 10 in analytics.
  • Demand versus brand:
    • A demand marketer can be great at lead generation, but can end up in the land of diminishing returns, especially after the ‘low-hanging fruit’ customers are acquired. At that point, the demand marketer may struggle to come up with that breakthrough big brand idea. Meanwhile, a brand marketer may come up with a great catch-phrase and positioning, but struggle to convert that awareness into paying customers.
  • Data-rich versus insight-rich:
    • The person who instinctively collects and analyzes data may miss the opportunity to simply talk with an actual live customer. And the person who is great at finding insights in qualitative research may not be the best fit to surface those insights at scale.
  • Scrappy versus scale:
    • A scrappy marketer is compelling, especially if you are in startup mode. They may be exactly what you need now. But will that person also have what you need for tomorrow, when you are operating at a greater scale? Meanwhile, the candidate who has already had the ‘scrappy and then scale’ experience may not want to go back to a scrappy phase.
  • Get it right versus get it done:
    • The marketer who believes in “80% is good enough” may be fast, but their final work may be messy. Meanwhile, the marketer who will dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ may produce great work but may not have as much sheer throughput of work. Read more about getting it right versus getting it done.
  • Peacemaker versus changemaker:
    • Ah, the peacemaker/changemaker paradox – one of my favorites, and so common in marketing. That person who you are hiring to be a changemaker? They may break a few things along the way, leaving you feeling like a peacemaker may have been worth a look. Meanwhile, the peacemaker may get along well with others, but struggle to bring to life a different future. (Note: I’m seeing the rise of organizational change experts on marketing teams — who can partner with changemakers to make their changes stick.)
  • Recent failure versus recent success:
    • Was that startup successful BECAUSE of that lead marketer you are interviewing? Or DESPITE them? On the other hand, the person whose most recent venture failed may have learned a ton.
  • Career stage versus life stage:
    • That up and coming leader who you think will be the perfect fit for your startup may be in the busiest time of family raising, and be more focused on stability and reasonable work hours for now. Meanwhile, some people who are further along in their careers are jonesing to get a piece of the startup action, risk be darned.
  • Straight-edged versus jagged-edged career:
    • The career path of mostly straight edges – with logical, linear moves – is easy to grok. However, for many roles in marketing (such as marketing operations/marketing technology), the best candidates have paths full of jagged edges and diverse life experiences. The tradeoff is that these jagged-edged career paths can take some extra effort to parse.
  • Recent long tenure versus recent cultural mismatch:
    • The candidate who just finished up a long run at a company may seem more stable, compared to the candidate who is emerging from a short tenure at a place that was a cultural mismatch. However, here’s what I’ve seen from investigating the career paths of thousands of today’s top marketers: There is ample evidence of people mis-stepping immediately AFTER a long tenure. My take: When a fish is in very comfortable water for a long time, that fish has a hard time describing what makes the water comfortable. Meanwhile, if the fish has recently been shocked by water that is too cold or hot, they quickly develop the vocabulary to describe their optimal water temperature.


It helps to anticipate tradeoffs

By knowing tradeoffs ahead of time, you can:

  • Be better prepared to challenge and evaluate candidates
  • Forecast the gaps that you are likely to see in a particular candidate, so you can fill those gaps with other resources
  • Save time

But wait, I need the unicorn!

“But wait,” you say. “I want to have both brand and demand, both changemaker and a peacemaker, both get it right and get it done. I want the unicorn!”

Realize that not everyone can be a unicorn in all dimensions.

Realize, too, that we tend to expect perfection of new hires even more so than from our existing executives. This is largely because we are nervous about making such a big and risky decision. If that sounds familiar, take a look at a successful executive on your team already. Think of some ways person’s background is imperfect – even if they are very effective. You will likely find plenty of tradeoffs.

What tradeoffs do you see when hiring marketers?