The Myth of the Marketing Unicorn: Why a “Do-All” Marketing Hire Is Not the Magic Solution

By Jamie Simpson

What is a Marketing Unicorn?

In October 2020, Marcomm hosted a virtual event for the American Marketing Association-Minnesota called Lean and Mean: Doing More with Less, which explored the all-purpose marketing job description from a few different angles. CMO Priscilla Koeckeritz moderated a panel discussion that included Marcomm’s own Jamie Simpson and Stacey Kusnier—who are all too familiar with the marketing unicorn legend. 

As a Senior Marketing Project Manager, Kusnier has been working in marketing and communications in the Twin Cities for more than 10 years. Prior to joining Marcomm, the majority of her career was spent working as a one-person marketing team, for small-sized companies in the B2B technology space. After years of trying to master everything from strategic business planning and brand messaging to email marketing and social media, Kusnier began to realize how mythical the unicorn role truly is in the modern marketing world. 

In her AMA presentation, Kusnier shares, “A marketing unicorn is usually defined as one person within an organization that’s responsible for leading and managing all things marketing-related.” She says this typically involves both the overall strategy and marketing planning, as well as executing the plan, and then measuring the analytics to make sure it worked. 

“Some folks use the term ‘Marketing Unicorn’ because the thought is that it can be very difficult to find someone with that extremely diverse skillset who can do all those things and do them well.” Kusnier continues, “But I’d take it one step further and say we’re not called unicorns because we’re hard to find; it’s actually more because we don’t really exist. Even though it might be fun to believe in the possibility that we’re out there somewhere—like the Loch Ness monster, or Bigfoot or an honest politician—we don’t actually exist.”

The Allure of “Everything”

On the staffing and recruiting side, we frequently hear whispers of the marketing unicorn as we work with our clients to define their goals and job descriptions for marketing candidates.

Marcomm has noticed that some companies that are starting to build their marketing efforts tend to create a multi-faceted role with a job description that covers a variety of responsibilities—from social media management to company party planning. Often referred to as a Marketing Coordinator or Marketing Manager, these multi-faced roles often require 3-8 years of experience. They’re looking for someone who’s touched enough of ‘everything’ to come in and manage all the marketing tactics and often offer strategy as well. 

What Makes the “Marketing Unicorn” a Mythical Role?

How do we know marketing unicorns don’t exist? Kusnier sums it up best: “Because it’s really an impossible role to live up to.” 

Marcomm frequently gets asked to recruit for that magical marketing unicorn who can do it all. But rather than automatically pursuing this mythical creature, the first step is to dig deeper and understand the pressure points that may be leading the client to take this approach.

Unfortunately, when one person is responsible for both strategy (planning) and execution (tactical), which are two very different types of work, they are constantly competing with one another. 

“Tactics, without strategy, are just random things you throw against the wall hoping something sticks,” advises Kusnier. “But then if you spend too much time strategizing with no solid execution plan to progress the business, that’s no good either.” 

Another common challenge for smaller companies is the ever-growing laundry list of areas that leaders typically want marketing to own. In addition to the obvious items like website management, email marketing, social media and content, there’s the mixed bag of business areas that typically fall under the “other duties as assigned” section of the job description. This can include internal communication, PR activities, culture building and team events, print and promotional materials, and administrative tasks. For one person, juggling all these responsibilities is often overwhelming and all-consuming. 

Fairytale Spoilers: When Theory and Practice Don’t Align

In theory, a marketing unicorn should possess a sparkling array of skills for far less than you would pay a team of specialists. However, Marcomm continues to hear tales of woe from both employees and clients regarding the marketing unicorn.

Here are the four reasons that marketing professionals on both sides of the hiring table become disillusioned with this so-called solution:

  1. It is very rare for unicorns to report to a marketing leader. Unfortunately, many companies don’t invest in strategic marketing leaders as the first marketing hire. In fact, it’s common for these roles to report to the Sales leader, HR or even the CEO if the company is small. This creates a disconnect without leadership accountability to marketing outcomes, or misalignment with marketing efforts and revenue generation targets.
  2. Too many cooks in the kitchen! Cross-functional roles can get sucked into all areas of the organization – internal communications, sales content, tradeshow planning, recruitment content, company culture planning and more. It’s simply too much to pile on the plate of one hire. This is especially true for a contributor who lacks overall accountability to marketing leadership, or with limited access to superiors who can provide project clarification.
  3. Marketing strategy and tactical execution are different worlds. Although ultra-versatile candidates do exist, it is rare for these types of employees to thrive, long-term, when responsible for both strategy and execution. Most often, people gravitate toward one area or the other—so catering to the strengths of employees is always a great starting point for long-term success.
  4. Burnout. These roles have a very high turnover rate. For all of the above reasons, they typically last only 12-18 months.

Why Some Businesses Still Believe in Unicorns

Based on our 30 years of experience in marketing staffing and hiring solutions (including contract staffing, contract-to-hire or our fractional marketing teams), Marcomm understands the appeal of the super-well-rounded candidate.

