In this episode of Marketing B2B Technology, Mike chats with Mark Donnigan, a virtual CMO who works with tech companies. Mark shares insights into his career journey, discusses his approach to building long-term client relationships, and emphasises the importance of understanding the market and customers.

Mark also shares his advice on marketing tactics, highlights the value of focusing on go-to-market strategy, and talks about the importance of getting into the field to understand customers.

About Mark Donnigan

Mark Donnigan designs and executes marketing programs and go-to-market strategies to establish and grow markets for disruptive startup companies. As a transformative B2B marketing and business leader, Mark understands what’s required to succeed in today’s winner-takes-all market.

Well-versed in SaaS, software licensing, enterprise technology, and platform business models, Mark helps companies build efficient marketing teams that routinely outperform larger marketing departments.

Time Stamps

[00:44.0] – Mark shares his career journey and explains his role as Virtual CMO.

[12:57.0] – The benefits of hiring a Virtual CMO versus full-time CMO.

[14:45.0] – Mark talks about his approach to building marketing plans.

[18:42.0] – Overrated marketing channels and tactics

[23:26.0] – Challenges with fixed KPIs in marketing

[24:37.0] – Mark offers some marketing advice

[25:52.0] – Mark’s contact details


“Get into the field. Know the market. Know the customers. Know how they think. Know what they care about. Know how they make decisions.” Mark Donnigan, Virtual CMO.

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Transcript: Interview with Mark Donnigan – Virtual CMO

Speakers: Mike Maynard, Mark Donnigan

Mike: Thanks for listening to Marketing B2B Tech, the podcast from Napier, where you can find out what really works in B2B marketing today.

Welcome to Marketing B2B Technology, the podcast from Napier. Today, I’m joined by Mark Donnigan. Mark is a virtual CMO who works with tech companies. Welcome to the podcast, Mark.

Mark: Yeah, well, thanks for having me. Really looking forward to the conversation. Well, it’s great.

Mike: So Mark, firstly, we like to understand a bit about people’s background. So can you tell me a little bit about your career and how you got to the point of working with all these different tech companies?

Mark: That’s right, yeah. Well, I like to say my career is like all of ours, right? It was absolutely perfectly orchestrated. I had everything planned, knew exactly where I would be at each juncture. Obviously, that’s a joke. Yeah, so I am technical by nature. I do consider myself a technologist, but really I’m a marketer. I’m a creative. I play music. And, you know, so I kind of have this left brain, you know, this right brain thing going on, which, which I guess serves well in marketing, you know, the data side and then the art side of it. But I started my career, I actually did go to music school after dropping out of a computer science program. Long story about how that was, but that’s for another show. But yeah, I went to music school and I realized, oh no, not everybody is a rich rock star. And so I found my way into sales and started building my sales career. Along the way, I very quickly discovered the power of marketing as an accelerator to sales and revenue. Initially, I would say it was sort of just out of necessity that I began to really become a student of marketing. Again, I wanted to make my numbers, and as I was growing in my sales career and managing teams, I wanted my teams to make their numbers. You know, I took a very fervent interest in how marketing works and eventually took on formal responsibility for marketing, but always running sales, you know, it’s always in a revenue context. My career really pivoted more into the marketing realm, I guess you would say, when I started getting involved in startups and started doing a lot more around strategy, more business development, you know, looking out at markets, how are we going to build markets? What markets should we go after? where there are opportunities, you know, market inflections, all those things that you do, you know, when you’re growing, especially a startup, a technology startup that just sent me increasingly down the path of looking at marketing. really my full-time focus and so I’ve been living in the marketing world full-time you know or really I guess you could say in a dedicated way for oh a dozen years or more and been working in technology and technology sales for 25 years.

Mike: I love that enthusiasm around, you know, helping companies scale. I mean, what is it that really excites you about that? Is it the fact you can have a big impact in a very short time or you can see massive growth? What’s really cool about that?

