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Marketing Team Structure: Strategy First, Structure Second

July 10, 2020
10 Min Read

When it comes to marketing team structure, there are plenty of well-established and traditional frameworks to choose from. You’ll find lots of blog posts on the web that list hierarchy structures, role dependencies, and reporting lines that seem to make sense for organisations. 

But when you’re building a marketing team – or indeed a growth team – in the modern world, are these traditional frameworks still relevant? Is such a rigid team-building structure primed to deliver success for fast-growth startups and scaleups in the digital environment?

John Darling - Founder and MD of Traction

According to John Darling – growth marketing expert and MD of Traction (with a ‘C’) – the answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no.”

As a former Facebook team manager and consultant to many businesses large and small, John has seen his fair share of marketing teams and org charts. 

In this post, we’ll shed some light on why John believes modern marketing teams should be fluid, not fixed. And we’ll hear his advice on how you should structure your marketing team to drive results.

Startup & Scaleup Marketing Teams: There’s No “One-Size-Fits-All” Approach

If you’re looking for a marketing team structure template, you won’t find that here. Sorry. In fact, according to John, if you’re trying to shoehorn individuals into predefined marketing roles that make up your startup marketing org chart, you’re doing it wrong. 

“It’s strategy first, structure second,” explains John. “It’s about being fluid. There’s no one-size-fits-all blueprint for success. When you look at FTSE 100 companies that have the traditional marketing team hierarchy, structure, and roles – those roles actually don’t seem to complement each other anymore.”

According to John, whether you look at a small in-house team relying on agencies and freelancers, or a large department learning and adapting on the fly, the whole idea of a ‘traditional’ marketing structure just no longer exists. So, what do startups need to do instead when building out their marketing team?

John says these businesses need an experienced strategist first and foremost – a person who can build and coordinate a team in response to the overarching strategy as it is unfolding.

“It’s a big mistake a lot of people make; they try to hire into junior and mid-level roles too early. Instead, it’s better to bring in experienced marketing leadership and let them fit what they need at the time to deliver success with their growth strategy – because you can't do everything at once.”

Find out more about how to scale your marketing team here.

Old vs New Marketing Teams: Out with the Bomber, In with the Sniper

The ‘sniper approach’ leverages the many capabilities of digital. Marketing used to be about amplifying a message far-and-wide in the hopes of capturing the right audience, but today it’s far more precise. 

Or as John puts it: “Marketing used to be like flying a WWII bomber. They’d carpet-bomb large areas and hope that they’d hit their target. This was the traditional marketing method,” he says. “Then along came digital. This was like swapping to a fighter jet. Flashier tech, and they could zone in on a target area. But there was still an element of hope in the targeting – and it was hard to guarantee pin-point accuracy.” 

And fast-forward to now, John says there’s very little need to cross your fingers and hope. “It’s like you’ve landed the jet, hopped out, and grabbed a sniper rifle.” In other words, targeting can be so precise, you know where your audience is, and you understand what they need at any given moment. 

Marketing strategy: Out with the bomber, in with the sniper

What does this mean about marketing team structures? According to John, “people adopting the traditional hierarchies and structures are still flying that creaky, outdated bomber. Their goal is to hit and hope. We’ve moved on – and prospects have, too – it’s so much more nuanced now,” he says. 

This is why strategy before structure wins the day. The strategy must inform the hiring process, and therefore determine the structure.

According to John, if you do it the other way round, you’ll be running a marketing team that is ill-equipped to manage an effective modern campaign that delivers growth.

Hiring Too Early: The Flaws of ‘Figuring Out’ Marketing and Relying on Juniors

As John points out, how this strategy-first approach works depends on your starting point – and your niche, your budget, your goals, and your product-market fit status.

This is because different marketers are needed for different phases of growth due to the changing balance of tactics, and this is why starting to assemble a team before you’ve nailed a multi-phase growth plan is a backwards way to work.  

“For example, if you have a discovery product, you probably don’t need an SEO-focused content marketer. People aren’t searching yet, so you’ll need to divert budget into other roles. Maybe you need a paid social expert to fill the top of the funnel – and a developer to build conversion-led landing pages.”

