The Individual Contributor Marketing Director

Master strategist meets individual contributor. They're a marketing unicorn.

The Individual Contributor Marketing Director
Photo by Marvin Meyer / Unsplash

In 2022 the tech sector in Silicon Valley began facing a challenging period marked by the consequences of an earlier hiring surge, inflation, and rising interest rates dampening venture capital inflows from LPs. By the end of 2023, reports indicated that over 260,000 tech jobs had vanished. The early weeks of 2024 alone saw nearly 25,000 tech workers laid off.

​One notable shift is the removal of middle managers and the requirement for directors to do more than just attend meetings. Bloomberg summed it up bluntly in their article, Meta Asks Many Managers to Get Back to Making Things or Leave.

In the process Meta discovered individual contributing executives, a role I've been doing on and off for the better part of two decades.

In a career touched by no small amount of good fortune, I collaborated with truly amazing people at companies like Cisco, Microsoft, and TinyMCE in technology, Universal and Warner/Chappell in the music business, and HarperCollins in publishing.

As my career progressed into senior marketing and growth leadership roles, the the firms I chose to work at required a combination of Strategy + GSD. I became an Individual Contributor Marketing Director. VP or CMO really, if not in title.

What exactly is that these strategic but get-stuff-done unicorns do? This post explores the value of a highly strategic marketing leader who maintains an active hand in the day-to-day.


Early stage growth companies face numerous challenges creating category dominance, and a critical part of their success is effective marketing.*

Along with a great product (table stakes) marketing is the force that builds brand, drives customer acquisition, and supports retention.

* Marketing Week columnist, marketing professor, and creator of the Mini MBA in Marketing Mark Ritson was once asked why he liked marketing. He replied that it was a great way to make money (for companies). Like Mark, I believe marketing is the most efficient and effective way to grow a business.

The Individual Contributor Marketing Director

In a startup or scaleup environment, an Individual Contributor Marketing Director (ICMD) is a versatile and multi-skilled professional responsible for executing an array of strategic and tactical marketing activities.

As the driving force behind realizing the CEO's strategic objectives, they possess a comprehensive understanding of marketing fundamentals, as well as the ability to manage third-party partnerships, devise comprehensive budgets, and oversee media purchases across various platforms.

According to Professor Mark Ritson, a "comprehensive understanding of marketing fundamentals" should encompass:

  • Market orientation
  • Research methodologies
  • Segmentation, Targeting, and Positioning
  • Setting quantifiable marketing objectives
  • Designing the marketing mix – Product, Price, Integrated Marketing Communications (Promotion) and Distribution (Place/Physical Availability).

Related, I'm an alumni of Ritson's Mini MBA in Marketing and am an advocate for that framework. The only qualifier I have is that startups tend to muddle their way through research during product development, and so the order of the stages isn't quite applicable. That said, all elements must be addressed as the business matures.

Marketing Strategy vs Corporate Strategy

In the words of renowned strategy expert Roger Martin, "corporate strategy and marketing are effectively the same discipline" (Martin, 2018). More recently, Mark Stouse, CEO at Proof Analytics, similarly said, "There is only one strategy, and it's the business strategy."

An ICMD must be adept at defining a marketing strategy aligned with the corporate strategy to deliver the company's growth objectives.

I am huge Roger Martin fan and believe his Playing to Win framework is a competitive advantage for startups that adopt it. It is in some ways a category playbook. It's worth the read if you're not familiar.

Mental and Physical Availability

In addition to the fundamental marketing principles in Ritson's framework, knowledge of mental and physical availability concepts is crucial for an ICMD.

As described by Byron Sharp and Jenni Romaniuk in How Brands Grow, mental availability refers to the ease with which customers recall a brand (aka, salience), while physical availability (distribution) relates to the accessibility of a brand's products or services (Sharp & Romaniuk, 2016).

An ICMD is responsible for building both to improve the chances customers will choose their brand over competitor brands or other alternatives.

HBG is a seminal marketing work and I don't know a competent marketer who hasn't read HBG 1 and/or 2. I acknowledge the criticism that it should be titled "how dominant brands maintain market share" but it moved the profession away from nonsense like brand love and over indexing on differentiation.

Long and Short of It: 60/40 Rule

Another important marketing principle for an ICMD to grasp is the "Long and the Short of It" 60/40 rule proposed by Les Binet and Peter Field.

60/40 suggests that marketing investments should be allocated 60% toward long-term brand building and 40% toward short-term sales activation (Binet & Field, 2013). By striking the right balance, an ICMD can ensure sustainable growth for the startup.

Along with "How Brands Grow," Binet & Field's work is fundamental to explaining how marketing works. It's core to how I approach growth. I note that the split varies depending on the company's growth stage, and that recent research indicates that "brand marketing" can deliver shorter-term revenue outcomes.

