What makes a CMO? In this case, we’re not talking about their skill or personality traits. Instead we’re literally talking about what CMOs have done to reach their position: their experiences and career paths.

First, let's talk about the “traditional” route. You join a large company in the marketing department at an entry-level position straight out of university, work hard, get promoted until you reach the C-suite. Whether it’s through grit and determination, or climbing a staircase of your defeated rivals, you make it to the top. You know the company you work for, and presumably the industry it's in, inside and out and know exactly how things have been done at every step of the ladder on the way up that (potentially decades long) climb to the position. There could be some variations. Maybe once you’re at a very senior executive position you might get headhunted or hired for the CMO role in a rival company or very closely adjacent one. Regardless, you’re still floating around in a similar orbit.

Sounds pretty dull and painstaking, right? Well for decades, this was pretty much how marketers’ career paths looked. Throughout the 20th century, business was dominated by big companies that had been market leaders for a long time and all tended to operate in pretty similar ways. One car company was structured and gave pretty similar working experiences to another car company. Same with cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, construction etc., etc.

And then at the tale end of the 20th century, the digital revolution came and changed everything. Companies had to become more agile, as tech-driven companies came, seemingly out of nowhere, to upset previous marketing dominances, often with unfamiliar working practices. Marketing had to adapt quickly across every industry, both in terms of the methods of marketing along new technological channels, but also the explosive boom of new products. Startups can explode onto the scene and be household names for a few years before disappearing completely (anyone remember Vine?).

People’s working habits have changed as well. New marketing roles and disciplines are appearing all the time (the concept of Growth Marketing didn’t even exist until 2010), and the fluidity of both the job market and companies mean your average marketer is unlikely to stay in the same company for decades at a time, often switching between industries at the drop of a hat, something that would have been unheard of in structured systems of the mid-20th century.

So how does one chart a course for the c-suite in marketing in these turbulent and exciting times? There’s still a place for the incremental career climbing in certain companies, but it’s becoming rarer. As startups continue to blossom, we decided to take a look at the CMOs of some of the biggest start-ups around, based on LinkedIn’s Top Startups 2020 (US).

We’ve gone through the career history of each company’s CMO, based on their LinkedIn pages (for the companies that don’t have a named CMO, we took the most senior titled marketing position, e.g. Head of Marketing, Executive Vice President of Marketing, etc.). The total pool wound up being 43 top-level marketers, as a few we couldn’t identify clearly who the senior marketing position was.

Now obviously, none of these people will have gone through the “stay at the same company for years climbing the ladder in the same company” when it comes to their current position, since, well, they work at startups, which haven’t been around long enough. None of them even went through the “climb then headhunted” approach. Instead we wanted to take a look at how important experience relevant to their current industry was, as well as which types of marketing they might have specialized in along the way.

Here’s what we found.

Do you need to have been in the same industry for a long time to have relevant CMO experience?

The simple answer? No. Out of all the CMOs/high level marketers we looked at, very few (11.63%) had career paths which went through the exact same industry from the start of their marketing careers to the industry that the current company they work at now.

In a more complicated answer: sort of. Most of them had some experience marketing in related industries. All of these startups are tech-based or tech-adjacent, and all of their CMOs had experience of working in the tech industry, whether it was for a tech company directly, as an agency with tech clients or even as a founder of their own startups. However, there was little definition in terms of switching between B2B and B2C, as most of them happily switched between these throughout their career paths.

But to further put an end to the idea that you need to be in the same particular industry for years to make it as a CMO in that industry, agency experience seemed to be a common connection, with 39.5% of the CMOs having some agency experience.

What skills and experiences have they picked up along the way?

It goes without saying that all of the CMOs had pretty extensive marketing experience. But what specific roles have they filled along the way?

Top of the list was brand marketing/management, with 12 (27.91%) of the CMOs having performed a position specific to that discipline. It was closely followed with 11 (25.58%) former product managers/marketers. Other key skills that appeared were:

  • Account managers
  • Growth marketers and developers
  • Demand/lead generation
  • Business/corporate development

That’s not to say other CMOs hadn’t developed those skills in their general marketing positions! However it does mean that your CV as a potential CMO doesn’t necessarily have to be a checklist of certain job titles to get to that position. Rather it’s about developing skills that you can apply to the role.

What does this mean for you?

The broad differences in skill sets and experiences really shows how applicable the skills you develop can be in different industries. Your B2B experience can be just as applicable to B2C and vice-versa. There’s no longer a simple checklist you have to follow to reach the marketing c-suite. It’s not a ladder any more, but a path that can be both winding or direct on a case-by-case basis. The one thing these marketers really had in common was creative ideas, passion for marketing and ambition.

Now this is by no means an exhaustive, comprehensive study. If you’re interested in a more extensive look into the career paths of modern CMOs, let us know! If you’ve had an interesting path to the position of CMO, we’d love to hear about that too.

Looking for more info on essential CMO skills? We've got a quick overview, right here.