Marketing Executive Search Guide

Marketing is what drives today’s business success; drawing in new customers, bringing old ones back, and fighting off competition. But in order to drive growth, you need exceptional marketing strategy and leadership.  Which is what makes utilizing marketing executive search such a smart investment.


Marketing executive search is an incredibly important process for any company that needs to compete or grow.  However the process is not easy without the right support. As a business process, marketing executive search is best left to the experts who have access to and know how to communicate properly with the top talent.

Note: This is a comprehensive A-Z guide to marketing executive search, designed to help those unfamiliar with the concept. Experienced users should read our more advanced marketing executive search information.

What is Executive Search?

In the most basic sense, executive search is the identification, recruitment, and hiring of an executive-level business leader. Typically this term is used for only the most senior-level management positions; Vice Presidents, SVPs, EVPs, Presidents and “C-Suite” positions like Chief Executive Officer or Chief Marketing Officer.

This process is much more complex and sophisticated than the hiring process of a lower-level employee. Executives can singlehandedly wield tremendous influence over the success and growth of an organization. That’s something that has only grown over time as the global marketplace has gotten more intricate and executive responsibilities have grown.

Because it’s so important to bring the right leadership and expertise into the organization at the right time, companies are willing to invest more time, capital, and resources to make a good hire. This process has become a formalized discipline exercise with the help of a top executive search firm that has access, reach and determination to get to top talent.

Did you know? Some like to point to Thorndike Deland specifically as the “father of executive search.” Deland served a U.S. soldier in WW2 in Italy. He would go on to graduate from Yale, then begin the first specialized executive search consulting agency with his father in New York. Since then, the executive search industry has grown to a global field drawing revenues of over $12 billion worldwide. Read more on Deland’s life here

Executive Headhunting

A key component of effective executive search is what is commonly called “headhunting.” This term is used to describe instances where a company tries to recruit a quality candidate that is already employed at another organization. Properly recruiting top talent away from a place where they are happily employed is both a science and an art. Top executive search professionals understand how to discretely approach the candidate, get their interest, and draw them away from their current employer.

What makes marketing executive search so valuable to clients is the return on investment from the process. How much more value does an “A” player add to your business over a “B” or “C” player?  At this level the difference is millions of dollars per year. This is in contrast to more junior positions where the influence of each individual is more limited.

Internal and Outsourced Executive Search

Executive search can theoretically be executed by the organization desiring the new leader. They may alternatively take the safer route and partner with an marketing executive search consultant or marketing executive search agency.

Some organizations try to recruit and hire executive leaders on their own using internal resources, typically as an extended function of their Human Resources department. A very large business may even have one or more individuals internally who focus exclusively on finding and hiring senior leadership for various business functions. However, this comes with some risks. HR pros typically lack specific vertical expertise (in Finance, Operations, or Marketing, for instance) that makes it hard for them to know what kind of talent is needed. Additionally, the best candidates for a given executive position are often already employed at a competitor; directly approaching and headhunting them from a rival business is a very awkward endeavor.

Alternatively, businesses can enlist the assistance of a third party executive search specialist to find candidates and help choose the new hire. A top marketing executive search firm will have more experience pursuing and engaging top talent. They will have powerful networks of strong candidates and robust talent pipelines that speed the search process. And since they can protect the anonymity of their clients, they have more ability to directly engage great talent at competing enterprises.

What to Look for in an Executive Search Partner

Many organizations rely on a combination of internal and outsourced marketing executive search solutions, depending on the difficulty and sensitivity of the hire, the importance of success, the level of the position and the availability of talent. Based on how quickly the world of marketing and digital in changing, it is critical to have the right partner when bringing in a modern marketing executive.

Video Transcript: If you are going out to look for an executive search partner the top things you need to be looking for are most importantly they need to have expertise in the area that your searching out, right, so if I’m looking for a chief marketing officer does the person that’s going to be calling the talent understand and have marketing expertise? Have they done that in their background or have they been a recruiter all their life who’s a really good recruiter but doesn’t understand marketing because in today’s world as fast as marketing is changing you have to be able to engage the candidate in a meaningful discussion about their career and to do that you have to understand what marketing is today.

One of the things you will see today in top executive search firms and firms that are really good at recruiting the best talent is that the talent that is working for them has been there for a long period of time. If you’ve got recruiters and professionals with in their office that have been there for five plus, seven plus, ten plus years, then you’re talking to a firm that’s completed a lot of searchers and done so in a quality way. If you look and find that most of the people inside the firm have been there 18 months or less what is it you’re really investing in as it relates to your search and how do you know those people have had time to be successful and time to build a track record of success. Within the specific firm that you’re getting ready to engage, longevity is very important.

I think one of the big questions you’ve got to ask is your talking to an executive search professional about this being potentially the right partner for you to work with to find top talent and it really is partnership, right, because when you engage that executive search firm they have to be able to one, provide you with the best talent and “B” engage that talent in a meaningful way that gets them excited about your role, and “c” engage your firm and understand how to get things accomplished inside your organization in a way that your organization can digest that. Interviewing, hiring, isn’t normally on people’s plate so how do I make it so we fit that in in a world where executives have very busy schedules. And so the person who is your executive search partners has to balance all those things and at the end of it they have to balance the negotiation so there really is an art and a science to it and you can pretty much tell when you’re talking to someone on the phone if they understand that and have done that successfully.

Executive Search in Marketing

Executives exist for nearly any business function, from Finance to Operations to Human Resources. However, marketing executive search is particularly challenging and complex due to the rapidly-changing and intricate nature of marketing itself.

Versatility of Marketing Executive Roles

The exact composition of a marketing executive team will vary widely depending on the needs and organizational philosophy of a company. No marketing org chart will look the same.

