Marketing and the Gravitas Issue


Is it ageism, or is it human nature? Whatever it is, it seems to have morphed 180 degrees from the dot-com boom era.

Back in the late ’90s, when digital anything meant giddy valuations, and one of life’s biggest mysteries was how was Google going to monetize, there was a prevailing and oft-stated bias in both Silicon Alley and Silicon Valley.

Anyone over 40 didn’t “get it” (though “it” was never explained or defined). I personally heard boardroom suggestions that over-40 staff be jettisoned like so much expired produce.

Twenty-somethings were EVPs, the parties were insane, and the jargon around companies, their products and services, and even job titles was impenetrable.

Blue-haired founders were getting the full-on “New Yorker” profile treatment (“No one at the company appears to be over 25”), and all was go-go with the world… Until it all burst, and many of those 20-somethings took big salary cuts as they sought gigs at Starbucks and The Gap.

Fast-forward all these years later and the ageism issue in digital and marketing has turned a full 180 degrees.

I encountered this recently when I told a client one of their go-to-market issues is that the startup isn’t perceived in the market as “grown up” enough, an opinion that isn’t just my own, but something I’ve heard elsewhere in the market. Interestingly, the company’s young founders have heard it, too.

So Long, Hoodies?

“Grown up” isn’t necessarily a good or a bad thing. However, it’s emerging more and more frequently as a necessary qualification for getting a seat at the table.

I’ve seen this “however” played out across a spectrum of startup technologies, from email to search to social, over the past 15 years.

“Grown up” is about executive/boardroom/C-suite credibility. Most startups, regardless of how impressive, get only so far with the startup-in-hoodies approach these days. Naturally, I’m generalizing.

I’m thinking of Google when they hired Eric Schmidt, Facebook with Sheryl Sandburg and Carolyn Everson, or closer to Earth, Fredrick Marckini, who founded iProspect and sold it to Isobar. “Grown up” is a little-discussed but highly visible sign of growth and maturity.

Back in the day, Marckini was the only guy wearing a suit and tie at search events. He stuck out like a sore thumb for years.

When I finally asked him why he dressed the way he did, he replied that his mission was to get search discussed in the C-suite, and he wasn’t going to get those meetings in jeans and a polo shirt.

I’m dwelling a lot on clothing here, but you get my drift. It’s why startups like NewsCred hire Fortune 500 executives like Michael Brenner, for example.

It’s not just because Brenner (who is a great marketing strategist) can pull off the suit thing, but also because he has Fortune 500 marketing credentials and a degree of projected gravitas that younger founders and executives tend to lack.

There are many, many more such examples at every level of the spectrum. Look at Spotify’s recent hire of Seth Farbman away from Gap to fill the CMO seat.

Growing Up

“Grown up” shouldn’t be a value judgment, but it is human nature. The more extensive (ergo, expensive) SaaS solutions become, the higher the echelon of sales, procurement and marketing.

I keep hearing the very senior Fortune 100 executives I interview for research reports refer to vendors and agencies in the space as “too trendy” and “too boutique” — all code for “No one was ever fired for buying IBM.”

Taken to the extreme, the “grown up” question is analogous to why bank buildings mimic classical architecture: “We’re here today, and we’ll be here tomorrow.” That’s an important, if tacit, message to buyers and investors.

Awards and trophies have always been an important mark of distinction in marketing circles. Yet one wonders if characterizations such as “Wunderkind” or “30 Under 30” distinctions don’t now do more harm than they do good.

This post originally published on MarketingLand

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