As part of my work helping businesses develop and execute marketing strategies, overcome problems, and grow, I’ve managed or assisted in the hiring of numerous Head of Marketing positions.

In fact, before leaving my role at When I Work, I had to hire my own replacement (which is a rather odd sensation – in a good way).

In total, I must have looked at well over 1000 resumes and spoke to 100s of people for top notch marketers.

That’s a lot for someone who doesn’t specialize in recruitment. It’s even more when taking into account the fact that I’m hiring for very senior roles.

While I might not get it right every single time, I think seeing so many resumes and being a part of the discussion and onboarding that follows means I’m pretty adept at spotting a potentially great Head of Marketing. Here’s the process I use.

The Ideal Head of Marketing

Your ideal Head of Marketing may differ a little (or a lot) from the person I’m going to describe here. It depends on many things, including:

  • Your industry
  • The size of your company, and
  • Your company culture

All of these factors play a part in who that “ideal” person is going to be. That aside, there are certain traits and skill sets that I’ve found are inherent to anyone who’s going to make a great head marketer.

Experience managing people and projects

When it comes to experience, many marketing heads can be slotted into one of two groups. They either have:

  1. Experience managing people, or
  2. Hands-on experience managing campaigns

I don’t really want to hire either of these people (at least not as my next Head of Marketing – they might make great candidates for a different role).

What I want is to hire someone who has tons of experience doing both; someone with the charisma, people skills and confidence to manage a team, and the practical knowledge to help create, contribute to, and oversee the actual campaigns.

A T-shaped skill set

To take it further, in an ideal world, I’m not just looking for someone with experience managing projects and people. I’m also looking for a T-shaped marketer – someone with a diverse skill set that spans all disciplines relevant to the company I’m hiring for, alongside a deep knowledge of one key area:

“T-Shaped basically refers to having a light level of knowledge in a broad array of skills, and deep knowledge/ability in a single one (or a few).” Rand Fishkin, The T-Shaped Web Marketer

As illustrated in Rand’s article quoted just above, a T-shaped web marketer might look like this:

Chances are, your “ideal” T-shaped marketer will look a little different (unless you’re hiring specifically for a Head of Digital Marketing).

If you’re hiring for an in-house head marketer at an e-commerce company, you’re probably going to want someone with a solid understanding of both on and offline marketing, as well as knowledge of the unique challenges facing e-commerce firms, such as:

  • Logistics
  • Stock control
  • Returns handling
  • Complaint resolution
  • Website usability (especially mobile usability)
  • Customer retention
  • Global fulfilment (for brands that ship overseas)
  • Typical e-commerce sales funnels

These are just a few challenges that are either unique to e-commerce, or that present themselves in a unique way to e-commerce businesses.

Finding a Head of Marketing that understands these challenges and how to overcome them (and particularly how marketing plays a part in their resolution) is crucial.

This logic applies to everyone, regardless of which industry you’re operating in.

A SaaS firm is unlikely to value offline marketing knowledge as much as online. What they will be looking for is knowledge of things like:

  • Churn rates
  • Onboarding
  • Customer support
  • Executing effective free trials
  • Typical SaaS sales funnels

Hopefully this illustrates the point – that just because someone has a well-rounded set of marketing skills does not mean that person’s the right fit for you.

Sure, you can train someone, but the “ideal” is someone who’s ready to hit the ground running from day one.

Natural creativity

The best marketers are creative visionaries, people who are capable of stepping back, seeing the big picture, and coming up with new ways of approaching challenges and making positive changes to how the company is managed and marketed.

But how do you spot a real creative?

Look for candidates that display attributes that are typical to a creative mindset. For example, candidates who are:

  • Observant
  • Independent, and
  • Excited by new information

Beyond this you will want to:

  • Ask for examples of systems, changes or campaigns instigated and implemented by the candidate, and their impact.
  • Ask questions designed to assess the candidate’s creativity, or more specifically, their approach to tasks. Things like:

– How do you come up with ideas?

A good answer will indicate that they’re always coming up with ideas.

– What are your favorite tools?

A great candidate for this role will be someone who’s always looking for new and better tools, so a good answer includes tools that aren’t the “usual suspects” for your industry.

– On a day-to-day basis, what things do you find most frustrating at work?

This is a bit of a wildcard. However, a great answer would signal that the candidate gets frustrated by colleagues who are reluctant to learn and adapt, who don’t like change.

