Most leaders trying to bring marketing talent into a startup feel ill-equipped to assess the difference between a good resume and a good marketer. It matters because a person’s ability to quickly adapt and fearlessly try new things is an essential element for a great startup marketer.
In my 25 years of doing interviews, there is one question I’ve asked every marketing candidate — from individual contributors all the way to VPs — and it continues to be the most telling in separating dynamic thinkers with a real talent for marketing versus people who are simply good at executing a formulaic playbook:
“Tell me about a product or company you think is really well marketed. It can be anything — preferably not in technology. And tell me why you think their marketing is great.”
The question is intended to create a 10–15 minute conversation that reveals how broadly a candidate defines marketing success and the diversity of their toolset. This approach requires you to work just as hard as the person you’re interviewing because there isn’t a right answer; it’s truly a discussion. The setup starts by focusing on what one company is doing particularly well. But the real test is the second half of the question when you tell them to pretend they are now a marketing leader at a competitor to the ‘great marketing’ company and ask for specific ideas on how they would compete.
Here are the key things to look for in a great candidate response:
- Breadth of ‘marketing’ landscape. It is crucial to push the candidate to talk about ‘why’ anything is good. This reveals how broadly they define marketing — do they bring in brand, customers, product, clever campaigns and articulate why anything is effective? If the candidate doesn’t automatically offer out a wide range of things, suggest some and see what they do with it (a technique called breadcrumbing). It’s an automatic fail for me if the candidate only goes through the 4P’s (product, price, promotion, place) because it suggests a person who relies on a formula instead of really tuning into what makes any marketing idea connect with customers and a market.
- How do they deal with rapid change? Great startup marketers use every possible market signal to improve what they do. When you get to the part where you introduce marketing for a competitor, this really separates candidates — at every level. The ability to think on your feet and come up with new ideas on the fly is essential for great startup marketing because every startup is in a dynamic, rapidly shifting market landscape. Even if you’re in a mature category, as a new entrant, you simply don’t know how the market will react to what you put out there. A great marketer rolls with the changing landscape.
- Are they open to new information? You give the candidate every opportunity to succeed, which includes introducing more facts and assumptions into the discussion to help keep the thinking going. For example, shift the target customer or any other market factor. “Let’s pretend you get some customer research that suggests your target customer is actually a mid 30’s front-line professional and not the business unit manager. Does that change anything you do?” Listen for assumptions they’ve made and challenge them to see how the candidate handles unexpected shifts.
- How do they manage constraints? I also then add a budget constraint into the discussion. “If you only had a $250,000 budget, would it change what you do and how you prioritize?” The lower the number, the more creative someone has to be in their tactics.
Just to calibrate, in my experience, at the entry-level stage about 1 in 10 people are really dynamic marketing thinkers, with the ratio improving to more like 1 in 5, sometimes 1 in 3 if you’re working with a really good recruiter or more seasoned marketing leaders.
You might wonder what’s wrong with the much more typical “What are three things you think we could be doing better in our marketing?” In this scenario, you know a lot more about your company and it’s marketing than the interviewee. You will tend to judge the responses based on what you already believe is good. It makes differentiating between a different answer than what you expect versus a better idea difficult. And unless you’re a long-time marketing professional, you may not recognize if a truly innovative idea is superior to what you already know. Discussing other companies — where neither of you has an information advantage — forces you to pay attention to their thinking at least as much as their answers.
Having people who can execute like hell against a plan are important to have on your marketing team, but they should never be your first hire. If you’re in a startup, I can’t say enough how important it is that your first marketing hire be a great athlete — a seasoned product marketer. Knowing when to hire that person matters a lot, but the adaptability and intrinsic toolset of the person you hire is the most important thing. So whenever that time comes, know how to test the mettle of your marketer.