high performance marketing teams

I’ve long been fascinated by high-performance teams. In my days as an MMA fighter I was typically drawn not so much to the elite individuals but to the teams from which they grew. Similarly, as an independent journalist I’ve long admired how the team dynamics in efficient newsrooms lead an individual’s pitch through the various editorial and production layers to create a finished product. It truly takes a village.

Today, as the content marketing manager at Klipfolio, my fascination is with high-performance marketing teams. There’s so much to learn in the digital marketing space, and each day new products and services are pitched to marketing departments. How to stay focused on the goals? How to even carve out those specific goals in the first place?

To find answers to these questions and many others, I sought out three smart marketing leaders—Meghan Keaney Anderson, VP of Marketing at HubSpot; Andrew Dumont, the former CMO at Bitly; and Jonathan Grado, VP of Marketing at Grado Labs—who I thought could offer slightly different perspectives to the same questions.

What follows is a roundtable interview where I pose a question and then hear each of their responses. Enjoy.

➤ Question 1: You’re driving the marketing efforts at successful, respected companies. Each company is different, of course, but do you see threads of commonality that run throughout marketing efforts? What would you say separates a high-performing marketing team from one that can’t find its stride?

Anderson of HubSpot: The best marketing teams I’ve seen are those that manage to balance long-term, disciplined strategies with experimentation.

Megan Keaney Anderson, VP of Marketing at HubSpot
Megan Keaney Anderson, VP of Marketing at HubSpot

It’s pretty easy to get mired down in the same marketing playbook as everyone else or the same strategies you’ve used for years because they’ve worked in the past, but that’s a recipe for mediocrity. On the flip side there’s risk in too distractedly hopping from one short-term experiment to the next without a real investment in a long-term asset or strategy like a blog or search engine optimization. The best teams balance both and use data as a prioritization mechanism for everything.

Dumont of Bitly: The common thread has been a constant need for growth. In startups there’s no inherent momentum, you have to create it every day. That’s the key difference between established and new companies, and it falls on marketing to create it. Not an easy thing to do, which is why I think startup experience is so undervalued.

Andrew Dumont, former CMO at Bitly
Andrew Dumont, former CMO at Bitly

The high-performing marketing teams I’ve been a part of have all been highly-specialized and fairly autonomous. We hired the best people in their respective areas of expertise and gave them the freedom to fail. Marketing is so dependent on testing and iterating. Another key trend was dedicated design and engineering resources, such a critical part of the modern marketing organization.

Grado of Grado Labs: Thank you for those kind words! I can’t really speak for any other company than our own; Grado hasn’t advertised since 1964, so all we have is our family’s product and our story. There should be passion and substance in all marketing efforts. People can tell when there’s no passion behind what you do, while having little substance just leaves a pretty picture to stare at.

Jonathan Grado, VP of Marketing at Grado Labs
Jonathan Grado, VP of Marketing at Grado Labs

➤ Question 2: What misconceptions do companies often have about their own internal marketing efforts? How do these form? What can marketing leaders do to avoid them / make sure they aren’t embraced in the first place?

Anderson of HubSpot: In the tech-space, I often see companies think of marketing as something that happens after the launch of a product. It’s looked upon as polish or window dressing to a finished product. I think that’s a mistake.

The product and its marketing strategy should grow up together. You should build marketing into the product from the very beginning. This doesn’t mean throw a bunch of ads inside your product. Bad idea. Instead, what it means is you should think about how this product will spread from person to person as you build it and create pathways within the product that make it easier to do so.

You should also make sure that the product is giving you enough data about its usage to make relevant targeting possible. By growing up side-by-side, your product and your marketing strategy can complement each other and create better communications for your customers.

Dumont of Bitly: It really depends on the organization, but marketing has historically been seen as a ‘soft’ organization, in terms of business impact. Less so as the world has moved digital and every activity and action taken by a marketing organization can be measured.

