In Search of the Mythical VP Sales & Marketing

I have to admit to harboring an extreme prejudice.

It rears its ugly head when a start up CEO comes into our office to take us through their business, introduces the management team and describes one of the executives as the “VP Sales & Marketing”.

At that point, I stop listening and start thinking about how I can end the meeting on a professional note. Like the mythical Unicorn, I don’t believe in the mythical VP Sales & Marketing. Actually, I am more likely to believe in Unicorns than a VP Sales & Marketing.

Why? Simple. Sales and Marketing are vastly different functions that require substantially different personalities, skills, and decades of experience to master. In my 30 years of operating experience, I have found very few people – I mean less than a handful – who are experts at both functions. And, for that rare individual, in my experience I do not believe it is possible to head up both functions simultaneously.

A CEO who doesn’t understand this basic fact, or doesn’t believe it, is not a CEO I want to invest in. Here is why.

Someone who is a head of Sales must have an in depth understanding of current key deals in the sales pipeline,  a deep sense of the probability of whether those deals will close, and what it will take for them to close. This is a 1:1, short-term focus game and success is predicated upon a career of working closely with buyers. In many cases, it also requires someone to travel and meet with prospects to gauge for themselves whether or not a deal is really a deal. It is the realm of oral communicators.

The head of Marketing, on the other hand, must develop and maintain an in depth understanding of the overall market and the company’s brand in that market. To do this, he/she must constantly work with industry analysts, the media, execute tradeshows, keynotes, and the web. Perhaps even more importantly, today’s head of Marketing must be an excellent demand creator (the “owner” of future revenue) through sales-ready leads.

Marketers must know how to generate those sale-ready leads for the lowest acquisition cost and ultimately nurture any sales-ready leads that fall out of the sales pipeline. This is a 1:many game and requires constant refinement through analyzing campaign, market and customer data. It requires continuous meetings with internal staff including the CEO, Product Marketing, Sales, etc. It is the realm of verbal/written communicators.

A CEO who has combined the Sales and Marketing functions, indirectly but undeniably, telegraphs me that he/she does not truly understand the diverse nature of these positions and the fact that it is impossible to execute both functions simultaneously with excellence. In most instances, I have found that the CEO who makes this serious mistake hasn’t worked with someone who is an excellent Marketer and therefore discounts the role it plays.

So, if you ever come and present to me and think you are going to show me a “real” VP Sales & Marketing,  don’t be surprised when I look at you as though you’re trying to convince me there are Unicorns and excuse myself early from the meeting.

  • startup ceo

    Wow…You sound like the last VC that I would pick to be on my team. In case you weren’t aware, startups require wearing many hats and that usually means you can’t hire a VP Sales and a VP Mktg, especially if you’re pre-funding. In the meantime, a talented, experienced, and knowledgeable person may have to be the VP sales & mktg. It doesn’t look like you’ve ever worked for a startup so you may want to re-think this ‘extreme prejudice’.

  • Bruce,
    Could not agree with you more. I have seen this happening all the time. Companies (startup and late stage) think of marketing as a necessary evil and find the next person around whose role not is clearly defined and task him/her with Marketing role. Also combining the roles into Sales and Marketing into one person. Granted with SaaS businesses the two disciplines have much more of a intersection, than the olden days, with much more being asked of marketing(including ROI) around lead qualification, ranking etc to increase sales velocity but I firmly believe these are two distinctly different roles.

  • Hi Bruce, I like the succinct way you put it: one to one v/s one to many.

    So many VPs all over the shop, and here I wonder what else that acronym could stand for, do neither very well.

    I think in some vases that some companies are either too small or small minded to split that role into 2.


  • Bruce,

    Spot on! All of the nuances around the differences are right on, the other point you make about present and future is also applicable to other roles in a startup. Simply put a roles responsibilities have to have a common time horizon or you asking for trouble. Take customer support, operations and product development. While in a SaaS company these all involve technology, support runs in 4 hour bites, operations needs to insure stability and capacity on a month/quarterly basis and development needs to insure the right stuff is built 6-12-18 months from now. Much like with the sales and marketing roles, this time horizon issue is one to watch because it will bite you in the backside. Asking an executive to build and manage an organization to various horizons will usually not end well.