A passion for and understanding of data

This is where things begin to get tricky. Many technically-minded candidates lack creative thinking skills, and vice versa. That can make it difficult to find someone who’s adept at all of the following:

  1. Coming up with great ideas
  2. Bringing these ideas to life
  3. Understanding how to analyze their impact
  4. Understanding how to use that data to make better decisions in future

However, you’re not looking for a “data analyst” or someone with the creative aptitude of Picasso. You’re looking for someone in between, someone who can think creatively, apply their ideas, and measure their impact.

The easiest way to establish whether someone has what it takes is to ask them to talk you through specifically how they use data to inform their marketing.

Where to Find Them

There’s no single best place to find a great head marketer, so I’d strongly advise against limiting your search to one location or approach.

Sure, most marketers are on LinkedIn these days, so you might be tempted to rely on that and that alone. I suggest you don’t. It’s a great resource, no doubt, but in my experience it’s been far from the best platform for pinpointing potentially great candidates.

Those who spend a lot of time on LinkedIn and put a great deal of effort into their profiles are going to come across as better candidates than those who rarely use the platform. In reality, the opposite might be true.

“Poor” hires might try to attract new opportunities by exaggerating their skill set and artificially growing their network.

On the other hand, you might overlook a perfect hire because they’re content in their current role and have no incentive to keep their profile up to date.

Does this mean you should write off using LinkedIn as part of your recruitment process?

Of course not.

It simply means LinkedIn should be only one of a handful of tactics you employ to find your next Head of Marketing.

Other places to find great candidates include:

Job boards

Online job boards might feel a little dated, but social media hasn’t stolen as much traffic from them as you might think. If anything, candidates are using social media in addition to job boards, not instead of them.

In fact, 56% of candidates use professional social networks like LinkedIn to search for new opportunities, while 60% use job boards.

Basically, the more places you post the role, the greater your odds of finding the right person to fill it.

Ideally, try posting it to a mixture of general and industry-specific job boards.

Your network

I’ve noticed something a little odd going on with this strategy. When a company initially starts out, their first couple of hires are often people they know, or friends of friends. In other words, people in their network.

As they grow, they seem to forget that this is an option, and hire from outside their network.

I’m not sure why.

Asking relevant contacts if they’re looking for new opportunities, or whether they know of anyone who is, is a great way to find candidates – regardless of how big your company is.

If it helps, try implementing a recruitment referral scheme. This entails offering a reward (usually cash, but it doesn’t have to be) when a referral leads to a hire. Generally, the reward will only be paid out after a set period of time – usually once the new hire has completed a probation period. This helps prevent abuse of the scheme.

Influencer connections

This is a favorite strategy of mine, largely because it helps me find people that other recruiters are unlikely to be approaching.

Essentially what I’ll do is search for relevant keywords on the profiles of influencers’ connections.

There are a number of sites you can use to do this. LinkedIn is one. Unfortunately, LinkedIn only allows you to view the connections of someone you’re connected to yourself.

If you are connected to someone influential in marketing, go to their profile. The link to view their connections will be in the top right of the page. It will look like this:

Twitter is another option. Thankfully, you can view anyone’s Twitter connections (unless their profile is private). In this case, of course, you’re looking at who the influencer’s “following,” rather than who they’re “connected” to.

In both cases, you’ll probably want to keep scrolling through the list of connections or people followed until the page is fully loaded. This could take a while if the influencer has a lot of connections, so you may want to stop partway through the list or choose another influencer with a smaller network.

Once you’ve loaded all their connections – or as many as you want to load – you simply search for relevant keywords.

What these are will depend on what you’re looking for in a marketer. Don’t worry about searching for things like “marketer.” The majority of a marketing influencer’s connections will also be marketers, anyway.

Instead, try searching for keywords that are relevant to the specific skills you’re looking for, and keywords that relate to your preferred growth channels.

In my case, I’ve searched keywords like “growth,” “YoY,” “MoR,” “AoR,” “retention,” “churn,” and “SaaS.”

Writing a job description

During the early stages of recruitment, writing the job description is one of – if not the – trickiest things you will do.

Get it right and you’ll save yourself a lot of work filtering out suitable candidates.

Get it wrong and you’ll waste time attracting the wrong talent (or none at all).

So what should a job description for a Head of Marketing include?

Job title

This bit’s easy. It might be “Head of Marketing,” but depending on the specifics of the role, you might want to choose something a little more descriptive. “Head of Digital Marketing” or “Head of E-commerce Marketing,” for example.