The B2B 95/5 Rule

The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute's 95/5 rule, as highlighted in collaboration with the LinkedIn B2B Institute, focuses on B2B market dynamics. It suggests that at any given time, up to 95% of businesses are not in the market for most goods and services.

This is a profound observation, and if it holds true under empirical research, means only 5% +/- 2% of potential B2B buyers are actively looking to purchase in a specific category at a given moment.

The rule (and let's not forget it is a rule, not a scientific law) has significant implications for B2B marketing strategies. It underscores the importance of brand building and maintaining visibility even when the majority of potential customers are not actively buying.

Effective advertising in this context works mainly by building and refreshing memory links to a brand. This approach ensures that when customers eventually enter the market, they recall and consider the brands that have maintained a consistent presence in their minds.

The rule emphasizes the need for long-term brand building over purely short-term sales-driven tactics, catering to both the small percentage of active buyers and the larger pool of potential future customers​.

Creating Engaging Content

As part of their role, an ICMD must be skilled in creating both long-form content, such as blogs and whitepapers, and short-form content, like social media posts.

Content remains a critical tool for building brand authority, the perception of expertise, driving customer engagement, and increasing brand visibility. There is a caveat, that this only works if tightly mapped to sales funnel buyer journey stages and executive buyer behaviors (psychographics).

I believe large language models like ChatGPT will render this particular marketing function redundant. By adding business-specific knowledge to a custom GPT (research, market data, segmentation, targeting, positioning, etc) GPTs will outperform humans in almost all cases. I believe this will happen before 2026.

Design Skills

In addition to content creation, an ICMD should be adept at using professional design tools like Adobe InDesign, Photoshop, or Illustrator. Your IMCD should be able to have a meaningful conversation with a designer about design principles.

For example, in a prior career I typeset books. Hundreds of pages, dealing with widows, orphans, and rivers. I became very adept at using InDesign and even to this day can deliver a print or digital asset if in a pinch.

Event Management

An ICMD is responsible for selecting, managing, and executing both internal and external events, which includes handling logistics, promotion, and booth scheduling, and show floor activations.

I am quite passionate about the power of events, especially in-person experiential marketing. I'll share my event marketing and logistics experience, and what it takes to execute a successful, lead generating event another time.

Pro tip: trade shows are, dollar for dollar, an exceptional value market research activity. Think outside the box ...

Budgeting, MMM, and Time Lag

Creating detailed and effective marketing budgets is a critical responsibility for all marketing leaders. That much can be taken for granted.

Ideally, they are well-versed in principles like Marketing Mix Modeling (MMM) and econometrics, which help explain the impact of marketing investments on sales and optimizing the allocation of resources across channels (Kite, 2019).

An ICMD should also be able to explain the time lag effects of investments by channel. As Grace Kite at Magic Numbers explains, "Marketing has a long-term effect, and investments made today can influence customer behavior in the future" (Kite, 2019).

Because most non-marketing executives don't understand marketing time lag, it's critically important for all marketers to be able to explain that these principles. For more about MMM, follow Mark Stouse on LinkedIn and Grace Kite at Magic Numbers.

Media Buying

An ICMD is responsible for media buying across all platforms, including indoor, outdoor, digital, print, television, and radio. This involves selecting the right channels, negotiating deals, and optimizing media spend to reach the target audience effectively.

This is an area where I have limited experience outside of digital platforms. I usually engage an agency.

However, I am highly cognizant that programmatic advertising is a fraud. My point being that not delivering a function isn't an excuse for not understanding it.

Speaking of programmatic fraud, here is some of what Bob Hoffman recently had to say about it:

The tracking-based online ad industry, and specifically programmatic advertising, has been guilty of helping enable ...
- Hundreds of billions of dollars of theft
- Years of imaginary marketing outcomes
- A generation of mis-trained, incompetent marketing "professionals"
- Enormous harm to responsible journalism
- The greatest threat to democracy since democracy became a common value among "civilized" nations

Don't hold back Bob. Although, he is correct.

Acquiring and Retaining Talent

Given the numerous strategic and tactical marketing capabilities that an ICMD is expected to possess, acquiring and retaining talent is crucial. Especially as the individual moves into a pure strategic leadership role, such as a VP.

Personally, I'm proud that my last three hires were all promoted either internally or went on to more senior roles in other companies. It's a testament to company culture and leadership.

I will write more about this in another blog along with a concept I call "humble marketing."

Hiring great people, enabling their careers, and humbling myself before the market is largely the key to my success.


In summary, the role of an Individual Contributor Marketing Director is multifaceted and indispensable.

Their expertise in fundamental marketing principles, along with their ability to strategize, execute, and optimize marketing efforts, significantly contributes to growth.

Acquiring and retaining top talent is critical for all businesses. In the case of a startup or scaleup, where revenue is not consistent and growth is paramount, the ICMD role is vital for long-term success. They are after all the driving force behind building brand, customer acquisition, and retention. If you can get your hands on one, don't let go.