    Thanks for the great post.

  • Amen. The mentality isn’t limited to startups. I work with a number of larger organizations who think it’s a good idea to have sales and marketing report to a single person.

    I think it stems from a CEO (or collective senior exec) mindset that just wants to sweep marketing under the rug, and limit the number of execs on the senior team.

    Thanks for a great post.

  • Lance Hoffman

    I agree completely. I have always found the combination of the 2 to be ineffective and have been curious as to why it’s done so often. I think it tends to result from the propensity of some sales guys who think they can do marketing (“how hard can it be? The marketing guys do it! ;-)). Kind of like the engineers who think they are marketeers too. I find most “true” marketing types don’t see themselves as salesmen, nor do they want to be. Good insights and a good articulation of the differences between the 2 roles. Thanks for sharing.

  • Larkin

    Amen… and thank you for saying so. As VP Sales I’ve worked for several start-ups where the CEO expected me to deliver the marketing role. And only after I had accepted the job by the way. Not having Marketing makes the job of selling much more challenging…

  • In respsonse to Start Up CEO:

    If you read my background, you’ll see I’ve been involved in several small fledgling start ups: Oracle, my own, and Siebel Systems.

    I joined Oracle in the early 1980’s when there were only a couple dozen people. I started my own start up and successfully sold it in 1992 and I joined Siebel Systems as a founding member of the executive team.

    None of these start ups had any venture money in them.

    So, I may not be the VC you want on your team but I’ve had three fairly successful start up outcomes and none of them had a VP Sales & Marketing.

    I do appreciate your point that people need to wear many hats in the very early stages. However, if I only saw companies do this in the beginning, I probably wouldn’t have written about it.

  • Justin

    As someone who was a VP of Sales and Marketing I agree and disagree with you. My expertise was on the sales side and I was not a VP of Marketing.

    We got around this with a very sharp Director of Marketing and utilizing an outside agency. The outside agency really gave us a more scalable story and reach (we decided) than a true Marketing leader.

  • Out of necessity I have been in both roles over the years and have to say you are absolutely right Bruce. In my experience startups hire a sales person and put them in charge of marketing much to its neglect. They would be better off hiring a part time marketing executive for the most part.

  • Mike

    I agree with your statement. As a VP of sales in start-ups, it’s my experience that the business is best served by getting known as soon as possible. In the hands of a solid marketer and commitment/investment by the CEO/BoD, a qualified pipeline will emerge. This accelerates the ability to get a sales head who can rapidly convert prospects to customers.

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    • Susan:

      As I said in the article, even if someone has both skill sets I do not believe someone can execute both functions simultaneously with excellence; they are both 200% fulltime jobs.

  • You said “I have found very few people – I mean less than a handful ”“ who are experts at both functions.” So maybe it’s not that people can’t do both gigs.. it’s just the wrong people get hired and those hiring don’t search hard enough.. I do belive in unicorns 🙂


  • Bill Bryant

    Bruce, your post here strikes me as polemical and doctrinaire. So you’ve NEVER seen a startup grow to be successful with a VP of Sales & Marketing? Hmmm. I’d be happy to point you toward examples.

    When there is a VP of Sales & Marketing, it is typically held by someone who is Big S, Little M or vice versa. The Little part of equation is supported by a strong counterpart in the opposite role. So while there are few Bo Jackson’s in the world, capable of playing two vastly different sports at high levels (football = sales, baseball = marketing) there are plenty of quality executives who are capable of MANAGING the function.

    The benefit of a VP over both functions is that you get absolute accountability for making the number. You avoid a situation where a VP Sales is pointing to the lack of effective marketing, while the VP Marketing points to the poor sales execution.