Mark: Yeah, it’s a great question. You know, I actually introduce myself when people, most of the time I do anyway, when people say, hey, so what do you do? You know, I say I build companies. I actually say that before I say something like, oh, I’m a virtual CMO or I work with startups and help them in the areas of marketing. I usually say I build companies because really at the end of the day, that is what we all should be doing, right? But I believe that that is the ultimate mission of marketing, you know, really. And that may seem like a completely obvious statement. And yet I think we’ve all seen too many examples where, you know, marketing is a little closer to the arts and crafts department or the keeper of the brand. Important things, you know, look creative absolutely matters. And yes, brand absolutely matters. But, you know, when you’re building a company, especially today and especially in the tech world, there’s a lot to that, you know, there’s a lot to it. So yeah, I really enjoy the elements of building, creating something that, that, that is new and that’s, you know, fresh and different. That’s, uh, that’s what I love.

Mike: And one of the things that interests me is probably most of the people who listen to this podcast, they’re probably employed in a large enterprise rather than a smaller company. I’m sure they’re interested to know what it’s like to be a virtual CMO. What kind of engagements do you have? How much time per week do you work on each client? Are you working on multiple projects at the same time? Tell us a little bit about the role.

Mark: Sure. So nowadays, the fractional executive role, so whether that’s a virtual CFO, virtual CMO, virtual, you know, the whole C-suite is being virtualized, it seems. It does mean different things, and some of it is really based on how the individual chooses to work. So the way that I choose to work is I don’t do projects. So that is one model. You know, one model is to drop in as a virtual executive and maybe you’re kickstarting building a team. Maybe the CEO or the founder feels, hey, you know, I really could use kind of a confidant for six months while I’m trying to kind of understand, maybe they’re not a marketing person, they don’t understand marketing, so they want someone to walk alongside them. That’s fine. That’s not how I work. So what I do is I come into environments, into organizations where I can add value. That involves obviously bringing my marketing toolkit with me, you know, meaning, you know, all my experience. But it generally also means going into markets that I know very, very well. So very commonly, I actually come in as a subject matter expert in that industry. For example, one industry that I primarily work in is video technology, video streaming. You know, if you think, I think all of us probably have a Netflix subscription. So any service like Netflix that is streaming high quality video, there’s a whole set of technologies that come together behind the scenes to make that happen. That’s a market that I know very, very well. I just came from the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas. And I actually spoke on a couple panels and moderated an executive session. And so I’m out there not as a CMO. I’m actually out there as a subject matter expert presenting and speaking to the industry. So that sets me apart in how I work. And it also is an incredible differentiation when, you know, when there’s a lot of very, very talented marketing folks out there, marketing leaders, some who probably have way more experience and can bring even more than I could. But generally the fact that I know the market in a way that maybe another you know, marketing leader does not, is why companies want to work with me and why they do work with me. So, I typically engage for multiple years in my clients, typically two to, you know, I have an engagement coming up on four years and it’s, you know, it’s not showing any signs of ending. The working relationship is really, you know, well fit. So, works well for the client, if it works well for me, then we keep going.

Mike: That sounds good that you’re really looking to build that long-term relationship.

Mark: It’s the only way to do it, I’ve found, at least I feel.

Mike: No, absolutely, completely agree. I mean, I think I’m interested, you know, why people would call you in rather than maybe hire a full-time CMO. Is there a certain stage in a company’s development or have they hit a particular problem? I mean, what’s normally the trigger?