Here are the top reasons we believe some companies still see the marketing unicorn role as the answer:

  • They are pooling their resources. These companies often have a very limited budget available to allocate to marketing efforts; they may be trying to pull from several business units or revenue buckets to justify the salary, which leads them to create a cross-functional job description. 
  • They only built half the ship. These companies have already poured significant resources into working with a consultant or third party to develop marketing strategy—and, unfortunately, they may have spent a LOT of money doing this. But they still don’t have an actionable, executable marketing plan. They have the big picture why, but not the how.
  • They haven’t done this before. These companies have NOT worked with or invested in strategic marketing planning and simply don’t know where to start.
  • They view marketing as a side-hustle of sales. These companies are sales driven; they leverage sales teams to generate leads and create content for prospect engagement.
  • They don’t see the connection. Few C-suite leaders or entrepreneurs have hands-on experience with marketing execution, or how to leverage the skills of others who excel in this area. There’s a gap in understanding how strategic, consistent, targeted marketing efforts can help them generate revenue.

Magical Questions

Whether the goal is to hire a great candidate or seek a new career opportunity, the only “magic” you will need is more depth and insight in your discovery process.

Consider asking the following questions to increase your likelihood of a successful outcome:

  1. Questions for Decision-Makers (Clients)
  • What are we expecting from investing in marketing? Is there a clear path from marketing efforts to expected outcomes, or will we need to further define what success looks like?
  • Is the job description clear and does it align with the right internal leaders and overall company business objectives?
    • TIP: Check out this short video clip to hear more from Marcomm Founder & CEO Joe Foley about this important issue:
  • Who is the right leader to coach, mentor and manage this hire? Is this also the right leader to hold accountable for results?
  • If a cross-functional role, can you prioritize the overall responsibilities? What are the must-have skills and what is most important?
  • What words have been used internally to describe the perfect fit for this hire? Have you used or heard the words “marketing unicorn” or other red flag terms—e.g., marketing guru, marketing extraordinaire or marketing lead? 
    • TIP: These are all code words that imply this role will be expected to wear multiple hats or serve as the jack-of-all-trades for the organization’s marketing efforts.
  • Ideally, would this role be filled by multiple people and skill sets? Does it need to be one full-time person, or have you looked into other alternatives?
  • Have you checked market value for competitive salary ranges? Do these align with years of experience and responsibility expectations?
  • What is your marketing budget outside of this person’s salary? How are you going to support this person with the right tools and resources to execute your marketing initiatives? 
  • Is your company’s biggest need on the strategic or tactical side of marketing? 
    • TIP: Even though marketers in this role are expected to do both, most people tend to be stronger in one than the other. Consider this when selecting candidates.

2. Questions for Job Seekers (Candidates)

  • Are you interested and capable to play in both strategy/planning and execution/doing pools? Do you like both sides of the house? 
  • What’s the realistic timeline that you would be set up for success in this position? 
  • What’s the best environment for you to thrive? Multiple bosses, priorities and deadlines or clear, specific and outlined goals and expectations?
  • Are you comfortable with wearing many hats, and managing multiple priorities and competing deadlines? (No day will look the same, so it’s important to be ready for that)
  • How do you anticipate managing expectations of cross-functional conflict? 
  • Do you know what your gaps are? And is the hiring company willing to provide training, support or resources to help you fill those gaps so you can be successful? Ask them!
  • Are you comfortable managing and working with a lean budget? 

Finding A Happy Ending/Beginning

Avoiding the urge to hire (or become) a marketing unicorn helps promote authenticity, which can result in a more sustainable and fulfilling career path for all involved. 

For hiring managers, this means they can avoid the hassle of high turnover or stressed-out marketing staff who will never be “all things to all people.” Choosing the right kind of marketing support—whether it’s an individual, a team or an outsourced solution—sets the foundation for a strong and healthy organization in the future.

And the upside for marketing talent? Rather than feeling pressure to constantly keep pace with the myriad of niche specialties in today’s digital marketing universe, candidates can zero in on the roles and tasks that would best utilize their unique skills, natural abilities and interests. 

Case in point: Currently, as a Senior Marketing Project Manager on Marcomm’s Fractional Services Team, Kusnier is able to focus her energy on what she enjoys most: B2B marketing planning and execution for clients (as she does as project lead for Ostra Cybersecurity).

For some of Marcomm’s clients, recruiting a full-time marketing candidate or working with a contract-to-hire or traditional contract role is the right answer. Others prefer to tap into our fractional marketing team, which gives them affordable, as-needed-only access to specialists in marketing project management, content strategy, social media, web development, graphic design and more.

Curious about how Marcomm can support your marketing staffing needs? Contact us today to see how we can help you solve your greatest marketing challenges.

To hear more about how Marcomm helps clients more clearly define their hiring goals in order to benefit their marketing organization long-term, check out this short video: Building Your Marketing Dream Team.