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Is Your Board of Directors Trying to Sabotage Marketing?

Posted May 26, 2024
Revenue Marketing Report Is Your Board of Directors Trying to Sabotage Marketing?

Jenn Steele, CEO & Co-Founder of SoundGTM, joins our host, Camela Thompson, Go-To-Market Thought Leader and B2B Insights Expert, in this episode of the Revenue Marketing Report. Jenn shares her extensive experience reporting to the board as a CMO and CRO and how that impacts her view as a CEO. This also gives us an interesting peek behind the curtain to get some insight into why things seem so strained for marketers in the boardroom.

I’m excited for you and excited about today’s topic because like you mentioned in your introduction, you’ve got a lot of different perspectives to pull from there. Our topic today is, is your board trying to sabotage marketing and is that click-baity or does that really exist?

“Well, the answer is yes when you’re sitting in the boardroom and you are the CMO, it sure feels like the board is trying to sabotage marketing sometimes, doesn’t it? Or they’re trying to ask, why aren’t we in the Super Bowl commercial? It’s because we’re a $50 million-a-year company and nobody cares that we sell an ABM platform, things like that. When you hear them in the boardroom, you wonder, aren’t you setting me up to fail? What is going on here!”

I think the struggle here, yes, the words are probably a little too strong, we’ve got a lot of people in the boardroom who don’t have practical business experience. We have very few marketers in the boardroom.

“Yes. And we add that to how many founders have been in the boardroom before they’re running their own boards, especially when we talk about startups. Let’s set aside public boards because they are trying and they’re staffed with business people. But, of course, a publicly traded company is very different from a startup. 

“We have tons of startups and I’m going to assume that you talk tons of startups, and realized, and now I’ve ascertained, hey, when I was a CMO sitting there thinking my startup CEO was a complete idiot, it was because I had presented to six different boards and he presented to none before. In fact, he had never been an executive, had never been any of those things. I wish I’d realized that a little bit earlier in my career. Perhaps I should have given some people a bit more grace because they don’t know how to manage a board or their investors. 

“So it’s like they could fire them. There is so much power the board has over this poor CEO who just had a brilliant product idea and was trying to take it to market. The CEO barely understands marketing. Now you’re trying to ask a CEO who doesn’t understand marketing to defend it to a board that also doesn’t understand marketing because they are professional VCs or maybe they are former founders. But the chances are slim that any of them has spent any time in marketing. And, of course, you’re going to feel sabotaged.”

I like that call out, they don’t necessarily have a lot of experience and I have talked to a few people who have gone from CEO to board and they realized I can say no to some things, but I just have to have a good reason. When it comes to a board that wants to see website metrics, social media following, that sort of thing, I feel like the marketer and the CEO need to be on the same page and be able to educate it.

“And if the board is asking for something as granular as social media metrics, something has gone wrong way further up because thinking about it, if they are grasping at metrics that we know barely matter, then how dire is the situation in their minds?”

I agree with that 100%. The only time I have heard that asked is when something was going really wrong, and fortunately, I wasn’t the CMO.

“I know, just to be clear, we have a lot of CMOs these days that are trying for the #2 spot, I don’t want to deal with that BS anymore.”

Yeah, a little buffer room is nice.

“I went the other direction. I went up instead of down, but it’s the same thing. I don’t know If you could pay me enough to be CMO anymore.”

I did enjoy being in the boardroom. It was a lot of pressure. However, I noticed that if you know your data and you can prove you know your data and you’re talking about the right points, so: what was the result? What went right? What went wrong? And what are you changing? That is the story you need to tell. As long as you stick to that, it usually goes pretty well.

“If you have a data-driven board, yes.”

Yeah. I lucked it out on that one.

“Yeah. I have been in companies that have a CEO who cares more about PR mentions and then I’m trying to go to the board with numbers and he says, yes, but go with pretty pictures and I’m like, yes that is not going to bother anyone at all. It is really tough. I think as a CMO, especially if you’re not convinced whether your CEO and the board are even aligned, it is hard to know what to go to the board with. 

“I would say this feeds right back into when you know your numbers, they don’t actually care about marketing, they care about revenue, and then in so far as it deals with revenue, they care about pipeline. So unless you can show that you are driving pipeline or you are accelerating time to close or something that their tiny little brains can understand. I’m kidding. It does take at least political connections and maybe some intelligence to get on a board. If you can’t tie yourself to sales then you’re going to have a hard time. But you also need to be flashy, because they do know in the back of their little heads that PR and brand matter, though they don’t know how.

