Tony Harbron talks about marketing professionals and founders

7 insights on the relationship between founders and marketing professionals (hint – it’s often a difficult one)

I was intrigued to read an article from a heavyweight marketing professional who had gone to work for Brew Dog alongside one of its founders and found the situation unsustainable…

BrewDog’s former marketing boss: It wasn’t ready for a CMO [Marketing Week]

Frankly, I wasn’t surprised. The challenge of applying big brand principles to start-up and scale-up businesses and with start-up and scale-up founders has been a constant theme throughout my career.

I’ve been lucky to work alongside some amazing founders. Dietrich Mateschitz of Red Bull. Sir Richard Branson of Virgin (albeit to a much lesser degree). And most recently Mark Roberts of Lightfoot. I’ve also worked on and for numerous big brands (although mainly on the innovation side), built my own businesses and helped many founders. Some of these have gone well, others less so.

My take-outs:

  1. Founders are like parents, marketing professionals like teachers
  2. Founders might not know the law (or accounting), but they do know marketing
  3. Founders focus on the long- and short terms, marketing pros more the middle
  4. Founders struggle to respect people who haven’t had their own business
  5. Founders won’t really listen until you have skin in their game
  6. Founders might need help focusing but don’t suffocate them
  7. Founders who can straddle both worlds can smash it out of the park

(1) Founders are like parents, marketing professionals like teachers

Founders have brought their business into the world. They’ve made it be, nursed it through periods of doubt, crisis, indifference and somehow kept it alive. They are it and it is them. A marketing professional may care deeply but there is almost always an extra level of professional detachment. Likewise, they will never experience the same degree of control or its alter ego, responsibility.

At the end of the day, it is a job, probably just one in a sequence, and they will never be as defined by the business as the founder will be. This fundamental difference can make it hard for founders and marketing professionals to connect effectively.

(2) Founders might not know the law (or accounting), but they do know marketing

Ok, this is going to piss people off, but the reality is that where a founder might fully accept that they don’t know the law, and therefore trust a solicitor with few reservations, you’ll seldom find a founder who doesn’t ‘get’ marketing on at least an instinctive level. They might not know the tools or techniques, how to get good value, who to use and so on, but they do get the gap they are filling: the value proposition at its very essence.

They’ve pitched the business more than any marketing pro ever will. They’ve thought about it endlessly and refined it over and over again to get to where they are. And they won’t let go of this connection with the brand and its marketing (and nor should they). The marketing pro needs to work with them to refine their instinctive understanding, iron out the creases, and then deliver it.

Some marketing professionals will never be happy with that (as shown in the Brew Dog case), but it’s the only way it is going to work.

(3) Founders focus on the long and short terms, marketing pros more the middle

Founders usually have a really strong vision of where they want to end up. Their end game. And from this, they work back to what needs to be done now. Here and now. Today (well, yesterday, ideally ;-). Marketing professionals tend to focus their attention on a completely different time frame: the middle. They probably won’t be around forever (see above), so they have a plan to execute over the next year or so. They will be rewarded on the results achieved in their next annual review.

In some ways, this is perfect synergy with all bases covered. But in reality, it can cause tension, especially if the marketing pro doesn’t feel involved in the founder’s agenda or the founder doesn’t get why the pro isn’t delivering what he or she needs today.

(4) Founders struggle to respect people who haven’t had their own business

If you haven’t got or had your own business, you’ll struggle to get real respect from a founder. This isn’t a question of conscious discrimination (normally at least), but they just won’t connect or trust you as much. It’s similar to why it is hard to be a top-level football manager without having played football at the highest level.

Interestingly, I find founders often get on better with agency owners rather than big company marketing professionals, and I suspect it is for this very reason: in building an agency they’ve gone through their own version of what the founders are experiencing and founders, therefore, respect their judgement more.

(5) Founders won’t really listen until you have skin in their game

Related to the above, founders really want to see not just that you have been a parent in the business sense on your own, but that you have skin in their game too. The best way to break down any potential barriers is to have a stake in the same outcome the founder wants. And by this I don’t just mean a share in the upside, that’s too easy, but you need to share the pain if things go wrong.

Invest in the business if you can and if that’s an option. Or take a significant share of your fee/salary based on performance. When you are all in the same boat, and all have something significant at stake, you’ll really start to have the founder’s ear.

(6) Founders might need help focusing but don’t suffocate them

One of the biggest challenges for a marketing professional working with a founder can be helping them focus. By their very nature, founders are often imaginative, opportunist and energetic. They get excited by new ideas and see possibilities everywhere. By contrast, building a brand with a clear and compelling positioning requires ruthless focus. This can be a real clash and in my experience is often the biggest danger to an ambitious growth company.

My best advice is to remember that a founder, like a leopard, will seldom change their spots. They need to be entrepreneurial. And thwarting this will create all sorts of problems. However, just giving it free rein can, at worst, cause chaos.

In my experience, as a business grows, the founder needs to be able to step away from core operations because it normally isn’t their bag. They need a team they can trust to mind the shop while they are freed up to develop new initiatives. But to develop the parent analogy above, and let’s say their child is now a teenager, they struggle to let go. A strong board needs to assert itself here and help the founder come to terms with a change in role.

(7) Founders who can straddle both worlds can smash it out of the park

It is a rare beast who really understands what it takes to build world-class brand marketing while having the instincts and guts to be a founder in their own right. And when it lines up like this it can be magical. Take Dietrich Mateschitz of Red Bull. He started his career in marketing at Unilever and was on a classic FMCG marketing career path when he discovered the original Thai version of Red Bull while doing business in SE Asia.

He secured the rights to the brand for the rest of the world and gave up everything to build it. He worked doing new business at the agency that developed the “Red Bull gives you wings” campaign in return for their input. He sold cases of the drink to students our of the boot of his car to get things going.

It took a long time before anyone gave him a chance, yet throughout he had a crystal clear focus on the brand he was building. And he never compromised, even when it cost him short term results. No discounting. No cheap promotions. Instead, he built from the ground up but with a strategy he knew could scale to the size it is now.

Final thoughts…

Dietrich’s is a truly awesome achievement and one luck played little or no part in. But there aren’t many with his rare combination of vision, the experience of big branding and a total commitment to the founder’s life. So most need marketing people. As, indeed, did Dietrich. (and he was fantastic to work with, fwiw). But the marriage between founder and marketing professional is never going to be an easy one.

Hopefully, the insights above offer a few clues to avoiding some of the common pitfalls when founders and marketing professionals work together. Are you or have you been on either side of this kind of relationship? If so, anything you would add?

By Tony Harbron...

Tony Harbron of Growth Guides marketing, the Exeter based team helping founders and ambitious companies to scale up

Tony Harbron is a highly experienced strategist, innovator and marketing professional with time spent in both client and agency environments as well as in senior management (to listed company CEO level) and as an entrepreneur responsible for creating, building and selling a number of successful brands and businesses.

Tony was previously involved with numerous world-famous brands and organisations including Red Bull, the BBC, Ofcom, Lynx, Pot Noodle, Ministry of Sound, the FT, the Independent,, Virgin etc.

He is an innovation specialist and has run numerous workshops and seminars on creativity, new product development and idea generation.

His most recent venture saw him guide Lightfoot on their growth journey and he remains an investor in the company. Tony is an Oxford University graduate, an MBA, and a member of the Marketing and Market Research Societies.

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