Job overview

Before you run through the specifics of what your new hire will be expected to do day-to-day, you should give a brief overview of your company and what the role entails.

Remember what the candidate is likely to be looking for at this stage – primarily:

  • Whether the role is in line with their skill set and current abilities
  • If the role matches what they’re looking for in a new opportunity
  • Whether they like the sound of the company and culture

It’s also critical that you never forget the fact you’re hiring for a very senior role. Candidates at this level are few and far between. Great candidates at this level are even more rare.

Don’t think of the job overview (or any part of the recruitment process, really) as a chance to weed out poor candidates. Think of it as a chance to attract the best ones.

“Recruiting is about selling. In this case, the product you’re selling is your company. The job applicant is your sales lead. The interviews are the sales calls. Your job is to stir up enough interest among the desired job seekers so they consider your organization their first choice for employment.” Ken Sundheim, writing for Forbes

Unfortunately, when hiring at this level, the “best” candidates are in high demand. Attracting them with a job overview and description is only the first step in getting them to choose your company over another.

Here’s a good example:


The overview isn’t for a Head of Marketing – it’s for a t-shirt designer for ThinkGeek – but the takeaways are the same. The description summarizes what the role entails and the sort of candidate that’s suited to filling it, while the wrap-up hints at the company culture.

Key responsibilities

This should be a bullet-point list of the key responsibilities the candidate will be expected to take on should they apply and be successful.

I can’t tell you exactly what to include, but here are some typical responsibilities for this type of role:

  • Manage and lead a team of x people
  • Develop marketing strategies across multiple channels and oversee their successful execution
  • Ensure projects stay within budget
  • Measure and report on KPIs
  • Proactively seek out measures to streamline and improve relevant internal operations

Skills, experience and qualifications

The heading says it all – this is where you detail which skills, experience and qualifications you need and want potential candidates to possess.

This will generally be split into two sections:

  1. Essential skills and experience
  2. Desirable skills and experience

Be very careful about how you organize this information. You don’t want to deter applicants by grouping something you don’t really need in a candidate under “essential.”

About us

This is your chance to really sell the role to candidates. Why is your company such a great place to work? What do current employees say about you? What benefits and privileges do they enjoy?

Avoid falling into the trap of writing a “history” of your company. If a candidate wants this information, they should be able to find it easily enough. Instead, put yourself in the candidate’s shoes.

If you were considering applying for a job at your company, what would convince you to take the plunge?

Additional tips for writing a great job description

The information above is based on pretty typical job descriptions, but you don’t need to be “typical.” In fact, I’d encourage you to not be.

An exceptional job description will help you stand out to exceptional candidates.

Swap out generic headlines like “Key responsibilities,” “Skills, experience and qualifications” and “About us” for things like “What you’ll be doing,” “Your skills right now” and “Why you want to come and work with us.”

Drop some of the formalities and write the description as if you were talking to the candidate.

In addition to this, consider whether all the detail you’ve included is necessary. Shorter is generally better.

Approaching a Potential Candidate

As a general rule. you’ll be approaching potential candidates from one of two angles. Either:

  1. They’ve applied for the job themselves
  2. You’ve approached (i.e. headhunted) them

If you’re contacting someone who has applied for a job with you, you’re in a strong position. The candidate is looking for work and is interested in working for your company. That makes the approach really simple.

Just contact them and arrange a good time for the first stage of the interview process.

If you’re headhunting someone, you’re cold-contacting them. Sure, it’s not quite the same as a cold sales call or email. You want to talk to them about potentially coming to work for you. That’s a compliment – whether or not they’re interested.

That said, you still need to bear in mind that this person isn’t expecting to hear from you and that you don’t know whether they’re looking for a new job or what their current situation is.

I believe keeping it casual is key.

Contact them, ideally by email (phone is too intrusive and you don’t want to catch them while they’re at work). Send a brief, friendly email that outlines the role and what it is that makes your company a great one to work for. Wrap up by asking if they would be interested in chatting about a potential new opportunity.

You can refer back to your job description when writing this email – specifically the “Overview” and “About us” sections. Just be sure to summarize the information (yes, you will have done this initially, but you will need to summarize it further. Try to describe the job and your company in four sentences max).