“So you have folks and what they really care about is sales, pipeline, and revenue. They think they can make a Pringles commercial, right, because they watch TV all the time, and they know how to do marketing. If you only prove one or the other, then I think that’s where we get into trouble with boards is that you don’t show you can do the marketing as they consider marketing, which is basically brand or PR. 

If you don’t show that, then you’re only halfway there you may as well go answer the CRO because after all, what you’re doing is pipeline revenue. On the flip side, if you’re only doing flashy events and you are spending all this time and money on brand and stuff like that and you don’t tie yourself sales, then you’re the first people to get cut because they don’t see that it matters. So marketing is a balance, we’ve to put that balance in front of the board.”

Right, honestly, I was thinking of it from a couple of perspectives. One is that they’ve got a playbook that they have seen in B2B for 25 years and they just want to do that again.

“That doesn’t work anymore.”

“Right! Recency bias is good in marketing. However, before we get there, I think your point is smart in that one, you’ve got to check and see where your CEO is in terms of experience and relationship with the board. They want to control the narrative. How you present is going to be closely tied to them for better or worse.

“Ideally, you can have that conversation, you can say, if you have a data-driven CEO who only wants to show the numbers, you can say absolutely! Here’s the numbers slide, but I am super proud of what the marketing team has done. Let’s show some of it to the board plus it’s pretty and flashy and some of them are going to expect us to look pretty and flashy. Or you’ve got the opposite conversation, yes, I am absolutely super proud of what our brand has done, but I’m also super proud of my team’s contribution to pipeline and revenue and I’d like them to see how sales and marketing are working together to make us more money.”

So we are going to get into that in a bit. But I’m curious about how you would advise a CMO on your team? It’s interesting. I wouldn’t want to be a CMO now since we can’t control the market and we’re often the first to be blamed for lack of pipeline and bookings. How would you coach a CMO walking because I don’t know how to handle the situation well, when there’s either a lack of sales, methodology, structure, and rigor. You can’t point at them because you can only point at what you can control.

“Yes, this one is tough since I think CMOs get into trouble for a lot of reasons and I have done most of these. Just to be fully transparent, there’s the CMO who comes in and knows they’re the subject matter expert and doesn’t quite give the CEO what he/she says they need because it’s stupid in their minds. Why do you want that? That is the dumbest thing I’ve heard and sometimes it’s dumb. Honestly,  a lot of CEOs aren’t rational human beings or they heard something cool on some SaaSter podcast or something they expect you to come back with, but you can’t fully ignore it. You can try to have the conversation around it, but sometimes there’s going to be stuff you have got to do. And so coming in and saying I’m the subject matter and the expert here and you are an idiot, it doesn’t always work. In fact, it never works.


“Yet, on the other side, overcorrecting for that you become an order-taker. You do exactly what the CEO says and then the CEO in the back of their mind thinks why did I hire you? And so then they start ordering you to do stupid things. If you never say, hey, how does this tie back to the metrics you need for the next funding round? 

If you’ve never pushed back and said, you’re trying to deliver and deliver, you are going to burn out. And your CEO is going to question, why did I hire this person because everything is coming out of my brain? Granted, I’m exaggerating here for effect, but these are still true and you can’t be either modality. You have to be both. You’ve to say I’m coming in as a CMO and this means that the CEO has probably hired me for one or two reasons. One, is the CEO knows that they don’t know this stuff and trusts me to do it or the CEO can’t fit this in their schedule anymore and therefore needs somebody to do it. And I need to figure out which of those it is. 

Quite frankly, it is probably a mix. You need to say, what do you need to see? And when stuff that doesn’t make sense, you can say, hey, I’m new here. This doesn’t make sense to me. How does this tie back? And if they say, oh, it doesn’t tie back, then it’s great. Tell me, why do you think we need to do it? Then, if it’s something like, well, I hear that our ICP likes it! Awesome! I’m going to go interview a bunch of our ICPs which you should be doing anyhow as the CMO. I’m going to listen to a bunch of sales calls, etc, and give my recommendations around this thing. Perhaps we should do more of it. Maybe we should do more of it. Maybe we should do less of it, but let’s find out together since unfortunately, a lot of CEOs are only as good as the last person they talk to.”

Yeah, but I like your recommendation because of the playback tape. Gold, it’s gold. Unless they’ve got some serious ego issues and hate being proven wrong.”

Well, it’s time to look for a new job, what can we say? I could talk about this all day. Jenn, the board, it’s sabotaging us sometimes, but building an aligned business, that’s our next topic.  

For more content on B2B marketing trends, listen to the full Revenue Marketing Report episode at the top of the article or anywhere you podcast.

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