Interview: Why Sean Ellis sees growth hacking and marketing agility as bedfellows

The godfather of growth hacking talks about how the principle has evolved over the last seven years and what marketers can learn from this emphasis on growth

It’s been seven years since Sean Ellis coined the term ‘growth hacking’ to describe a process by which early-stage companies could align themselves for fast customer and market growth. And the former marketer for Dropbox, LogMeIn and Eventbrite and now CEO of GrowthHackers.com, agrees its application is changing over time.

“The idea has evolved from my initial thinking, which was I wanted to define something for an early-stage company that couldn’t do everything a marketer can do and had to be focused on things that had a direct impact on customer acquisition and growth,” he tells CMO during a recent visit to Sydney.

“It’s now something that’s more applicable to companies of any size, and it overlaps with the need for a lot more agility. The channels through which we acquire clients change so quickly, that if you don’t have a really agile team and process in place to move in and out of those and coordinate efforts across all customer touchpoints, you’re going to have a really hard time staying the same size, let alone growing.”

For the same reason, Ellis sees the modern concept of marketing agility as a “close cousin” of growth hacking.

“The difference with growth hacking is you’re taking it deeper into the full funnel,” he says. “Through testing, iteration and metrics, you’re trying to move forward in a direction that defines progress, growth and success in the business. Growth hacking just brings together those two movements and is more focused on the long-term customer growth side of things.”

Taking responsibility

Growth hacking has more traditionally sat within or alongside the product function. What’s helping bring it and the modern marketing function closer together is the onus on accountability and entrepreneurial thinking, Ellis continues.

“It’s interesting when you start to define a head of growth role, versus a head of marketing. The minute you call it head of growth, you’re essentially defining the role by an outcome, whereas marketing is often defined by an input,” he says.

“What you have seen in business in recent years is both the head of growth and head of marketing becoming a lot more accountable for actual growth. When that happens, the profile of the marketing role changes from one largely like the mad men days that’s highly creative, to one that’s more entrepreneurial, where you’re taking on an entrepreneur-type of risk.”

Ellis believes the most successful marketers are the ones taking on risk, embracing accountability and thriving on it.

“As things become more trackable, and expectations become more focus on heads of marketing and growth, there’s a lot more pressure and not everyone will be able to handle it. It’s similar profile to what an entrepreneur should have,” he comments.

Ellis admits plenty of marketers won’t like this shift very much, but that it’s inevitable.

“The best part about it is that it’s a lot less talent driven than it used to be,” he says. “If you truly understand a growth process and can follow it, and have the drive to keep working towards a result, you can be more successful as a marketer than in the past, where it was so much more about creative and campaign development.

“The creative branding role is still important, but it’s not what the key executive skill set ends up being. It’s about acting more like a CEO or entrepreneur.”

Up next: Examples of growth hacking in action

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