Still, this is the general feeling when you enter an organization across departments. It’s important for marketing leaders to measure business impact from the get-go. It sets the stage. When you align marketing to impact, and not just brand awareness, you’re putting the right foot forward and letting the organization know that you’re on board with the greater goal. From my experience, this prevents the silos from forming that can cripple the effectiveness of marketing.

Grado of Grado Labs: Throwing money at a problem doesn’t (always) work. Grado has had a $0 ad budget and we’ve been able to accomplish some pretty amazing things, amazing to us at least. The company or product needs to provide something that will resonate with their audience first and foremost. Marketing efforts just build upon an already great product.

➤ Question 3: Results are what matter, but what are some foundational elements marketing teams need to have in place before they race to achieve that agreed-upon goal?

Anderson of HubSpot: Years ago we created a sales and marketing service level agreement (SLA) to help our sales team and marketing team get aligned around goals and what they could commit to each other. Working back from the revenue goals of the sales team, the marketing team committed to a certain value of leads we could deliver each month. The sales team committed to working the leads we generated. It was a quantitative agreement which included a bunch of inherent shared values. Putting an SLA together brought our teams closer together and gave us a shared starting point from which to assess priorities.

Dumont of Bitly: In the world of SaaS, and B2B in general, which is where I’ve generally played—revenue from inbound (marketing activity) is what matters. It’s tough to generalize here though, so let me walk you through my progression at Bitly.

When I came on, the marketing machine was pretty immature, so I couldn’t start at inbound revenue as the result that we tracked. First, we started with a lead goal—the number of leads that marketing drove. Next, we moved to a lead quality goal—the number of leads that hit a certain quality threshold. After that, we moved to a SQO (Sales Qualified Opportunity) goal—leads that became an opportunity from marketing activity. And finally, we’re now at an inbound revenue goal—what I believe to be the most impactful metric a SaaS marketing organization can strive toward.

Grado of Grado Labs: I would say organization is key. Not the perception of some corporate organization with harsh deadlines and such either. Give yourself some flexibility and know what you have to get done. I tend to get better work done when I think, Ok, I can get all this done by tomorrow rather than, I’m not sure of everything I have to do, but I have to get it done in the next hour. Sometimes that happens and you can’t help it, but giving yourself some time can help.

➤ Question 4: The term “innovation” is thrown around so much these days. What does it mean to you in the context of marketing? Can you share an example of what innovation (or innovative thinking) looked like for one of your marketing team’s initiatives?

Anderson of HubSpot: Innovation is about discovering points of leverage that previously went unexplored in your marketing. In any marketing strategy there are activities that will lead to incremental gains (in traffic, in leads, in any stated goal), and there are innovative tactics that will help you amplify those gains. Most innovation becomes the standard playbook after awhile and new experiments designed to find new points of leverage will replace them.

Dumont of Bitly: Not a big fan of the term, to be honest. It just feels meaningless today. But I look at innovation in marketing as skating to where things are going, not playing where things were. Marketing is very cyclical—new tech comes out, it becomes adopted and broadly used, then marketing ruins it. My goal is always to get there before marketing ruins it.

I’d look at my time at Moz and that organization as the best example of innovative marketing. Moz was ahead of its time on inbound marketing and content marketing as a whole. Something like The Beginner’s Guide to SEO was one of those brilliant pieces that everyone is trying to emulate today. Was fortunate to be a part of that team.

Grado of Grado Labs: Creating a story and following my family’s long history of tradition is my main goal most days. Last summer we built the first headphone out of a Brooklyn tree. Not only that, but it was from a tree (that had fallen) a few blocks away from Grado’s building. We’ve been in that same apartment building since 1953, and have owned it since 1918. We wouldn’t have gone through with it if it didn’t sound up to our standards, but luckily it did and we loved the story behind it. We sold out of them in a day without advertising. It combined our story with a great product, exactly what we aim for.