If you get a positive response, arrange a time for a quick call. This shouldn’t be an interview, and it’s important to clarify that with the candidate. Explain that this is simply a quick chat to talk about their current circumstances and what you can offer them. The goal is to ascertain if they’re on the right page.

If you conclude that they are, it’s time to move onto the next stage…

Interviewing a Potential Candidate

When hiring for a very senior role, including a Head of Marketing, I tend to interview candidates in four stages.

Bear in mind that this doesn’t include the initial chat I have to determine if the person is likely to be a good fit for the company (and the company for them). That’s essentially a pre-qualifier that’s a key part of the hiring process, but I don’t consider it to be an interview, as such.

First stage: email

The first thing I do is send the candidate an email, asking them to reply with an answer to one question:

“Based off what you know about the company, what would you do in your first 90 days with us?”

I use this question to try to assess how the candidate approaches marketing leadership roles.

An answer that’s very specific about what they plan to do raises a red flag. Someone who says “I’m going to do this, this and that” is probably too junior and guilty of overestimating their knowledge level and abilities.

No seasoned marketer will know exactly what to do. There are just too many unknowns. The best marketers get this.

That said, I will rarely remove a candidate from the process at this stage. I still want to have a conversation with them. If I’m not happy with their answer to this opening question, I want to try to understand why they’ve answered the way they have.

Second stage: phone interview

Before meeting someone in person, I’ll always interview them by phone. This is largely because of the time and effort involved in an in-person interview. If I can gauge the person’s suitability for the role in a 15-minute or so phone interview, and they’re not up to scratch, I can save us both a lot of wasted time and energy in getting them to meet in person.

At this point, I’ll be asking questions that help me understand what level the candidate is at (I try to avoid making assumptions about someone’s personality until I meet them in person).

This is particularly important due to something I’ve come across – all too often – during the hiring process: the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which the less competent believe themselves to be more competent than they are, and the more competent believe themselves to be less competent than they are:

“The confidence-skill disconnect has been dubbed the Dunning-Kruger effect, after a study by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. Dunning and Kruger had Cornell undergraduates perform tests of humor, logic, and grammar, and then rate how well they think they performed compared to other subjects in the study. The worst performing subjects, whose scores put them in the 12th percentile, estimated that they had performed in the 62nd percentile.” David Z. Hambrick, writing for Scientific American

This effect is common at all levels; however, those affected by it can often – sadly – move up the ladder quite quickly – often by overstating their abilities to potential employers, without providing the evidence to back up their claims.

Thankfully, the higher up the ladder someone is, the more scrutiny they’re generally subjected to, and the easier it is to spot those who know far less than they think they do.

Some of the questions I typically ask include:

  1. How many people have you managed? Teams of two or three are relatively easy to manage. An ideal head marketer should have experience managing teams of 10 or more.
  2. How many people have you hired and fired?
  3. What’s your proudest achievement as a marketer? What did you do to achieve this?
  4. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as a marketer? What did you do after/learn from it?
  5. What areas of marketing are you most skilled in? Provide an example of these skills being applied and the results achieved.
  6. Which areas of marketing are you least skilled in? Why is this a weakness? Note: we all have weaknesses. An inability or unwillingness to answer this question is a big red flag.
  7. What do you find most challenging about managing people?
  8. Give me some examples of you how you’ve helped your current/previous company grow.

That last question’s a big one.

I’ve frequently spoken to candidates who are coming from roles at huge companies that have seen solid, long-term growth. What I need to figure out is how much of that growth the candidate is responsible for.

Say you had someone apply who’s been working high up in marketing at Facebook. That’s impressive, right?

On paper it might be. But it’s Facebook. It’s hard for them to fail.

“Head of Marketing at Facebook.” That looks great on a resume, but it doesn’t really tell you anything about the candidate’s skills. Just because the company has seen so many years of continuous growth doesn’t mean this candidate played any discernible part in it.

The lesson here is to avoid the trap of believing a great resume automatically equates to a great candidate. It doesn’t. Make sure you’re getting proof that the candidate had a noticeable role to play in their current or previous employer’s growth.

Third stage: in-person interview

By the time I bring someone into the office, I’ve generally formed a pretty solid idea of their experience, abilities, and weaknesses. That leaves the in-person interview to focus more on getting to know the candidate and whether they’re going to fit into the company culture, and vice versa.

While I will always have some pre-scripted questions ready for a face-to-face interview, what I really want is to get a conversation flowing.