    There is no debate that they are two very different functions – that’s why they are carry different labels – but in my experience across 25+ successful startups, there exist plenty of unicorns.

    • Bill: Sorry. I may be polemical and doctrinaire but it comes after 30 years of operating success personally helping to build multi-billion $ software companies (e.g. Oracle/Siebel) from early to late stage and sitting on the BOD of others. I respect your success with other companies, but I fundamentally don’t believe there are plenty of execs capable of managing both functions – especially simultaneously. If you’re focused on driving short term revenue, how can you possibly be creating a comprehensive product/positioning strategy, writing the press releases, designing the campaigns, etc? There isn’t enough time in a day/week. If you put someone in who is “little M”, you are discounting the function — by definition, the ‘little M’ is doing the work but isn’t a ‘senior exec’. These are both huge jobs that are incredibly important and while as a very small company you may need to ‘make do’ by wearing multiple hats, it should be temporal at best. If you take this approach, you might make a company successful but you are crippling your company’s ability to become a global market leader — which puts it in the category of an Oracle, Google, etc. That is why we didn’t do this at Siebel and we didn’t do it at Oracle..or any other company I’ve been involved with or in. Nor will we.

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  • Bruce,

    Good insight and I could not agree more… granted as the one gentleman indicates there are times when you might have to wear multiple hats in the beginning but the sooner you divide and conquer with the right skill sets in the right management roles the sooner you will really start to scale your company…

    All the best!


  • Bruce,

    I completely agree with you. Early in my career, everyone was a VP of Sales and Marketing — either a sales person who picked up Marketing or a marketing person who picked up Sales. In all instances, one function was promoted to the detriment of the other. As a VP of Marketing in my previous companies, I worked in close concert with the VP of Sales and found the two personalities different but complementary as well as creating a necessary push-pull between short-term tactical and long-term strategic thinking.

    Also, your blog reminded me of an article from De Novo ventures, a well-respected Life Sciences VC, that I thought this group may enjoy.



    • Maureen:
      Great article on the differences between the roles. Thanks for sharing.

  • matt

    It really doesn’t matter much but for streamlining operations. Sales and marketing are tied as they’re the key components for revenue, marketing for demand creation (providing leads), sales for execution (lead hit rate). You can break this up again to marketing going to business development (writing product specs) and marketing communications (advertising, blog, etc). Sales can be broken up into new sales vs recurring or strategic vs tactical (regional) or whatever.

    Discounting someone for streamlining operations without going into details is maybe a little premature. Regardless, both of these are scalable placeholder roles, especially in startup mode, where everything rides on development and the CEO should really be the main sales and marketing. At least to get initial traction, let others pick it up later once model is proven.

    At that point you’re just balancing headcount to appropriate cost structures so what does it matter if some roles are consolidated for conservative planning costs, it’s not like these are for development or anything, just management roles.

    • Matt:
      I think we are actually in agreement here. What I react to is when this isn’t being done due to the fact the company needs to conserve cash, etc. but when the CEO just isn’t aware that these are two fulltime jobs with different skill sets required. One of our portfolio companies is guilty of this and they are a $100M company so there is no excuse — at least as far as I am concerned.

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  • Tim Johnson

    Agree. I have seen too many where the ‘little m’ was 3 point font, subscript. One of the two gets sacrificed. Yes, in a startup you have to do what you have to do – been there, doing it again shortly. The metapoint is that both functions will suffer because there cannot be the attention they both require. Some companies are lucky enough to get through, many others not.

    Even with the argument of complete accountability, one will suffer, more than likely the M side (overhead) than the S side (revenue).

    • Tim: Your comment about M being considered overhead rings so true. Marketing has been and continues to be viewed as overhead by most CEOs and gets the axe the second revenue falls off.