Mark: Yeah, very good question. So, uh, it can be at a couple different points. First of all, I don’t engage with real early stage companies. So if you think about it as funding rounds, um, I’m almost never working with, in fact, I’m trying to think. Actually, I have had one client that was seed, seed funded, meaning that, you know, that I actually helped them a little bit. but they actually were not a real long-term engagement. So typically they’re at series A to series B. They’re doing somewhere between five to ten million dollars of revenue. They are at a stage of what you might say is product market fit. They’re in a scale up. And so they call me for a couple reasons. One is, is that they finally have the resources to be able to build a marketing function beyond, you know, maybe a founder and a founder and a freelancer or a founder, a freelancer and a first marketing hire, you know, in other words, everybody starts, you know, pretty, pretty simple. It’s, it’s pretty much, you look around and you say, what do we have? You know, and if there’s somebody who took a few courses of marketing in the, in the startup, they’re usually congratulations. You’re now our director of marketing, you know, in a lot of startups, that’s the way it works. But the challenge is, is that that’s one way to get started. You get a website built and you can, you know, go to a few trade shows and you can kind of get something started, but it’s not a way to build a real. engine, you know, you just, you just need typically more experience. And so they’ll call me in for that. Uh, in some cases, maybe there was a failed high profile hire. Many, many startups fall into the trap of, they look at either who the leader in their, in their particular space is, or maybe somebody who’s, you know, who’s, um, one step removed. You know, and a common one that gets, you know, that gets bantered around is if we could just get someone out of HubSpot, if we could just hire someone from the HubSpot marketing team, we’re going to crush it. That’s what we need. So they go tell their, you know, their recruiter or their third party recruiter, or they start scouring LinkedIn, looking for an end to get somebody who’s, you know, looking for that next promotion at HubSpot, you know, to recruit them away. The problem is, is that those marketing hires almost always fail. They certainly don’t succeed in the way that most people plan them to, not because it’s the individual’s fault. but because there was a complete mismatch between what that company needs, the stage of the company, and the HubSpot, for example. It’s just a complete mismatch. And so I get called because sometimes, you know, the founder is scratching their head because they’re saying, but we love this person. They were an incredible fit for the culture. You know, they were smart. Look, they were at HubSpot for seven years, you know, and, you know, they were a senior member on the growth marketing team. and you know or fill in the blank right there’s always some rationalization that says you know we can’t figure out why they failed but the net result is is that we haven’t gotten any leads and they’ve been here 18 months and you know we’re not really happy with what they’re doing so what’s wrong you know help us out Then I come in and, of course, the very first thing I do is I tell them, no, actually, it’s not the person’s fault. And if you fired them, you know, that’s a little bit sad because you mishired. They were not bad. In fact, they were very good. You just mishired completely wrong person, you know. So the next person coming out of HubSpot is going to fail to go get someone from Salesforce. They’re going to fail because that’s not the stage you need. And then people begin to ask, well, what’s the stage and how do I know and, you know, help us here. So I get engaged and we start building a function.

Mike: Yeah. And I totally agree with that. I think sometimes previous success can be a real disadvantage if you’re moving from one situation to a different situation, because you, you try and do what worked with you in the past, but the reality is the world’s moved on and the company working for is different. Absolutely agree.

Mark: And it is complicated. I was listening to some folks on an interview show last week, and they were observing what we know to be true, is that The problem is, is that if you’re bringing your playbook, and they were talking about in the context of like CMOs, it’s well known that CMOs churn faster than any other chair in the C-suite. And so they’re having a discussion about why that is and then what CMOs should do. Like, you know, and one of the big takeaways was that stop bringing your playbook. By very definition, the playbook that worked, even if it is a similar phase, similar scale, same industry, they’re two different companies. By very definition, there is going to be a different set of tactics. You know, there’s going to be a different set of plays that need to be executed in company A versus company B. And too many senior leaders come in with kind of their playbook. And how many times do we hear, well, this is how we did it. Well, you should run from somebody who says that. That’s what I’ve learned anyway.

Mike: Absolutely. I agree. And I’m interested now, Mark, when someone calls you in, how do you go about prioritizing and building a marketing plan? What’s your process to start from the ground?

