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Marketing Operations

5 Notes on Hiring and Retaining Marketers from Kat Cole, President of Athletic Greens

September 6, 2022
December 21, 2021
Mike Thomas

Kat Cole has hired marketers at an enterprise — Focus Brands, Cinnabon's and ~6,800 other brands' parent company — and she’s about to do the same at a nutrition startup. Here’s what she’s learned.

Table of Contents

If you’ve ever enjoyed a Cinnabon Classic Roll, a Schlotzky’s Deluxe Original or a Carvel Cookie Puss, you’re probably familiar with Kat Cole’s work. 

No, she’s not a chef. She’s the former COO and president of Focus Brands — the parent company of more than 6,800 brands, including the three above.

Cole spent a decade spearheading the marketing campaigns that kept folks coming back for more. Focus CEO Jim Holthouser also praised her for overseeing “a strategic transformation” and building “a deep bench of diverse leaders” during her decade-long tenure. 

Today, she’s president and COO of nutrition startup Athletic Greens — and a successful investor who sits on several boards, advising a variety of wellness, consumer product and technology companies. When she talks, people listen. 

Here are her valuable insights on hiring and retaining marketers. Like everyone else, we’re all ears.

B2B tech founders can start with freelance marketing orgs.

In their early stages, forces like word of mouth, product-led growth and good old founder hustle can get the ball rolling for these types of companies — and they can often grow without full-time marketing horsepower, Cole noted. 

Slack, for instance, went from being valued at nothing to $4 billion in only four years, without any major paid campaigns — and it only hired a CMO after it was worth $1 billion

Why did it work? The main thing B2B and SaaS orgs need a marketer’s help with early on is cohesive branding and messaging, Cole said, and it doesn’t have to come from a full-time team. 

“When you have communication needs, PR needs, media or brand work needs, then a fractional marketer or a freelance marketer can be a fantastic solution in the early days,” Cole said. 

“When you have communication needs, PR needs, media or brand work needs, then a fractional marketer or a freelance marketer can be a fantastic solution in the early days.”

One caveat: B2B2C brands — think Affirm or Instacart — should take this with a grain of salt. These are B2B business where “it's very important for that B2B growth for there to be consumer demand and consumer awareness,” Cole explained, and they may need a full-time marketer earlier on.

But B2C founders need a full-time marketer. Stat.

Early stage B2C companies usually invest in one marketing specialty first: performance marketing. 

“When they first start, they [typically] have a single product, a single brand, a pretty clear founder story,” Cole said. “The brand is quite linearly defined [and]... you don't have to go do a lot of architecture work.”

Instead, you need to A/B test constantly, drilling down into “how to talk about the brand and the product to whom and when.” 

Because they typically have a quicker sales cycle and higher sales volume than B2B companies, B2C companies benefit from a full-time hire who can iterate quickly based on performance data. Pronto. 

As time goes on, and the organization and product catalog grows more complex, the marketing needs will grow more complex too, and more full-time hires — including a generalist leader — come in handy. 

Ask marketing leadership candidates “if not for” questions.

Looking for an CMO or VP of marketing who can lead in the present — and set your team up for future success — is tough. 

“You're looking for people who can create velocity, who can function in friction,” Cole says, “because that’s what’s required for high growth.”

“You're looking for people who can create velocity, who can function in friction.”

To find them, it helps to ask a certain type of interview question —  like “Fill in the blank: If not for [blank], it would have been hard for me to succeed in my most recent role.”

Cole calls questions like this “if not for” questions, and they help you understand the resources that made a candidate’s prior successes possible.

It’s really important. A rock star at Coca-Cola or Facebook, Cole said, may suddenly feel hamstrung at a systems-centric place like Amazon. A stellar Amazon employee might flounder at a startup. 

Looking back, Cole says, some of her biggest mistakes came from “not being thoughtful enough about… how [someone’s] capabilities would translate in a different structure and environment, either greatly larger or smaller.” 

Don’t sleep on HR. 

“There's a point where it’s irresponsible to not have not have someone dedicated to [HR],” Cole said.

It could be a fractional head of HR, a contractor or an agency — as long as they instill HR best practices, they’ll level up your ability to recruit and retain the best talent — in marketing and beyond. 

They can help you train new managers, build a strong culture and avoid all kinds of crises. 

Unfortunately, Cole says, most leaders wait too long to properly staff these key roles, because some companies succeed for a long time without a formal HR team in place. But if a crisis hits, they’re scrambling.

That’s not a risk worth taking. The job market is tight, and consumers care more and more how workers get treated. 

“Increasingly,” Cole said, “your employee brand is part of your public facing consumer or customer brand.” 

“Increasingly, your employee brand is part of your public facing consumer or customer brand.” 

Boost retention with MMDD logs.

When Cole was doing hands-on work at restaurants during her time at Focus, she began “friction mapping” by passing around a clipboard and asking every employee to write down one thing that made their day difficult. 

She called this clipboard document a Made My Day Difficult log, or MMDD log. She then looked for the most common pain points and fixed them.

The more change that’s happening within an organization, she said, the more often you need to ask your collaborators — from executives to hourly workers — what made their days difficult. 

It can work wonders when workers feel empowered to speak candidly, and leaders have the humility to listen.

The overall framework that’s created then becomes a “primer for driving growth and progress in any situation, certainly in setting a new marketer up for success,” Cole said.

Mike Thomas
about the author

Mike Thomas is a longtime Chicago-based writer. His work has appeared in a variety of local and national publications.

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