x close
Nothing to display...
15 min read

Life as a VP of Product Marketing: The motivations, innovations (and aberrations!)

Leadership | Careers

This article was adapted from Harvey’s intriguing interview on the Product Marketing Insider podcast.

For many product marketers, obtaining the title of VP of Product Marketing represents a significant career milestone.

While it's a target many aspire towards, very few truly understand what the role looks like, and what it entails on a daily basis.

In this article, Harvey Lee, VP of Product Marketing at Product Marketing Alliance, treats you to an exposé of what is expected in the position, focusing specifically on:

A typical day in the life of a VP of Product Marketing (if there is such a thing!)

Ironically, a typical day for me is anything but typical. No two days are ever the same, and I prefer it that way – I don’t want to be stuck on a hamster wheel; I’m here to make a difference and add value.

In my role at Product Marketing Alliance, there’s always so much going on that maintaining focus to ensure that I consistently deliver value becomes a key aspect of my job. Ultimately, my daily challenge is to ensure that the work gets done without succumbing to distractions, which can be all too tempting for anyone.

I have an old-fashioned approach to making that happen. Before turning on my laptop in the morning, the first thing I do is grab a paper notebook – my trusty Moleskine – and jot down the tasks I need to do that day in the order I’m going to tackle them.

Then, I check those tasks off the list. I measure my success in terms of completing these tasks or, at the very least, making progress on them and keeping everything on track.

I aim for an 80-20 split: around 80% of my daily work ladders up to my key objectives, and the other 20% is for unplanned work and ad hoc requests. I’ve worked in companies where it was the other way around – 80% of my time was spent on ad hoc requests, leaving only 20% for the tasks that would add long-term value. That approach breeds complete chaos, so I’ve tried to do the opposite.

So, my day is shaped by my key objectives and right now I have two huge ones. Firstly, I'm focused on developing the L&D strategy and insight program for our business, which is a massive undertaking.

Secondly, I'm heavily invested in launching our brand new business, the Product Marketing Alliance consulting business, which, after months of behind-the-scenes preparations, is starting to get off the ground.

I try to keep the focus on those two key areas because ultimately, they’re what I'm measured on internally. Everything else that I do fundamentally delivers against those two key objectives.

As we all know, it's all too common for any product marketer at any level to become the catch-all for every department. That stems from a misunderstanding of our role or a misinterpretation of the value of our role in many organizations.

When I've taught and coached in the past, I've always made the key point that as dry as the OKR framework might seem, it’s a great leveller and a great basis for your priority setting. By definition, it also makes it clear which tasks you won’t spend your precious time on. Everything can cascade from there down to the daily task list.

The challenges of the VP of Product Marketing role and how I overcome them

The major challenges I face in my role can be boiled down to resource constraints in three major areas:

  1. Time
  2. People
  3. Budget

All of these resources are linked, but time is the hardest one to influence. None of us ever have enough time (I even wrote an article about this recently). However, even though we can't create time, we can create space.

There're always resource constraints, whether you’re in a growing company like ours or even in a mature company. A company setup where there're no constraints is like the Santa Claus of business – it just doesn't exist.

After a time, the next biggest challenge is people. Not because we don't have great people – we're actually blessed with great talent. Unfortunately, there'll never be enough people to get all the work done.

The challenge lies in completing the work despite those resource constraints. There're so many competing projects and priorities that it can feel like trying to squeeze a bus through a straw.

It's not all about money, although money can of course be helpful. If you can get your hands on some discretionary funds for hiring external contractors, that can help you to move projects forward.

With all these constraints, resourcefulness is an essential attribute for any product marketer; you have to be exceptionally creative to get the work done – especially in start-up or scale-up environments.

Saying that you can’t do something for X, Y, or Z reasons just isn’t acceptable. Solving business problems in the face of resource constraints and getting the work done successfully is the ultimate measure of our performance.

How to measure the success of your product marketing initiatives

When you're launching a new product or running a new initiative, the reality is you don't know what you should measure.

I’d suggest that anybody who says that they do know what to measure is being a little bit disingenuous. We have to have the humility to say, “This is something that hasn’t been done before with an audience that we've never worked with before, and we don’t know what to track.”

