Chief marketing officers have some of the shortest tenures in the C-suite.
Why? The reasons vary, but a big one is that there is often a mismatch between the C-suite’s expectations, the CMO’s perspective on what the company needs, and the metrics that define success.
We see this misalignment coming to the fore in initial interviews, reaffirming the importance of senior-level creative interviews and how different they are from other levels.
At the senior level, hiring managers will expect to see clear examples of your expertise, technical skills, point of view, and leadership style. Crucially, it’s also a time for candidates to participate in setting clear expectations for what their role is meant to achieve to prevent misalignment later on.
Let’s get you prepared for your job interview!
Hiring managers’ basic criteria
When you're interviewing for a senior creative role, hiring managers have elevated expectations. They are not only seeking someone with expertise but also someone who can articulate it clearly.
Communication is the first big element you’ll be evaluated on.
It’s true that communication matters at all levels, but leaders have to have the finest communication skills of all.
For example, a chief creative officer or art director with strong communication skills will more likely empower their teams to produce their best work.
Communication in this case is not only direct or verbal but also indirect and nonverbal.
Your demeanor, sense of diplomacy and tact, and even how you organize your portfolio demonstrate these passive forms of communication.
Regarding how your portfolio demonstrates communication — is it easy to quickly ascertain what you do and your point of view? You can show this with well-designed layouts and strategic visuals or clear writing.
Aside from communication, what is your disposition?
Do you lead with compassion and enthusiasm?
Are you able to inspire a creative or marketing team to reach their potential and beyond?
Do you get along with members of the C-suite and other department heads?
On that note, let’s explore this matter of expectations.
Who sets expectations?
Traditionally, it is the hiring manager setting the expectations and parameters for a new role.
For senior creative and marketing pros, this could mean the senior-most creative or marketing officer. Suppose you would be the most senior creative or marketer?
Establishing expectations would then fall to the COO, CFO, or CEO, likely with input from the next senior-most creative or marketing person at the company.
What's left here is a gap in perspective and expertise. Adding to this challenge is that many businesses are looking for quick wins or a solution to an immediate problem that only a creative or marketing leader can provide.
So we come to the crux of the matter — the interview.
It’s critical that you interview the CEO (or other C-suite leaders) about what they’re expecting you to accomplish and their growth plans.
Is the company focused on quick wins?
Is there an openness to longer-term plans such as growing the company’s share of voice through consistent storytelling, brand design, and relationship building (which are slightly more nebulous goals)?
Has the hiring manager clearly defined the metrics your performance will be measured by? If not, work on defining those with them and make sure they’ve given you the resources and information you need to reach them.
Working with your potential new chief financial officer is particularly helpful here.
Since a company’s first objective is growth (typically), you’ll want to connect with the CFO to discuss harmonizing marketing or creative with business outcomes.
As many CFOs view their more creative counterparts with a little caution (usually viewing these activities as costs rather than revenue drivers), understanding, if you aren't able to secure their buy-in outright, what they’re expecting will prove especially helpful when you assume your responsibilities.
Ask the CFO what their outlook is for the company. Where are the issues?
Do they see any growth opportunities that you can look at as well?
What do they need you to accomplish in your first six months to one year?
How much budget are they willing to allocate to your department?
For the more skeptical CFO, the company CEO can be a great ally in defending your goals, strategies, and budget requests. But you’ll need to ask questions that determine if the CEO respects your perspective and agrees with your methods before you can count on their support.
What your interviewers will be looking for
Beyond basic leadership criteria and setting expectations, your interviewers will want to assess your expertise.
A company designer or marketer may join the interview if the hiring manager doesn’t have a background in either and needs that perspective to fairly evaluate you.
They’ll want to know what some technical jargon (i.e., design system, quantitative user research, stets, gutters, knolling, kerning, layer comps, ad extensions, CPM, wireframes, etc.) they might have seen in your CV means or what it means to you.
Next, and this is equally important, how do you handle conflict?
It’s likely you will run into a difficult situation or two with vendors, agencies, staff, or even the hiring manager themself.
How do you respond to that?
Do you see it as an opportunity to grow and provide solutions? Do you see conflicts as a way to ultimately deepen relationships with others?
Your interviewers will want to get a sense of your emotional maturity and what your response might be.
They won’t be surprised by a rehearsed answer, but be honest. Choose your words authentically. If you’re interviewing for a leadership position, you know you’ll have to lead and you’re most likely aware of what that entails.
Finally, they’re going to want to hear your perspective. Whether it’s an agency or in-house role, the hiring manager will want to know your opinion about their work, about work you admire in the industry, work you don’t like, and even if you are involved in the industry outside work.
Communication runs both ways
Communication is not entirely on you as the candidate. Responsible communication on the part of the hiring manager includes letting you know ahead of time about the interview process and interview expectations.
For example, if your hiring manager is planning to receive a walkthrough of your portfolio, they should let you know ahead of time and how many projects they’d like to see.
External recruiters such as Elysian make a point of doing this. It’s a habit we encourage talent acquisition and hiring managers to get into as well. If you’re not working with an external recruiter, don't hesitate to ask the hiring manager. You can even ask, “What does the hiring process look like?" and "Is there a portfolio review involved?”
You’re a leader - chart your course!
Understanding. Effective communication. Point of view. Expertise. Decisiveness. Enthusiasm.
These are the main qualities you want to demonstrate when interviewing for a senior creative or marketing position.
Building a deep understanding of the expectations, aligning with senior leadership, and ensuring open and transparent communication throughout the hiring process will help you decide if this is the job you want. (As you start getting offers in, which is expansive and life-affirming?) If it is, you’ve set yourself up for success.
Lead with the vision of the job you would love and seek to inspire your interviewers as you would your team!