26 May 2023

Expert View: Building a Winning Marketing Function: Expert Advice for SMEs

Hannah Poulton
Written by Hannah Poulton

Hannah is a part-time Marketing Director with more over 20 years’ multi-channel experience, combining strategic expertise with hands-on delivery. Hannah’s background spans B2B and B2C, with particular expertise in financial services and SaaS.

For owners and MDs of SMEs, building an effective marketing function can be a daunting task.  

When I speak to business owners, I often hear “We’ve tried marketing before and it didn’t work”. When I look below the surface, it’s easy to see the common themes behind the reasons why. And it’s fair to say they’re almost always related to not having the right people in place to deliver against your marketing goals.  

I’ve worked as a Marketing Director for multiple businesses in The Marketing Centre on a part-time basis for around three years, and marketing wasn’t new for any of the businesses I’ve worked with. But getting their marketing right, and to a point where it was helping the business achieve its strategic goals, was another matter. 

The limitations of hiring junior marketers and micro-management

Some businesses have hired a junior marketing person, in line with the salary they can afford. There’s nothing to say that won’t get them a talented junior marketer, and with the right guidance and strategic framework in place, they could be a great hire. But they’re unlikely to have experience of setting and delivering strategies, so they focus on the tactics with no real plan, and in isolation, those tactics don’t work.  

Without a senior marketer in the business to help develop them and encourage them to think strategically, they’ll always be limited by what they know. 

Even worse, they might have really good ideas, but the MD has their own ideas of what they think marketing should look like. A junior marketer may not have the experience, confidence or credibility to stand up to their MD and push for what they believe is the right approach, so even with a marketing manager in place, the MD still feels like they’re having to run the show themselves and micro-manage their marketing person, leading to frustration on both sides. 

Eventually they – or their MD – will get so frustrated with the situation and the lack of results that it will be time for them to move on. And then the cycle starts again with another junior marketer.  

Breaking the cycle with a part-time marketing director

Going into these types of businesses as a part-time marketing director, I’ve been able to break that cycle and work with some talented junior marketers, mentoring, coaching and developing them to become more strategic and do the best they can in their role. I’ve also been able to take on some of those more challenging conversations for them when the MD has a clear idea of what they want – but it’s not necessarily the best way forward from a marketer’s perspective. 

Some MDs have told me they’re concerned about how an in-house marketer will react to them bringing in a part-time marketing director. But whilst many marketers find the prospect of an autonomous marketing role exciting, the reality in a small business can be anything but, and they soon find that they miss having a senior marketer around as a sounding board – and to help them with those difficult conversations. I’ve built great relationships with the junior marketers I’ve mentored, and their feedback has been that they’ve gained a lot from working with a part-time marketing director. 

Overcoming limitations of outsourcing to agencies

Other businesses I’ve worked with have previously outsourced marketing to an agency – but I’ve generally found that these incumbent agencies are limited by their specialism. For example, they’re great at SEO, but social media isn’t their bag – but they try to do it anyway to help the business out and keep the client.  

Genuine full-service agencies with expertise across the full marketing mix don’t often come at a price that works for SMEs - and how many MDs really know what good looks like when selecting a marketing agency to work with? Many SMEs may fall into the trap of engaging with agencies or freelancers based on well-meaning recommendations from acquaintances, without fully understanding their capabilities or limitations – and with little idea of what ‘good’ looks like. Plus, you’ll only really get the best out of an agency if you’ve got a strategy in place and someone who can give them a clear brief, keep them on track, set KPIs and hold them accountable for results.  

In the businesses I’ve worked with, I’ve been able to evaluate existing agency capability and identify any gaps, and then make recommendations on how to fill them – which sometimes means working with multiple agencies. I’ve put robust briefs in place to make sure the agencies have a clear idea of what they’re trying to achieve and are accountable for their results. Pretty much every one of the agencies I’ve worked with in this capacity have told me it makes their life easier too, having a clear brief written by an experienced marketer, rather than a vague direction from an MD that is – understandably – too busy to really take the time to do it properly for one agency relationship, let alone more.  

Building marketing capability from scratch

Some businesses have absolutely no marketing capability in place whatsoever – and we can work with that too! 

I’ve helped businesses build marketing functions that deliver results and drive business growth. And generally, they’ve ended up looking completely different from how the MD imagined their marketing function would look. It all starts with defining the strategy and working out what the business REALLY needs – before finding the best mix of people to deliver it.  

It might well be an in-house hire – but I’ve been able to use my expertise in marketing recruitment and talent management to help identify the right skills and experience, develop comprehensive job descriptions, advise on how and where to recruit, and help conduct interviews to select the best candidates. 

Making informed recruitment and outsourcing decisions 

Another area I’ve been able to help with is when to outsource to an agency or freelancer rather than hiring a new team member. In the early days of delivering a strategy, setting up technology and processes, you often need a different skillset from what you’ll need even 6 months down the line – so appointing a permanent in-house team member at the start of your marketing journey isn’t always the right approach. If we agree that outsourcing is the way to go in the short- or longer-term, I can help identify the right specialism for your marketing needs and negotiate the best price for your budget, then advise on when it’s time to start looking for a permanent team member.  

Knowing where to start with building an effective marketing function can be a real headache for SMEs. But working with a part-time marketing director provides the senior-level expertise, strategic thinking, and guidance needed to implement a model that supports your overall business strategy and sets you up for marketing success.  

Get more information on setting your marketing team up for success

Our Marketing Manifesto outlines the four key ingredients to successful marketing and shares our point-of-view on why they matter and how we can help.. A useful resource for business leaders looking to improve their marketing efforts. We also share some real-life examples of how we’ve helped our customers.

If you’d like to find out how you can transform your marketing and your business, take our ten-minute marketing maturity score assessment. Or, get in touch.



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