One of the key superpowers of any product marketer is the ability to do insight work and hands-on research. That powers your ability to think through what the metrics should be, how to put them into place, and how to put together a program for consistent measurement.

Let me give you an example.

Right now I’ve got a new project in incubation, and the first thing on my list is to run a survey within our community and gather 10 and 12 measurable customer insights.

We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel with this survey – it’s just a scrappy little questionnaire that we’ll run for a week. From there, we’ll see what the market is telling us, which will form the basis of our objectives, which will then guide what we need to measure.

This sets an iterative cycle of development rolling. As every cycle reveals more insights, our view on what should be measured, how it should be measured, and what success looks like becomes more mature.

By the third cycle (if we get to a third cycle) we’ll know beyond any doubt what's important. We’ve taken this approach with a program that I'll tell you more about shortly and it worked beautifully.

How to use customer insights and feedback to inform product marketing decisions

One of the achievements I'm particularly proud of is the recent addition of a program called the Global Briefing to our offerings.

This began as an incubation project about a year ago, and we initially didn't have a clear starting point. The idea was born from a conversation between myself and Rich (CEO of the Product Marketing Alliance) where we discussed our summit in San Francisco.

We posed a question that became the catalyst for this initiative: given that San Francisco consistently attracts the largest annual attendance for our events, how could we make the most of having so many people gathered in one place? Stress testing this question led us to the conclusion that we should engage executives more directly.

From this realization sprang what might seem like a harebrained idea: why not embark on a tour of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley? We imagined the PMA leadership team, including myself, Rich, and a few others, visiting our clients and prospects, presenting our ideas, and interacting with them. However, it soon became clear that from a customer experience point of view, that just wasn’t going to work.

Out of that idea came another, inspired by the Bloomberg Breakfast briefings, which I watch regularly. Why not get people to come to us and brief them on our data? With this idea in mind, we decided to host a set of tailored exclusive events.

From there on in, we started surveying the market and engaging with our customers directly. I’m fortunate to have direct access to a broad base of executives worldwide, so I started talking to people in our target audience and developing a program based on their feedback about what they would find interesting.

We put together a pilot. I'm a firm believer in pilots because they provide valuable opportunities for learning and experimentation. I often echo a phrase that's popular in our community: "You just have to start." Sometimes, we tend to overthink things, and the best course of action is to just do it. Our Global Briefing pilot is a prime example of this principle in action.

Rich and I decided to put our money where our mouth is and host our event in San Francisco. From talking to our target audience, there seemed to be plenty of demand, so we found a venue and began inviting everyone we knew on the West Coast.

Even as we were walking down the street in San Francisco to the Intercontinental where the event was being held, we had no clue how many people would actually turn up. We thought 30 attendees would be a big success. Rich said he'd be happy with 15. To our delight, the turnout was fantastic! 50 of the 70 people we’d invited made it.

The key to this success was the insights we gathered in the weeks leading up to the event. Attendees wanted exclusivity, data that is not publicly available elsewhere, a limited number of attendees, and all of that in a quick event at the beginning of their day. These four key aspects resonated strongly with our audience and helped us shape the event.

After the event, we collected insights even more valuable than the ones we got before. Firstly, we determined our conversion rate by analyzing invitation views, secondary invitations, and turnout.

We also conducted a post-event survey, providing us with a wealth of information on the impact of the event and if attendees would return. We also got a very positive Net Promoter Score (NPS).

From these insights, we quickly realized that we had created an in-demand program that we could refine and repeat elsewhere. Thus, the Global Briefing as we know it today was born. While it's not well-known publicly – and that’s by design – we are planning to host an online version for a broader audience.

We've replicated this event in London and New York, both of which were oversubscribed and received phenomenal feedback. The upcoming online session will be our fourth Global Briefing, and then we’re not doing it again for a while because one of the insights we gathered was the importance of making these events scarce and exclusive.

We're doing just four Global Briefings in a year and then repeating the process the following year, starting again in San Francisco. It’s an annual cycle, and as we go around we’ll continue to gather new insights and ways of doing things by constantly surveying our attendees and target audience.

The process of gaining insights never stops. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking they can do some research, launch a product, and then they’re done. The reality is that for a product marketer, research is a superpower that needs to be continually deployed. There's always something to learn before, during, and after a launch.