A large marketing operation, like that of an active Fortune 500 company, will typically be run by a Chief Marketing Officer that directs big-picture strategy and marketing policy. Other titles for a marketing chief include Head of Marketing and Marketing Lead.

Under the CMO there may be several Senior Vice Presidents who will oversee large divisions of the department; including brand, digital, product, and other fields related to marketing.

Example: What It Takes to Be a Strong Digital Leader

Video Transcript: Digital marketing executive search is a very complex topic right now and it’s a very interesting time to be searching for a digital executive because you have to figure out what you need today and what you’re going to need from an organizational perspective to stay ahead of the curve tomorrow and those two things can be different and they are ever changing. So what it takes to be a strong digital leader is someone that has a strong emotional maturity because many times they are leading people in roles and leading people on the team in things that they have never done before and so they have to be willing to learn as they go and so there’s a high sense of intellectual curiosity that they have to have but they also have to be willing to have people on their team who are going to be experts in things that they are not and be able to manage and lead them through that and add value to their careers and help them grow even though they don’t know more than those individuals. And that takes a very special person and that takes a very mature individual. It also takes someone with a high level of intellectual curiosity so they can continue to grow as the organization does and as the world of digital changes.

So at MarketPro, what makes us different from everyone else out there is that we are all marketers by trade and training and so we understand what makes a fit. So we have the digital marketing experts on our team that can screen and vet the talent at a different and higher level. It’s important from a vetting perspective but in the competitive world of digital marketing talent acquisition it’s even more important when we reach out to the candidates and work to engage them in a meaningful conversation on why your opportunity is interesting. They are much more likely to want to have a conversation with us because we understand them and understand their career. In an executive search firm that’s a generalist and doesn’t really understand the world of digital is not going to get that candidates interest.

Under them will be any number of Vice Presidents, Directors  and other marketers who are responsible for strategy and execution of specific marketing programs.

There is a huge variety of potential marketing specializations. Some of the most common are:

Exclusive Video: How to Hire a Consumer Marketing Executive

Video Transcript: One of the challenges we see our clients facing when it comes to marketing executive search is definition of the role and too often they either don’t either have the resources or more typically don’t have the time or have taken the time to properly identify what they are looking for. And so we get a search and it’s about eighty percent thought through and eighty percent in a lot of ways that you’re looking at business, the old eighty-twenty rule works great, I’ve got eighty percent information let’s move forward. When I’m about to hire a marketing leader for my organization that’s going to transform how we connect with our audience and I need to have that fully vetted and fully baked and thought out before I move forward. And so if you look at one area of that which is just consumer marketing and how do I hire now a consumer marketing executive, it’s a very complicated area. How am I going to reach my audience? How am I going to engage with them? What do I need to do to segment that audience and what channels am I going to use to communicate with them? And all those things need to be thought through before I figure out what type of talent I need to come in and exceed my expectations.

So the difference by using MarketPro and other executive search firms is the fact that we’ve got so many other senior level searches that we work on from Chief Marketing Officers to e-Commerce executives and across the board that when we get a consumer marketing executive search we can help you look for the things that you haven’t seen and we can head off problems in the search ahead of time. So rather than getting to final stage with the last candidates and realizing that oh my gosh we missed something we are going to be able to see those things week one and week two in the search process or maybe before we even start down the path. And we are going to be able to help you identify those potential roadblocks, those potential pitfalls and get out in front of them so they don’t exist anymore.

At organizations with a smaller marketing operation, the highest ranking marketer might be a VP or Director of Marketing. Consider these examples of marketing executive team org charts provided by Hubspot:

Smaller organizations will have smaller marketing org charts with fewer senior leaders. And the structure must be adjusted depending on an organization’s industry, competition, budget size, and other meaningful factors.

Trends in Marketing that Affect Executive Search

There once was a time, many years ago, when marketing typically wasn’t considered important enough to justify executive search resources. In fact, marketing as a distinct business discipline is a relatively novel concept. Many companies didn’t even have a specific marketing department; and those that did largely considered it the “make things pretty” department.

However, in recent decades marketing has become more of a science than an art. As the discipline became more scientific and technology-driven, and its value more apparent, more resources were committed toward marketing tools and talent.

The evolution of modern technology and the digital world in particular utterly transformed the nature of marketing and, by extension, the marketing executive positions.

Instead of blasting out advertising messages and hoping some of them stick, today’s marketers can analyze which channels their customer base followed and target their efforts accordingly.

Brand new media like websites, social networks, on-demand content streaming, and mobile content provided a broad suite of new, highly customizable channels for businesses to connect directly to with consumers.

Sophisticated analytics and tracking systems allow marketers to watch where their money goes, follow customers through the buying cycle, attribute Return on Investment (ROI), and test to improve their results.

Effective modern marketing executives must be able to deftly consider and take advantage of these trends. But as they develop, they become more and more complex. That has made the job of a marketing executive exponentially more complicated, and finding the kind of leader who can keep up with it all is getting more and more difficult.

Marketing executives have an unprecedented ability to demonstrate their value and drive tremendous ROI in today’s world of technology. But because the demands on today’s marketing leaders are so nuanced, it’s also incredibly difficult to consistently perform on a high level. That makes them extremely sought after, but also quite uncommon. So marketing executive search has evolved as a distinct field to help businesses locate the individuals with the right character, experience, and skillset needed to drive growth.

When Do You Need a Marketing Executive Search?

A formal marketing executive search process should be held in any instance an organization is looking to hire a new marketing leader. Marketing today is too important to have it under the guidance of anyone that is not an exceptional marketing executive. The difference between an average marketing executive and a great one might not be apparent at first, but adds up quickly over time.

Video: Top Challenges of a Marketing Executive Search