Mark: Yeah, good question, because like, well, wait a second, if you’re a virtual CMO, you work with all these companies, don’t you bring a playbook? Of course, there is a set of established, I like to think of more as like frameworks, because the way that I think of a playbook versus a framework is a little bit different. A playbook is a set of tasks or activities that you basically don’t deviate from. you might deviate slightly but basically you have step one then you do step two then you do step three maybe step four can be split to an a and a b path but basically it follows right that’s a playbook and you know those of us that played sports like you don’t deviate from the play you know the play is the play a framework is different though because a framework is a way of thinking that you apply on some prescribed challenge or some objective. And that way of thinking comes with tactics that you execute, of course. You know, like email marketing and email newsletters and the email channel is absolutely a tactic that you need to deploy. But saying that we always wrote our newsletter in this manner, we always use this voice, we always sent it on Tuesdays exactly at 3.34 p.m. Eastern, you know, as a play may or may not be the right thing to do. But executing well on the email marketing channel, of course. It would be probably fairly unusual to say, oh no, we don’t need to do email. And so I think of it as frameworks and that’s how I approach it. And I really default to first principles at the end of the day, Mike. I have just found that marketing is problem solving in a lot of cases. And if we approach from a first principles, then we start by, are we producing the value that the enterprise needs us to be producing? And the value, it might be direct translation into leads. I mean, obviously, it’s revenue, right? But it could be leads. There can be other ways that, based on the context, the business model, et cetera. But that all comes back to first principles, right? So if we say, wow, marketing is not keeping the sales team fed, well, let’s look at what is our sales engine? How does that engine work? Do we even have the right sales engine that we’re deploying against the market? And in so many cases, we don’t. And so marketing is viewed as failing, or marketing is the whipping post. And in reality, we need to go back to the go-to-market, which is why I almost always am involved in go-to-market strategy and go-to-market leadership, almost always. And 9 out of 10 of the companies that I work with I’m anywhere from, you know, involved to an influencer to even very closely working with the founders, the founding team, the executive management to look at and to make decisions around go to market, because marketing is not divorced from the go to market plan.

Mike: Now, absolutely. And I think you’re absolutely right that kind of, you know, trying this cookie cutter approach doesn’t work. Yeah. But having said that, I’m going to have to ask you, what do you think is maybe an overrated channel, overrated marketing tactic in B2B? Is there something you feel that actually people are trying that really you’ve not seen working?

Mark: OK, I would have said events, but people have woken up to events. But before the pandemic, you know, I’ll even say that some people should be very thankful to the pandemic because it saved them from making many, many more years of incredibly costly and just wasteful expenditures in events. I worked with one company that for two of the major trade shows, they were spending in the $400,000, $450,000, $500,000 a year. And by the way, this was after cutting back from like $700,000, $800,000, $900,000 in a single event. Single event. This wasn’t their whole events budget. This was one event. And here’s the here’s the amazing thing, Mike. I mean, this just just blew my mind. You know, mind blown is that they did not have data on even one deal that had been furthered in the pipeline as a result of their last event they went to. And yet, and yet the marketing manager who was over events was absolutely insistent would have died on the sword that if we don’t go with at least the same presence or even increase our presence, the industry is going to think we’re dead. But that’s one channel. The second channel, which is, again, this one though, people are still flushing money down the drain, Google AdWords, Google Ads. If you are buying Google Ads, I have to challenge you, they are incredibly hard to defend. Incredibly hard to defend. Go into your Salesforce instance and map, map your leads. Look at your CAC payback period. I just haven’t seen an example yet where somebody can prove that there is ROI. I mean, you’re just not going to get there. So I would say Google AdWords, um, you know, or just Google in general, stop it. Just stop it. It’s, it’s an absolute waste, absolute waste.

Mike: I think that’s interesting. And we’ve seen campaigns that really haven’t been very good. And I think one of my biggest frustrations is where you’re spending money on Google ads and you’re top of the organic search results because all you’re bidding on is your own brand terms. So I think, you know, it’s a difficult problem because attribution in Google ads is relatively easy, particularly if you’ve got online sales, but showing it’s incremental revenue rather than revenue you’ve got already is very hard.

