3 Risks to Watch Out For When Scaling Your Marketing Team

Premature scaling is one of the biggest reasons startup businesses fail. If you’re growing fast, how can you keep your marketing team from falling into some of the premature scaling traps? Here are three things to watch for.

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Risk #1 myopia

It’s possible to get too big too fast. Same thing applies to marketing teams.

Businesses (and marketing teams) fail for lots of reasons.

I was struck recently by the team dynamics described by former LinkedIn VP and Google advisor Fred Kofman in his interview with Srini Rao on The Unmistakable Creative podcast.

Fred talks about interviewing soccer players about their objectives.

He says goalkeepers will tell you that their objective is to prevent the other team from scoring, specifically by keeping that ball out of the net. The offensive players will explain their role as almost the exact opposite. They are focused on scoring, on getting the ball in the goal.

Initially, it seems like these roles on the team are focused on diametrically opposed things. Their task, their position on the field, their skills and strengths are all very different.

But, that view is shortsighted. We have a cliché for it, not seeing the forest for the trees. Because the ultimate goal of both the offensive and defensive players is to win the game.

Kofman’s description of soccer teams could just as easily describe marketing teams (or other departments) in a growing company.

Departments sometimes view themselves as separate entities instead of as specialties on the same team. They see departmental goals as a competition between departments for resources and accolades. It’s even common to talk about departments as teams or as made up of teams. But success is really only achieved by the company as a whole.

This macro-phenomenon also applies to individuals within a department. Individuals may see their function as a competition with others, rather than a holistic vision of winning together.

(There’s probably an individualist versus collectivist root to all of this, but that’s for another post.)

Risk #2 scaling without accounting for increased marketing team specialization as you scale

Companies are like economies. As they grow, they experience an increasing specialization of labor.

Companies are like economies. As they grow, they experience an increasing specialization of labor… which can kill them. 

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Marketing teams function the same way as they grow.

It’s not surprising. Specialization is efficient.

For example, Aaron Ross in his book Predictable Revenue (which has become the de facto playbook for B2B software sales) divides the sales function into a minimum of three specializations: sales reps, sales development reps, and customer success reps. He goes further and specializes SDRs into inbound and outbound teams. He reported that at Salesforce.com this division of SDRs alone was responsible for a 30% gain in efficiency.

In an early stage startup, marketing might be done by a very small team or even a single individual. One poor sucker writing all the copy, doing all the design work, building out a nascent marketing tech stack, the works. (I know because I have been that individual.) As soon as humanly possible, we aim to hire specialists who can focus and better execute specific functions.

Marketing sets a trend where growth is a transition between generalist to specialist team members. This is followed by the company as a whole. The more specialized these new employees are, the less comfortable they are crossing over into other territories. I’ve hired many designers and writers who specifically ask me, with fear in their voices, if they will be expected to do work outside their specialty.

The key here is to recognize that specialization creates unspoken separation. As a marketing leader, your job is to unite these disparate souls under the vision that we win as a team.

If you don’t the natural lines of demarcation can undermine your culture, erode your efficiency, thwart employee engagement, and ultimately leave you with a team that (to drop another cliché) is not all rowing in the same direction.

In the absence of clearly-defined goals, we become strangely loyal to performing daily trivia until ultimately we become enslaved by it.

—Robert A. Heinlein

Risk #3 failing to constantly reevaluate as you scale

The only constant is change. Whether your marketing team is still small and you need to inoculate it from competing against other departments, or you have multiple distributed teams that need to be coached to pull together, you need to continuously reevaluate the status of your alignment behind company wins.

Take a Kaizen approach to alignment across individuals, teams, departments, and the company at large.

If your company’s overarching goals are unclear, use your influence as a marketer to articulate some, test them across departments, and when you have buy-in preach them. Marketing has undue influence in communicating company vision throughout the organization.


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P.S. Courses by Fred Kofman around his theme of Conscious Business are available on LinkedIn Learning (Lynda.com).


@cmo_zen is a blog of micro meditations for marketing leaders, designed to help them find clarity and peace in the marketing maelstrom.

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