I’ll ask them to talk me through a typical day at work. I’ll ask questions about their interests, ambitions and career history. This will always lead to a conversation that tells me far more about the person sitting opposite me than answers to routine interview questions. I don’t want to hear pre-rehearsed soundbites. I want to hear stories.

I’ll also ask them what they want from us. Not just salary expectations (although I will cover that at this point) – but what they want from their place of work.

Fourth stage: in-office visit

For the fourth and final stage of the interview process, I invite the candidate to come and meet the current team members and get a better feel for how we operate. They’re encouraged to ask the team questions. A reluctance to do this signals a shyness I’m not looking for in a Head of Marketing. Most of the people they’ll be talking to will be their juniors – many of whom they’ll be directly in charge of – so I want to see how they interact with them.

How much questioning I do at this point depends on the results of the process thus far. If I’m still unsure about their skills, I’ll sit them down and ask a couple more questions, or better yet, set an exercise that will help me assess if they can walk the talk.

Of course, I’ve not forgotten that I’m still selling the role to them. This is the final stage of the process for both of us.

Before they come in, I’ll refer back to what they said they want from us, and I’ll use the visit to illustrate how we can meet their expectations (within reason – If there are things we can’t do, I’ll be honest about it).

Choosing Your Head of Marketing

Once this four-stage interview process is over, I generally feel that I know all of the candidates really well. This can make choosing who to offer the job to really easy, or really, really hard.

Sometimes I’ll know exactly who I want to hire. When that’s the case, I offer them the job, hope they say yes, and we take it from there.

If I’m undecided between two or more candidates, I’ve got some work to do.

Here are a few processes I’ll follow to help me make the final decision.

List all their skills

Anyone who has made it this far should have a pretty diverse skill set, but it might be a difference of one or two skills that’s the clincher.

To help you compare candidates, create a list of every skill that each candidate possesses  (that you’re aware of, anyway).

Compare their strengths with your growth channels

This is something you would have done initially, but it’s well worth investigating further if you’ve reached this stage and are unable to decide between multiple candidates.

Check whether their skills and strengths align with your growth channels. If you don’t do video marketing, or app marketing, for example, it’s not really worth hiring someone who can.

Instead, choose a candidate whose skills most closely match the marketing and growth channels they’ll be expected to work with.

Rate candidates on key attributes

How do the candidates stack up against each other when it comes to critical attributes like creativity, data analysis and management skills?

As another comparison exercise, rate candidates on each attribute (bear in mind that there may be more attributes you value in a candidate than the ones I’ve just mentioned).

Check references

Pay close attention to what they say.

If you’ve already gathered references, refer back to them. If necessary, contact them again to get more information, or a reminder of what was said initially.

Ask the references very specific questions about the potential candidate’s skills and performance. Hiring manager Heather R. Huhman has some suggestions for what you might want to ask here.

Be very wary of references who refuse to answer questions, or give only basic answers. This signals that they were unhappy with the employee, but are avoiding saying so directly to avoid potential liability issues.

Don’t dawdle

While you shouldn’t rush this decision, you also shouldn’t procrastinate.

Don’t forget that you’re hiring for a very senior role. It’s unlikely that you’re the only company these candidates are talking to, so you have to act fast (within reason).

As you soon as you make a decision, call your chosen candidate and offer them the job. That said, be prepared to compromise. Salary; benefits; working hours – these are all things that can be up for negotiation when dealing with desirable candidates. Understand that you might have to fight to get the candidate you want.

As always, I’m keen to hear your thoughts. If you’re experienced in recruitment, let me know if there’s anything critical to your process that I’ve not included here. If you’re about to go out and start headhunting for your first Head of Marketing, it’d be great if you could come back later to let me know how it went and what, if anything, you might do differently the next time.

Image: Pixabay

  1. Hey Sujan,

    I always love to read your posts! Highly informative and ready to apply content in daily life. Thanks Man for sharing all this stuff. Specially I liked the concept of T Shape Marketer, it is well described. Keep it up 🙂

    Sushil @ Growth Marketers

    PS : I have already shared it on Twitter.

  2. This is a really detailed post, Sujan!

    The part where you mentioned influencer targeting caught my attention.

    In reality, few people do that. But it is a very potent technique for finding the right candidate.

  3. Sujan,

    Fantastic information. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience with us. Question?

    For a small company, is it always better to search for a Head of Marketing instead of finding a high-level agency that can do it all for you, hopefully at a lower cost?

    Just curious…

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