      If we have our way with Marketo ( — shameless plug for one of my investments), then the role of the CMO/Marketing will be permanently transformed from a cost center into a revenue center. One of Marketo’s primary objectives is to transform industry such that it becomes standard practice for the CMO to be held accountable for accurately predicting future revenue — revenue outside and downstream from the current period. We will know we are successful when the CEO looks to the CSO (Chief Sales Officer) for accurately predicting in period revenue and the CMO for accurately predicting downstream revenue. When companies start viewing revenue this way, in period/out of period, Marketing and Sales will hold equal power in the executive suite. Cutting Marketing (e.g. demand gen), when revenues decline is an antiquated and dangerous practice – IMHO.

  • Acohen

    you are dead on!

  • Bruce – on the money!  Perfect

    Jim Coughlin

  • Richard Rosen

    The traditional VP Sales role is dying. Sales leads are generated by inbound marketing, and nurtured, not cold called. Marketo, Eloqua and Hubspot are three of the hottest companies in CRM. 

    “Sales and Marketing are vastly different functions that require substantially different personalities, skills, and decades of experience to master. ”

    That’s was true 10 years ago. Today, the skills required of a VP Sales have changed. The decades of experience developed by many in sales are decades of inefficient sales habits. Sales cannot operate today without marketing. Marketo and Eloqua bring the sales function and marketing function together. Do the same for the leadership role. I’d argue that in today’s sales environment, sales should report to marketing. 

    • Islego

       Sorry Richard but I find your argument to be facile and unrealistic.  Why do you equate lead gen with cold calling — is that your definition of sales?  Efficiency tools are fantastic but don’t expect to do the complex job of moving a buyer thru the funnel and completing a sale.  Ditto the other tools your reference.  I don’t think Bruce is suggesting that sales can operate without marketing; quite the contrary and hence combining two distinct functions into one is a game plan for sub-optimizing both.  Better communication and cooperation between sales and marketing?  Sure.  But that has nothing to do with the argument Bruce has put forward.

  • Islego

    If I were to take your argument to the next step, I’d say that an alarming per cent of CEOs don’t quite understand what marketing does or is supposed to do. Of course, they give it lip service, but not a whole lot more beyond that.  A VP of Sales and Marketing is simply a long title for VP Sales who is expected to write his/her own powerpoint sales deck.  So the problem isn’t that these CEO’s think that they can combine two vastly different skill sets in one person, it’s that they don’t understand the difference between the skill sets.  Most of the comments here critiquing your POV are from people who have limited experience either of the two competencies and that, I believe, is precisely your point.

  • Curt

    Sounds like you know as much about each category as anyone else?  

  • Garyrf1

    Bruce, you have an interesting perspective about sales, versis marketing. I can understand the logic you have used in your definitions of each function, however from a psychology point of view you have omitted a few similarities that are found in people who work in marketing and sales. Where both of these fields have their differences, they are more alike then not. The abilities and personality charactoristics of people who work in these fields are very much the same. In addition the face time between departments needs to be regular for the company to be successful. If not then you will have the problems stated. A well managed company knows this, and makes  needed adjustments along the way.
    I will go out on a limb and guess that you have never been in sales, or marketing for any mesurable amount of time. Understandable with your experience.
    I have worked for many startups which had a great deal of success, as well as large 500 companies who did the same with VP of Sales and Marketing. With your example you have this position doing the day to day work of both departments. While this might be the way most companies start, that is not the way most well managed companies progress and grow. Directors are added, project managers are added, etc. The VP at this point is delegating most of the MBO with successful follow up and the pulse on the business this combination has been very successful in the history of american business.
    The right people in the right positions, with the right culture, will always be successful.
    With all of your experience, I hope you have experienced the above, if not keep looking with a open mind and your opinions will change. 