➤ Question 5: What makes a marketing team different than, say, one from even a decade ago?

Anderson of HubSpot: Modern marketers have significantly more data than our predecessors by which to make decisions. It’s incredible how much can be measured today and how much more agile and effective those metrics make your strategies. A decade ago there was more waste and more irrelevant marketing than there is today. That’s not to say that irrelevant marketing has gone away, but data has made it easier for companies to do the right thing.

Dumont of Bitly: End-to-end measurement—the guesswork has been completely removed. There’s no excuse for a marketing team to invest in channels that aren’t performing or not knowing which channels are performing. Too much great tech out there.

Grado of Grado Labs: A decade ago you might’ve focused on TV, radio, and print. Now it’s that plus every social network out there. Do you personalize the content for each social channel? Do your Twitter followers care for what you might put on Facebook? You might have a photo-shoot to capture that one perfect image. Great. You posted it to Instagram, so now what do you post tomorrow? You need to constantly be creating something to push out there. With so much needed, one hurdle is keeping it all genuine. There’s a lot more ways to reach people today, but with that comes a lot more work.

➤ Question 6: When you moved into your current leadership role, what were the first steps you took? Do you have any advice on what newly-minted marketing leaders should focus on during their first few weeks with a new company?

Anderson of HubSpot: Not long after I had been promoted into a new role, Brad Coffey, HubSpot’s Chief Strategy Officer, caught me at the right moment and advised:

“There’s a natural tendency when you’re in a new role and don’t quite know what you’re doing yet to try to stay the course, keep things steady and status quo. Fight that urge. In your first 90 days you have a window to set the tone for the type of team you want to build and the type of leader you want to be. Use every moment of it. Talk with your team and set a unique vision. Discontinue things that aren’t working. Start things that could. It’s not a rocky sea that upsets teams, it’s a lack of direction.”

I’m paraphrasing, but it was an important jumpstart at a critical time for me. And it meant a lot.

Dumont of Bitly: I did a presentation a few months back at The Small Business Web in NYC that covered my first 6-months at Bitly and the steps I took.

That was probably the best distillation of the what and why of first steps for me.

Grado of Grado Labs: Lay everything out and give roles and tasks accordingly. You might find someone is better suited for another job too which is a blessing to realize early on.

➤ Question 7: Details: How many employees at your company? Any goals you’d like to share? What compelled you to take the position?

Anderson of HubSpot: HubSpot is the world’s leading inbound marketing and sales platform. Since 2006, HubSpot has been on a mission to make the world more inbound. Today, over 19,000 customers in more than 90 countries use HubSpot’s software, services, and support to transform the way they attract, engage, and delight customers. HubSpot’s inbound marketing software includes social media publishing and monitoring, blogging, SEO, website content management, email marketing, marketing automation, and reporting and analytics, all in one integrated platform. Award-winning HubSpot Sales enables sales and service teams to have more effective conversations with leads, prospects, and customers. HubSpot is headquartered in Cambridge, MA with offices in Singapore; Dublin, Ireland; Sydney, Australia; Tokyo, Japan and Portsmouth, NH. HubSpot has more than 1,300 employees globally.

Dumont of Bitly: We’re just under 100 employees at Bitly across New York, Denver and San Francisco offices. I took the opportunity because I love the brand—I grew up on the internet with Bitly. It’s a staple of web 2.0. I ended up having the discussion with Bitly after a stint as an Entrepreneur in Residence at betaworks, the studio that built Bitly back in 2008.

Along with that, I think there’s a ton of potential in the business if we can figure out some key items, and I love a good challenge. Our progress from free link shortener to a real business has been trending in the right direction. Still a lot of work ahead, but I love building.

Grado of Grado Labs: There are around 20 people at Grado, we’ve purposely kept it at that size since the mid-90s. Not much else to add, I’m just continuing the six-decade family tradition of sound coming first.

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