Mark: Yeah, now just, you know, for anybody who’s like, well, hang on, you know, like, does that mean all paid is dead? No, not all paid is dead. So this is channel specific and it depends on what your intent is. So, for example, too many B2B marketers are running effectively direct response ads. Nobody wants to get a demo ad. The ironic thing is if we think about our own behavior, and you know, we all work for companies, right? So you think about your own behavior, you need to buy something for your business. Are you really clicking on get a demo? And then is that actually how you made that last purchase decision? Like, if we’re really honest, the answer is no, we’re not clicking on it. And even if we did, it probably was because it was for a product that somebody had already told us about. So then you’re like, okay, fine. I did click on the ad. I did actually legit attend a demo, but I would have just gone to the website and signed up or I would, you know, like I would have found it. So it’s not like I was just stumbling along, but using paid to promote content. in ways that I might normally not get that organic reach. Now that is, sometimes it’s hard to do. And depending on the niche that you’re in or the market that you’re in, I’m not suggesting that you can just buy traffic, you know, to your white paper. Also, you have to have content people care about, right? And it has to be meaningful. But that is an application where paid traffic can be very useful. But if it’s effectively direct response, you know, give me your, um, you know, your email address to download my white paper, get a demo, you know, kind of your very typical transactional direct response kind of mechanism. I’m just finding, at least I found in the markets that I’m working in, um, doesn’t work.

Mike: And I think, you know, one of the problems is, is that marketers get measured on certain KPIs. And the KPI quite often from sales is, well, we need demos, because when we demo something, we sell it. And the answer is, yeah, through the normal sales process that works. But if you try and game the system, just get as many demo requests as possible, the quality is very different. And I think That is a challenge, particularly for marketers in the enterprise environment, where they have fixed KPIs. To some extent, to progress in your career, you have to optimize for the KPI rather than optimize for marketing success.

Mark: So it’s true. The sad thing though, is, is that it keeps that marketer stuck doing the things that are working increasingly less. And it doesn’t give them the knowledge and the experience to grow in the tactics and the strategies and the, that are actually going to allow them to go into another company and do something meaningful.

Mike: And that’s, I think, an interesting challenge and some really good advice for people thinking about looking for a new role. I’d like to finish on something positive. So what’s the best bit of marketing advice you’ve ever been given?

Mark: Get into the field. Know the market. Know the customers. Know how they think. Know what they care about. Know how they make decisions. And all of this is like, well, yeah, of course, of course we have our personas, you know, we’ve gone out and done our studies like. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know you have. And chances are somebody doing that work did go out, maybe did exhaustive interviews, you know, maybe traveled, maybe shadowed the sales team, you know? So of course, somebody in your company did that, but was it you? How well do you really know like how that customer thinks? How are they making decisions? Yes, they’re telling you one thing, but what are they actually doing, you know, quote, behind closed doors? I’ll tell you this right here is the number one turbocharger, the supercharger to a career, to a marketing career.

Mike: I love it. That’s amazing advice. And I really appreciate, you know, all the insights you’ve given us today, Mark. It’s been fantastic. I mean, if somebody is listening, they’d like to contact you, you know, maybe they’ve got a question. Maybe they are looking for a virtual CMO to scale their company. How could people get a hold of you?

Mark: Yeah. So my website is And I I’ve got just a ton of resources up there, you know, for marketers who might be wanting just some more. I mean, there’s no shortage of, of wonderful resources out on the internet, but, uh, I am, I am proud of some of the things that I’ve written and put up there. So, um, and then LinkedIn, just Mark Donnigan. You will find me.

Mike: That’s awesome. Mark, thank you so much for being a guest on the podcast and sharing all your knowledge.

Thanks so much for listening to Marketing B2B Tech. We hope you enjoyed the episode. And if you did, please make sure you subscribe on iTunes or on your favorite podcast application. If you’d like to know more, please visit our website at or contact me directly on LinkedIn.