    • Prior to becoming an investor, for almost 30 years I held significant roles in Marketing, Sales, and Engineering. From start ups (I joined Oracle when it was a private start up  of less than 100 people as well as Siebel Systems which was less than $2M in revenues when I joined) to large existing companies such as Apple. I think you – and a few others – may have missed my point since I tried to be somewhat “glib” about this and make the article entertaining with the whole “unicorn” thing. In retrospect, given all the responses I might have written it with a more sedate flair.That said, I think it is perfectly fine for small companies to have people who wear multiple hats. I have done this myself. However, over time and by necessity, the Sales and Marketing positions need to be separate roles with discrete leaders. The reason I say this is that each position takes a tremendous amount of expertise — different types of expertise. And, for the small number of people who possess both, there are simply not enough hours in a day to execute them both with excellence. 

      Again, if you are a small start up with scarce resources, you make do with what you have. I am just suggesting that at some point, these should separate them. 

  • Garyrf1

    Thank you for the clarification. Depending on the size, timing, and people in management rolls of a given company I can see your point. In this case size of company will certainly play a roll in this process. Based on many factors of a corporation, I would agree that either way would, could, and does work today. Point well taken. Just very hard today to cast a large net. Thank You for your input

  • Alexander Grimmett

    My dad has this title which is how I landed on this page as I just looked it up out of curiosity…I know my dad consistently exceeds the sales forecasts and the mining company he works for has increased it’s revenue by %150 to $4.7 billion in 2013. Unicorns are a figment of the imagination but these numbers aren’t – including a base salary of $350,000 – not to mention a substantial year end point is, I don’t think my dad would be generating and earning these kinds of figures if he wasn’t living up to his title. Honestly to say that you don’t think it’s possible to head up both functions simultaneously is extremely presumptuous and fairly insular

    • Alexander: You and a few others responded negatively to the article. And, admittedly, I used the language to be provocative — to get people to read it and to get people to think/respond. So, me let try to respond in a way that is a objective.

      First, your dad isn’t working for a start up with scarce resources and every day is a decision about “I need to focus on one thing — what will it be?” And, if I choose wrong, I could put the company’s future in peril. $4.7B isn’t a start up in anyone’s book and while bad decisions over time might sub optimize the company, it isn’t likely to kill it in a few quarters.

      Second, the fact that you chose to tell me about the revenues your dad’s generatng makes my point — when companies combine both functions (sales + marketing) under one, their can be only one primary emphasis and that usually is sales. As a result, the marketing function tends to suffer.

      Third, in the mining industry, how much of that business is a demand generated business that requires experts in the use of Marketing Automation and Lead Generation technologies such as Marketo? Would it be fair to say that your dad’s company prorbably knows most of the companies it wants to sell to?

    • Disqus quit on me, so here is the ending to the previous reply.

      At $4.7B, how much is your dad worried about discovering a new prospect and making them aware of his company’s products/services v expanding share of wallet? I would suspect that there is more concern with the latter than the former and it is sales capacity led model, not a demand gen model per se. Consequently, the emphasis is on Sales – with a cap S – and not on marketing — with a little m.

      Again, the point of my article isn’t that it can’t be done; many companies do combine the function. However, since both jobs are 150% time jobs, how can you possibly personally do both without optimizing for one v the other? My argument is that there aren’t enough hours in the day to do one of the jobs v both of them. One example: how do you meet with your team every day writing content for the blogs and demand gen system (e.g. Marketo), generate the press releases, plan and execute the events, develop the next generation product positioning, etc.  when you are out making sales calls with your sales org? This is why the top performing companies in the world (at least in the high tech industry) separate the functions. 

      Are there people with the skills to do both roles with excellence — yes, but they are very rare for all the reasons I state in my article. Are there people with both the skills and the time to personally perform both functions? Not in my experience. One of the functions always gets less time — by definition.

      In resource constrained companies, you need to make do. In well funded companies — including start ups — these two functions need to be separated so that you get teams that can dedicate at least 100% of their time to that function and not be forced to make trade offs. 

  • Juli Guillory-King

    Perhaps this has already been asked, I’m too eager to read the thread, but why couldn’t a VP of Sales & Marketing have a Marketing Director and Director of Sales reporting to them. I mean, any experienced salesperson knows that sales and marketing go hand-in-hand.