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Below is the third installment in a short series dedicated to this topic. Read the first installment here and the second installment here.

Part 3: Common Pitfalls

As we saw in part two of this series, the marketing needs and challenges of a business tend to evolve as it grows. Along the way, those involved in marketing decision-making have the opportunity to anticipate these challenges and find ways to overcome them. And, of course, they have plenty of opportunities to fumble these decisions, too.

In looking at trends among small businesses and considering our own experiences, there are a few common pitfalls small businesses are often vulnerable to when it comes to marketing without a CMO. Today we’re going to take a look at these pitfalls and give some tips for how your organization can avoid them.

Lack of Ownership & Accountability

In part one of this series, I highlighted the need for someone to “own” marketing in the absence of a CMO. Without ownership, there’s no accountability — and without accountability, things tend to fall apart.

As a strong believer in the practices outlined in Gino Wickman’s book Traction, I tend to think of accountability as the glue that holds everything together. You can have the most brilliant strategy behind the best product or service on the planet, but without accountability, your team is probably spinning their wheels. 

All of this has been generally accepted among successful business leadership teams for a while now — in fact, Management 101 courses often teach students about the unfortunately-named “Ladder of Accountability.”

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(Image from

Despite its widespread adoption, for whatever reason, the emphasis on accountability hasn’t always been applied with as much rigor when it comes to marketing. (Cue a sad violin playing behind Rodney Dangerfield shouting “I get no respect!”)

For marketing to work, businesses need to make sure that someone owns it and they’re clear on what they’re being held accountable for.

No Clear Vision or Direction

I touched on this issue in a post I wrote a couple years ago on marketing and the role of strategic planning. Specifically, I looked at how marketing without a broader business strategy is a recipe for failure:

“In the cases where marketing moves ahead while there are still significant gaps in the company’s strategic plan, efforts can stumble in a few different ways. In some instances, the plan will be putting the company on a path for growth that’s not aggressive enough and the business runs out of capital. In other instances, the plan will require the company to grow in a direction or pace that it’s not comfortable with, or the plan will force the company to compromise on an ideal or vision that’s important to the leadership team but hasn’t been articulated.”  

Couldn’t have said it better myself!

In a smaller business with no CMO, there’s a decent chance there’s either no formal strategic planning process in place, or that the process isn’t enforcing regular alignment on clear goals and direction. Without this in place, there’s no way to ensure marketing efforts are getting your business where it needs to be.

Change for the Sake of Change

In the Harvard Business Review Issue that inspired this series, there’s an article titled “Reflections of a Six-Time CMO,” in which the writer Dan McGinn interviews Joe Tripodi, who has served as CMO of Seagram’s, the Bank of New York, Allstate, Coca-Cola and Subway.

In the interview, Tripodi makes an observation about how CMO’s often exacerbate their own existential problems: 

“The first thing many do after they’re hired is conduct an advertising review, hire a new agency, and launch a new campaign. That sets up an expectation that new ads will fundamentally change the trajectory of the business. When a CMO stakes his or her claim on a new campaign and you don’t see a demonstrable change, it suggests the CMO has failed, so the company gets rid of the person. The challenge might have been distribution, pricing, or product quality. Don’t think that communications can solve broader business challenges. At Coca-Cola, I was the seventh CMO in 10 years. I told the person doing the hiring: ‘Whether you hire me or not, this kind of turnover is not good for your company, and you have to find a way to fix this problem.'”

While the circumstances are a little different at Coke, leaders at small businesses are not immune to this same impulse. The marketing responsibilities might shift from one owner to another and suddenly, regardless of current performance, it’s time to give the old Etch a Sketch a good shake and start fresh. 

Of course, sometimes a fresh start is needed and the change is warranted, but oftentimes it’s just change for the sake of change­ — someone wants to plant a flag and make their mark. Whether that entails changing course on strategy, rebranding the website, hiring a new marketing agency or all of the above, this person has now created an immense amount of pressure on themselves to demonstrate results, while at the same time potentially erasing any momentum being created by the initiatives they’ve ended and/or the people they’ve replaced.

Lack of Marketing Investment

As we saw in our analysis of how small businesses are prioritizing marketing in 2017, there’s a big gap between marketing priorities and marketing budgets among small businesses. With over half of business spending less than $100k on marketing last year and over 40% spending less than $10k, it’s clear that lack of budget and underinvestment is a widespread phenomenon.

Not all businesses require massive marketing budgets, but the simple truth is that businesses reporting marketing success are the ones creating more touchpoints across multiple channels. With no CMO pushing for bigger marketing budgets, small businesses often underinvest or make spending decisions on the fly. If you have aggressive revenue goals but are not investing in marketing, you’re facing an uphill battle. 

There’s no shortage of tough decisions involved in marketing without a CMO — just as there’s no shortage of them marketing with a CMO. By clearly defining the roles and responsibilities of those involved in marketing, understanding how those responsibilities will likely evolve as your business scales and looking out for common pitfalls along the way, you’ll be ready to make those tough decisions with confidence.