The Global Briefings’ phenomenal success wasn't accidental. It was a direct result of the insights we gained and our programmatic approach to applying those insights. That’s what made these events so popular.

The importance of cross-functional collaboration as a product marketer

Cross-functional collaboration is an interesting puzzle for the Product Marketing Alliance as we’re a distributed company. About 30% of our workforce works from the London office and the remaining 65% to 70% is scattered throughout the country.

I'm a huge advocate for flexible working, but I’m also a huge advocate for working in the office. That sounds like a contradiction, but if you can find the right balance, there'll be huge advantages for your company, particularly if the people you work closely with are also physically present, which in my case, they generally are.

About a year ago, our leadership team started holding monthly in-person meetings, a change that made a considerable difference.

Before this change, we never had any face-to-face meetings. We didn't even meet via Zoom – all our communication was asynchronous. I've found that while asynchronous communication can be effective, there's a potential for things – especially context – to be missed.

I make a point of being in the office at least a couple of days a week. This enables me to have high-quality face-time with our CEO and other members of the leadership team, particularly those in sales and customer success.

I focus less on projects and more on people. At the end of the day, it’s your relationships with your coworkers that drive the collaborative aspects of your work. From an intangible point of view, this cultivates top-of-mind awareness, helps to build relationships, and establishes saliency with your coworkers.

Saliency is vital because when you can’t be physically together and your colleagues are working on a project, you want them to remember you and reach out to you without you having to jump up and down shouting, “Me, me, me! Don’t forget about product marketing!”

This proactive recall doesn't always come about naturally in remote work settings; it requires deliberate effort. For me, the best way to build that saliency is to be physically present.

Building relationships isn’t always prioritized in every company because the focus is often solely on the product. However, it's the people that should always come first.

At the Product Marketing Alliance, we've started some fantastic initiatives to foster face-to-face time for our distributed teams, even outside of project work. For instance, we had a company-wide online event last week.

How to structure your product marketing team

The question of how to structure, grow, and develop a product marketing team is an interesting one because the typical product marketer's answer is, "It depends."

It depends on the type of team you have, the kind of company you work for (be it a startup, scale-up, or enterprise), the company’s maturity level, the ratio of product marketers to product managers, and so on. There's no one-size-fits-all answer, but there are some general rules of thumb.

The data shows that 20% to 25% of product marketers are solo practitioners. That's a fair chunk of PMMs who have to figure everything out for themselves. Assuming they're in the startup world, they'll either grow into a leadership role or someone else will come in to lead and build out the team from there.

The starting point for me is determining where the team should sit within the organization. More often than not, this decision has already been made. About 65% of product marketers sit within the marketing team, about 15% sit within the product team, and the remainder are dispersed across various other departments. While you might not have any influence over this, it will definitely shape how you structure your team.

For example, if your product marketing sits within the marketing department, you're likely part of a matrix organization, serving many different parts of the company, not just horizontally but across the board.

Meanwhile, if you're part of the product team, there's a good chance you sit in a vertical team or a squad-based structure; it’s more self-contained. You'll still work across the organization to an extent, but the structure of the team you're in is more vertical.

These verticals can be segmented in any way the business chooses. It could be by audience, product, market, or a mixture of all these and more.

In this scenario, your team might be quite fragmented. For instance, if you have four verticals, each with a product marketer working with a team of product managers, there will be a leader overseeing all of this, who might be part of the product team or another team. I've seen this setup work in a thousand different ways.

In startups and scale-ups, I have a personal and professional preference for having product marketing sit within the product team. I think they can deliver more value there because of the amount of work that needs to be done around building a value proposition for the product and delivering market insights to the product team.

In larger companies, product marketers often sit within the marketing department, and the product team may be much further away. Regardless of the structure, the same or similar work needs to be done, but the way of working varies.

One approach I especially like is not having product marketing sitting in marketing or product but functioning as a separate entity.

Tamara Grominsky did this at Unbounce. It’s a way of making product marketing its own strategic growth engine in the business, which is exactly what it should be. However, for this to work, senior leadership must buy into the idea, which can be a challenging conversation to have.

One of the templates on our website is My Team Structure, found in the membership pack – it always goes down well with readers. This template shows how I structured a team in a former job not too long ago. I had three or four really strong people, each with unique skills, and I set the team up both vertically and horizontally.

