Product Management vs. Product Marketing – 2 Departments or 1?

Today, at the vast majority of software companies that have 500 or more employees, there are two separate but closely related departments: “Product Management” and “Product Marketing“.

I believe this is a fundamentally flawed setup for today’s fast-changing markets – a setup that leads to confusion over roles, lack of ownership, unnecessary politics & poor morale – and often RUINS innovation.

This belief is based on my experiences at successful companies in Silicon Valley over the past two decades, and discussions with friends/colleagues in the industry who manage Product Management and/or Product Marketing departments.

In this blog post, I describe the reasons for my belief and provide an alternative solution.

How We Got Here

I mentioned above how the vast majority of software companies have two separate departments for Product Management and Product Marketing. Here is how the role is usually split:

Product Management: Inbound role. Focuses on listening to and understanding market needs, translating those needs to product specifications and then working with cross-functional teams to build products that address these needs.

Product Marketing: Outbound role. Focuses on creating messaging to tell the world about the product. They don’t usually tell the world themselves (that is done by Marketing or MarCom departments) – but create key messaging for datasheets, website, flash presentations, trade shows, etc.

(If you’d like more details on how these roles are usually split – see this detailed chart from Pragmatic Marketing, Inc – a consulting company in Scottsdale, AZ)

Okay, having defined that – How did we get here? From my observation, most companies start with just one department – it is called either “Product Management” or “Product Marketing” – but plays both roles defined above. From my own experience, one department can play these roles well enough to build companies that make $100 Million+ in revenues – and achieve market leadership.

Then, something happens. And the company decides to split the roles into two. The most common reasons include:

  1. Scaling Attempts: As a company grows, companies need more folks to play these roles. In their attempt to scale, they often fall prey to one of the following misconceptions.
  2. Specialization Theory: This is the theory that says the two roles need very different skills that cannot be possessed by the same human being. It further says – even if some folks were to possess them both, they are a rare and nearly extinct species :) – and hence cannot scale.
  3. Flawed Advice: There are a lot of excellent consultants & authors who propose that these teams be split into two. While I have enormous respect for many of these folks (I’ve learned a lot from many of them) – on this specific point, I must respectfully disagree after much thought.
  4. Politics & Empire-Building: This can be best understood by studying organizational theory and how social groups evolve. Not surprisingly, I’ve seen these factors often play a very non-trivial role in causing the split.

Why This Setup (2 Departments) is Flawed

This splitting into two departments – while it does offer some benefits – suffers from some serious flaws:

  1. Confusion over Roles: When you split these closely-related roles into two different departments – people who are playing the roles get very confused as to where their role stops and the other person’s role starts.
  2. Lack of Ownership: When one person plays both roles, the ownership is crystal clear. Not so when the roles are split between two different departments – especially when these departments report into different parts of the company (such as CTO and VP Marketing).
  3. Unnecessary Politics: When people are put into situations where they’re unclear about their roles and unclear about ownership – blame games and politics are just a whisker away.
  4. Poor Morale: The above three points invariably lead to poor morale.
  5. RUINS innovation: Ultimately, this is how the company that takes the misguided step of splitting the roles suffers. Capability to innovate is ruined – and is left to smaller companies that don’t have such unnecessary splits in roles that are so critical to innovation.

How We Can Fix This

Here are some steps we can take to avoid these issues:

  1. Have one department play both “Product Management” and “Product Marketing” roles. You can call the department either name – the specific choice doesn’t matter much.
  2. We should stop believing the incorrect notion that one person cannot play both roles. In their popular book Built to Last Collins & Porras say the following: The “Tyranny of the OR” pushes people to believe that things must be either A or B, but not both. I believe the vast majority of our industry suffers from this flawed notion that one person cannot play both roles. Instead, we must embrace what Collins & Porras call “The Genius of the AND”.
  3. Hire people who possess the skills needed to play both roles. I’ve personally done so many times – I know others who’ve done it too – and do not find it much harder, let alone impossible. All we’re looking for are people who can LISTEN (inbound) and SPEAK (outbound) - not that much harder, unless we have a preconceived notion that it is extremely hard.
  4. Build systems, processes, tools and training to enable people to play both roles at a very high level. The skills required are very trainable – and most people who can learn the skills to excel in one role can easily learn the skills for the other role too.

On a personal note – many of you know that our company, Accompa, is currently a growing startup. We’re starting by having one department play both roles – and we intend to keep it that way even as we grow much bigger.

I have a lot more to add on this topic – but will stop here to keep this post relatively short, and will add more thoughts in the comments section.

Editor’s Note:
Interested in an affordable, enterprise-quality software to help you manage requirements in a better way? Check out FREE 30-Day trial of Accompa or Sign Up for a Demo.

I'm your author, Michael Shrivathsan, an expert in product management with successful experience at several innovative companies in Silicon Valley, USA over the past two decades. I'm also a USPTO patent recipient. For my day job, I'm the VP of Product Management at Accompa, we make the popular requirements management software used by Product Management, Business Analysis, and related teams.

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