How to navigate a career in mobile marketing

In my time as a consultant and in managing marketing teams, a career development step with which I’ve seen mobile marketers struggle is the transition from individual contributor into manager. Within the context of mobile marketing, an individual contributor is someone who doesn’t lead a team but owns some part of the marketing workflow and budget: maybe they exclusively operate a specific channel or maybe they are tasked with entire marketing program for an app. But they operate independently and don’t have any direct reports — and while some companies can grow to become very large with just one marketing person, most don’t. Building a marketing team is generally seen as a necessary step in a successful company’s journey, and most mobile marketers aspire to lead one.

But the metamorphosis from individual contributor to team manager is difficult and can be uncomfortable, even for the very best mobile marketers. The truth is that the skills that make a mobile marketer a very good or even exceptional individual contributor are necessary but not sufficient to becoming a great senior marketing leader (VP of Marketing / CMO). The purview is different and the terrain is different: even putting aside people management, there’s a wholly different mentality required in trying to make an app as big and successful as possible versus deploying budget as efficiently as possible.

In exploring this contrast, it’s important first to identify the traits of a phenomenal mobile marketing individual contributor. In my experience, the best mobile marketers exhibit some combination of the following set of characteristics:

  • They aren’t surprised. Mobile marketers oversee vast amounts of money — user acquisition is usually the largest or second-largest component of OpEx for a mobile-first company. It can be very scary when a mobile marketer is surprised by something: by campaign spend, by performance, by delivery, etc. A mobile marketer should always have cost controls and kill switches in place to ensure that campaigns can’t explode and waste tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars;
  • They pre-empt performance declines. It’s frustrating to an executive team when marketing performance declines because the marketing team didn’t pre-empt creative decay or geography saturation or some other issue that was foreseeable. Being proactive is important in mobile marketing: digital advertising is a mean-reverting system, and marketers need to be constantly looking for possible points of performance decline weeks or months ahead;
  • They are attentive to detail. There is nothing more exasperating than seeing a live campaign with a spelling error or with incorrect creative dimensions or localized for the wrong geography. When millions of dollars are being deployed per month, these errors can be costly, and frivolous waste makes an executive team very nervous and prone to micromanagement;
  • They don’t need to be told about problems. Most mobile marketing stacks, even the most sophisticated ones, are fragile given the number of external dependancies and third-party attachments (eg. to attribution systems, CRM systems, cost aggregation systems, etc.) they feature. It’s incredibly annoying to have to inform the marketing team that something is broken; these systems are expected to malfunction or crack every so often, but the marketing team should identify problems as they arise and fix them without prompting. It’s very relieving to hear about a problem only after it has been fixed; it is anxiety inducing to have to inform a marketing team about a problem, because it means they aren’t paying attention;
  • They are aware of their surroundings. Market forces are dramatically potent in mobile: the best marketers are aware of what their competitors are doing in terms of ad creative, product strategy, etc. and also of which apps are launching or buying aggressively at any given point in time. The best ad creative tends to come out of market analysis: looking for trends in what competitors are doing and innovating on those concepts;
  • They default to data. With the amount of data available to mobile marketers in decision making, it’s incredibly aggravating when a mobile marketer can’t justify a decision that was made with supporting data. The best mobile marketers default to data and analysis;
  • They pick the right companies to work for. Unfortunately not all companies build products that support impressive growth, and it’s hard to acquire the skills needed to become a great mobile marketer at a company that isn’t growing.

That out of the way, it’s easy to see that being great at mobile marketing is really just a matter of being disciplined, focused, and analytical. An individual contributor is generally given some amount of budget and is expected to make the most out of it; by putting in place the right cost controls and experimenting sufficiently, an individual contributor can iterate their way into marketing spend efficiency.

A marketing lead’s job is different: it’s to build sustainable processes that support both month-to-month marketing performance as well as the company’s larger strategic goals. There’s much less direction in work like this: it’s ambiguous, it’s far more assumption-based, and there are generally no “right answers” to the most important questions that need to be addressed, eg.:

  • How should we allocate budget across the portfolio?;
  • Should we run out-of-home campaigns to supplement direct response? If we do, how will that impact our direct response campaigns, and what’s the correct budget allocation?;
  • How can we repeatably build outperforming ad creative?;
  • Should we apply organic revenue to our paid campaigns? How much budget does that unlock for us, and what percent of that revenue should be thought of as brand value?;
  • How should we position our company vis-a-vis competitors?;
  • What’s the right level of resourcing on creative and testing?;
  • What level of growth should we model into our revenue forecast next year? How does that impact our finances and funding needs?

Note that this work isn’t more challenging or demanding per se, it’s just different, and some individual contributors struggle with adapting to the change in focus from very well-defined optimization problems to more nebulous strategy and growth problems. It’s common to see newly-promoted mobile marketing leads or executives revert to the work that they are comfortable with and neglect the process-oriented nature of their new job, creating a hectic environment that is mostly reactive and doesn’t settle into a natural cadence.

So how can individual contributors in mobile marketing prepare themselves for success as leaders? I believe there are a few skills and tendencies mobile marketers should acquire and develop as they progress toward a leadership role:

  • Understand the finances. It’s important as a marketing lead to understand how marketing spend today cascades into future revenues and what impact that has on the overall financial health of the company. This goes beyond thinking about LTV > CAC; it’s an exercise in building a forward-looking revenue model based on cost, retention, virality, etc. assumptions that will directly impact the company’s P&L;
  • Default to process. It’s important to apply intellectual rigor towards turning tasks and general labor into process-oriented workflow that settles into a cadence. Avoid thinking of things as one-offs: be skeptical of any work that only needs to be done once, and try to build a process for any work that needs to be done more than once. Make sure the team understands the logic and the purpose of processes; they should see why this repeatable set of guidelines makes them more efficient so they can settle into a streamlined routine that benefits from muscle memory;
  • Try to pre-empt the market. What new tools or ad formats or channels are coming to market in the next year? How is the company’s vertical evolving? What new players will try to enter the space? How will regulation impact the business? These are important things to think about as a marketing leader because they can directly affect the day-to-day work of the team at some point in the future. At the very least, a marketing leader should be aware of how market conditions could change so that they aren’t caught completely flat-footed if they do;
  • Manage up. A marketing leader is expected to not only direct their team to operate at peak efficiency but also to have input on the strategy and direction of the company. The things the marketing team sees about their competition and the general state of their vertical on a daily basis can be incredibly valuable for the strategic direction of the company when aggregated and distilled into a vision of the market. It’s important as a marketing leader to not only effectively manage the team but also to bring a market perspective to the broader executive-level field of vision;
  • Empathize and connect. Obviously people management is a requisite skill in any leadership role. I put this point last in the list precisely because it is so important; this topic goes beyond the scope of the article, but there’s enough general people management insight available for free on the web that I don’t need to specifically address it here.

The shift from individual contributor to team lead or executive is momentous: being successful as a leader requires deliberate, conscious effort at navigating that career transition (in other words: it’s hard work to be promoted). Given that the field of mobile marketing is fairly young and immature, most individual contributors haven’t actually worked with managers or leaders from whom they can take career guidance: there simply aren’t that many big mobile marketing teams operating efficiently at scale.

I believe that the above considerations can help a mobile marketer maneuver through a career evolution, but of course there are additional factors that come into play that are unique to every company. What’s more important than the general guidelines a marketer uses to grow their career is simply that they recognize the fundamental differences in the roles of individual contributor and leader.

Photo by Brad Knight on Unsplash