To explain briefly, the vertical structure was based on portfolio type. We had three fundamental audiences and portfolios, each with dozens of products. Each vertical was responsible for similar deliverables around planning, pricing, process, and reporting.

There was also a horizontal dimension, which focused on responsibilities not directly related to the product. This included reporting to regions and taking responsibility for unique areas that aligned with each team member’s attributes and skills.

For example, one person was particularly good at promotions, another was excellent at business planning, and another, a research PhD, I put in charge of the competitive insight plan.

Structuring our team vertically by portfolio and horizontally by deliverables allowed me to make the most of each team member's unique skills and strengths. It also created an easily understandable matrix that we could share within the organization.

That meant if someone had a question about a particular market or portfolio, all they had to do was follow the matrix to find out who to talk to. Plus, this is a scalable model; the larger the team, the more columns you add.

While this was just a team of three, with me assuming managerial responsibilities, it worked very well, especially given the complexity of our business. If you're a solo product marketer or a small team with only one or two products, you might not need to go this far.

But in our case, we had an extremely complicated business with 56 products, three product marketers, multiple regional and sub-regional offices, and a head office on the other side of the world requiring daily updates. Structuring the team to align the team members' skills with our verticals was crucial. Before we did that, it all felt a bit chaotic.

That’s just one example, but whichever structure you choose for your team, that’s going to set the context for how you then grow and develop your people. It’s also going to shape your team’s objectives and how their work gets done. The structure is the starting point.

How to develop the right skills in your product marketing team

Once you’ve figured out where your team sits and how it’s structured, you’ll have a clearer picture of what its development is going to look like and the soft skills, hard skills, and objectives it'll need.

Unfortunately, there're often huge gaps in managers’ knowledge of what their teams are capable of, what their backgrounds are, and what soft and hard skills they have.

Brace yourself for a shameless plug, but we have a skills assessment program, which a lot of product marketing leaders have found to be really enlightening.

It helps them understand the dynamics of their team, identify strengths and weaknesses, and measure these against industry benchmarks. It's one of the unique services that PMA offers to our community.

The insights from this program allow product marketing leaders to better communicate with their senior leadership team the skills that need to be developed or brought in so that they can meet their objectives.

I take a data-driven approach to understanding each member of my team through a process like this. Not only does this guide me in filling any gaps, but knowing where my team excels compared to market benchmarks and where we fall short allows me to bring in the right people with the right skills during recruitment and training so we can get the best team fit.

The overarching consideration through all of this is our objectives. I need to know that I have the right blend of people with the right skills and experience to meet our objectives. That’s crucial.

In summary, approaching team management involves several key considerations:

  1. Your objectives: How do you want to structure and segment your team to reach your goals? This could be by product, audience type, or category.
  2. Their skills: Approach your team’s skills just like you’d approach a new product. What do you know? What don’t you know? Survey your team and use skills assessments or whatever tools you have at your disposal. None of these tools are very expensive and many of them are free. Take a data-driven approach to understanding your team and work with them to nurture their skills and abilities.

It’s a good idea to categorize their skills into two areas: soft skills and hard skills. It’s easier to teach hard skills – you just need to invest in courses and have your team members put those skills into practice. Soft skills, on the other hand, require coaching, mentoring, and nurturing.

This is the approach I’d take. However, as I mentioned earlier, team management is a complex area, and the best approach for you will depend on the size, scale, and maturity of your company.

Reach the peak of your powers...

The greatest product marketing leaders are built upon a strong base of continuous learning.

With the Exec+ Membership, you’ll have a bank of resources to enhance your strategy, leadership, network, and influence as a senior product marketer.

Get instant access to:

👨‍💻 20+ advanced courses

🛠 90+ actionable tools

🤝 Leadership communities

👩🏾‍🏫 Executive coaching

…and more.

Take your career to new heights.

Written by:

Harvey Lee

Harvey Lee

With over 25 years in senior Product Marketing roles for companies such as Virgin, Microsoft, Kaspersky and Seiko Epson, I help businesses of all sizes find the true value of their product or service.

Read More
Life as a VP of Product Marketing: The motivations, innovations (and aberrations!)