According to John, hiring a junior marketing assistant or a mid-level marketing executive to be a generalist is less likely to power strong growth in the earliest stages – particularly if they don’t have real guidance in specialist areas. Instead, he recommends being fluid and adapting to the strategic direction.

Hiring a senior marketer for strategy takes precedence

“Often, when I get brought in to help a business, they’ve made one or two common errors. They’ve either muddled along themselves for ages and built a structure that’s not optimal for continued growth, or they’re relying on junior marketers in roles that they don’t fully understand – or both!” John says.

According to him, this is part of the structure-first approach, and leads to some key problems:

  • Businesses plough ahead and keep plugging the gaps, and eventually become stuck without any ability to grow bigger and better because they’re bloated and chaotic
  • The junior team members push a tactical and functional marketing plan, where doing is more important than thinking, and strategic growth goes out the window
  • This also leads to a channel-focused approach, which can be detrimental to growth
  • The company invests energy and budget into ‘figuring out’ marketing when they should be focused on building a fantastic product and listening to their users

According to John, in this scenario, startups have a misconception that you can’t hire good, affordable marketing leadership talent at their earliest stages of growth. This results in haphazard marketing activities, a lack of team alignment, and eventually a bloated organisational structure slowing progress. 

But on the contrary, these days, there are plenty of highly-experienced on-demand CMOs and marketing leaders who are available on a flexible basis. John is a prime example of one of these strategic marketers, and he regularly helps businesses build a team to execute successfully on a growth strategy. 

By making use of specialists, John says “you can skip the learning and start fast, addressing product marketing and product fit, and developing a go-to-market plan which informs everything that follows.”

In other words: retire the bomber, and hire the sniper.

With Traktion, you can hire from a world-class freelance talent pool, consisting of vetted strategic marketers who can power your growth. The matching process is totally free, and you can manage the whole project on one platform. Traktion gives you direct access to the best marketers on the planet.

What Happens to Specialists When the Strategy Changes?

If you’re organising a marketing team structure around a continuously evolving strategy, what happens to specialists when you reach peak results or choose a different path as new channels come into play? 

Naturally, if you’re only using freelance talent, there is flexibility to reduce their involvement in your marketing activity.

When you’re building a full-time team, you can’t chop-and-change so easily. But this doesn’t mean people’s roles become obsolete. On the contrary, John says this drives sustainable growth.

“Firstly, when you reach peak performance you need someone to maintain those high standards and adapt to new threats in the market in terms of competitors or changing buyer habits. Secondly, you need to keep breaking boundaries and finding new ways to reach new and existing audiences,” John says. 

“For example, just because you reach the optimal cost-per-click (CPC) on a key Google Ads campaign doesn’t mean your PPC expert should down tools. The job isn’t done yet. In fact, it’s never done.” 

According to John, a strong marketing leader will identify these changing patterns and help team members evolve from their original role to find new opportunities, try new tactics and channels, test new product and feature launches, and develop their strategic and management skills in the business.

Key Takeaways: Why a Fluid Marketing Team Structure Makes Sense

Let’s recap. As John says, your digital marketing team structure blueprint is not a set template with predefined roles. Instead, it’s something you need to build from scratch based on your own unique set of circumstances.

And at the beating heart of that process should be an experienced marketing strategist. You can find out more about hiring a marketing consultant here.

This expertise will help you determine which roles you need to fill first to achieve your most pressing targets, while also ensuring that your team is able to scale and manoeuvre as the strategy evolves

Furthermore, setting up this type of fluid structure will help you work with specialist freelancers as you grow, who can support the in-house team with certain tactics and deliverables.

And not only is a fluid marketing team structure beneficial on a practical level, but it also creates a culture and a mindset of adaptability – so your marketing team is able to roll with the punches as new insights come into view.

A huge thanks to John Darling for taking the time to share his expertise and insight. If you’d like to learn more about him and his company, Traction (with a ‘C’), you can click here.

If you’d like to connect with a strategist and build your fluid marketing team, Traktion has the best and brightest marketers waiting to meet you. Get started for free here.

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