Anthony Kennada began listing some buzzwords of modern marketing. Growth hacking. Conversion optimization. Digital spend. And it’s not just the marketer’s vocabulary, he concluded, that’s changing at a remarkable pace.
“I hope this comes across the right way, but I think the 20-year marketing veteran would have a very difficult time today at a startup in B2B marketing,” said Kennada, the vice president of marketing at the software firm Gainsight. “This world feels two years old. This is all so brand new. We’re just starting to write the history books about all of this.”
Oh, and Kennada is 28. But he is hardly unique when it comes to being a relatively young head of marketing – at least in the fast-moving technology space.
“One theme I do see at startups, regardless of what stage you are or how much money you’ve raised, is the new type of marketing head is much more in tune with the tactics,” added Hana Abaza, 34, vice president of marketing at content marketing platform Uberflip. “The 20-year veterans kind of lost touch with that a long time ago and got comfortable in the strategy side of things. But without understanding the execution, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to scale growth.”
Kennada and Abaza are among the younger breed of B2B marketing leaders who are leveraging the explosion of technology tools that offer an unprecedented ability to get their message in front of targeted audiences as well as show their impact on businesses.
They were joined by LeanData Chief Marketing Officer Adam New-Waterson and Terminus CMO Sangram Vajre for a recent webinar titled “4 CMOs Under 40” where the quartet talked about their roles in running marketing teams. While their backgrounds differ, they share a belief that relevant skills matter more than experience in the current marketing landscape.
“There is no playbook for what we’re doing right now,” said Vajre, 36, who also is a co-founder of his account-based marketing platform company. “You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. So I don’t think of age as a limiting factor in any way. In some ways, I feel that the older you are, the more baggage you have.”
The concept of youth being served, of course, is hard-wired into the psyche of the tech community. Young visionaries – sometimes barely old enough to buy alcohol – launching innovative companies are an integral part of the startup culture ethos. At the same time, marketing heads have tended to fit the profile of seasoned professionals with experience at branding companies, even when they’re at an early stage.
The emergence of marketing technology, though, has become a game-changer.
Scott Brinker, the chief technical officer at ion interactive and blogger at chiefmartech.com, said he’s not aware of any research examining ages of marketing leaders. But he agrees that it makes sense that tech startup CMOs probably tend to slant younger.
“From every survey I see, all the evidence is pointing toward tech- and data-savviness at the top of the list now for marketing executives,” Brinker said. “I’m careful not to infer anything about age from that. But I do believe that folks who have been doing marketing for awhile and don’t have the technology-data mix, they have to make the conscious decision to embrace it. The new generation of CMOs who grew up with digital marketing natively just have it as part of their gestalt.”
The 35-year-old New-Waterson was speaking at The Marketing Nation Summit conference last spring when the vice president of sales at a marketing technology firm made a comment about his job title at the big data company BloomReach.
“They say marketing technologists will become the next CMOs,” she told him.
“Funny you should mention that,” New-Waterson responded.
He had just accepted that position at LeanData – partly because he was the same kind of tech-oriented marketer the company wanted to pursue as customers of its sales and marketing solutions. But there also have been a few awkward moments along the way, New-Waterson conceded.
“I’ve had a couple of times of not being sat at the ‘big kids table,’” he said. “Once it was in a literal way at a dinner of CMOs because I wasn’t quite old enough to get sat with the older executives.”
Sodan Selvaretnam, the CEO of Chia Ventures, Inc., has written extensively about what he calls “The Making of the Next Generation CMO.” Selvaretnam believes this is an interesting time for the CMO position.
“There’s definitely a dramatic shift happening in the market,” Selvaretnam said. “Historically, chief marketing officers have been focused on the idea of brand. But when you go with a traditional CMO, if they’re not willing to dive into the tech and data, they’re sorely missing out in the current marketplace. So what these four young CMOs are saying is applicable.”
But, he added, there is a large caveat. Their point of view is skewed by working at tech startups, Selvaretnam said. It still would be considered a risk to have a younger CMO at an established company that is much deeper into its lifecycle.
“I presume the majority of CMOs who hold the reins of power are not 28 years old with just a tech background,” Selvaretnam explained. “They’re usually people with 20 years of experience. What it ends up, for me, is the mindset. It’s not an either-or equation. It’s a both equation. Does experience matter? It matters. So you need both.”
Ruth Stevens, president of the eMarketing Strategy consulting firm and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, also said she hasn’t seen evidence of a trend toward younger CMOs – but wouldn’t be surprised if one is coming.
“Everything that starts in Silicon Valley ends up happening elsewhere,” Stevens said. “If it’s happening there, it probably will spread to the rest of the world at some point.”
Julie Schwartz, of the research firm ITSMA, said there were plenty of youthful CMOs at their recent annual conference. But it also would be a mistake, she added, to think that seasoned executives aren’t adapting to the new marketing world.
“CMOs got to these positions because they are smart people,” said Schwartz, a senior vice president of research and thought leadership. “And they’ll assemble a team to get done what needs to be done. They’re not turning their backs on analytics or technology. It really is full speed ahead.”
Brinker is well-known for his annual Marketing Technology Landscape graphic – which currently contains 1,876 companies and is certain to grow when his new numbers are released in early 2016. That, more than anything else, may explain the rise of the young CMO.
“Marketing has undergone an interesting transition,” Abaza added. “Marketers are being held more accountable than they ever have been before because they have the tools now. They also are incredibly confused about the marketing technology landscape. Just trying to make sense of it is difficult.”
And it’s why, Kennada added, youth might be an advantage because younger CMOs have no assumptions about how there’s an established way of doing things.
“That old world doesn’t exist anymore,” Kennada said.
You can watch the video here.