Inkhouse Q&A with Chief Marketing Officer Adam Coughlin of Strategic Growth Firm York IE

Sep 20, 2022 Tiffany Darmetko

Today we introduce the Inkhouse CMO Spotlight, a new series featuring CMOs and their perspectives on modern marketing. To kick things off, I am so excited to introduce our first guest: Adam Coughlin, CMO at York IE — a vertically integrated strategic growth and investment firm helping reshape the way companies are built, scaled and monetized.

Adam Coughlin, co-founder, CMO & managing partner at York IE

Below are Adam’s insights for early stage startups who might be wondering why they should invest in marketing now and what they need to grow and become successful in the form of a Q&A: 

What are the elements of a solid marketing foundation?

ADAM: When people think of marketing, they often think of activities such as paid advertising, public relations, social media and content. While all of those are important, they are really just distribution mechanisms for your messaging and it needs to start with your story. 

Whether you’re marketing software or services or a physical good, you’re talking to people. We live in a noisy world. To cut through, you need to make connections. People connect to emotions and stories. What stories are you telling? 

What are the considerations/risks/downsides to skipping this foundation? 

ADAM: The risk of not starting with messaging is that you let the tail wag the dog. You will put a bunch of effort into campaigns but they won’t bubble up to anything. As a result, you’ll lose the benefit of the multiplier effect. 

This is why I am such a huge proponent of the drumbeat marketing philosophy. You start with messaging and the most important story you want to become associated with. Then you tell that story through all of the above-mentioned distribution mechanisms so you reach people however they consume information. This way your story remains the same across all of those different channels, and it allows you to build brand equity. 

What are some common misconceptions about marketing, specifically early-stage marketing? 

ADAM: Many companies think there will be a perfect time to start marketing—when the product is further along, when the sales team is ready, when the first marketing hire happens, after funding, etc. There is never a perfect time. Building a brand takes a lot longer than you think, and you need to start earlier than you think. 

That is why a messaging hierarchy is so important. It needs to start with a vision: why do you exist? Every company should know that. Start building brand around that vision as soon as possible. Over time, the specifics of the value proposition and buyer persona will become more focused but by then you won’t have to be starting from scratch. You can evolve your marketing from a position of strength. 

From your CMO lens, what advice would you give to a CEO about marketing? 

ADAM: Many CEOs are savvy and intelligent business leaders and, as a result, they are probably pretty good marketers. Sometimes though this means they think they can handle marketing. Of course, this works for a time. But marketing is dynamic and constant. You need to be putting out fresh content a couple of times per week, if not daily. I have seen many CEOs become bottlenecks that slow down this consistency. It is not their fault. Their plate runneth over. 

That is why it can be helpful to have a dedicated marketing resource who is living and breathing your brand, your message and your customers. This doesn’t have to be a senior marketing person at first though; it just needs to be someone passionate, hungry and willing to learn from their mistakes because in early stage marketing, there will be plenty of mistakes! 

Marketing, along with sales and customer success, is part of your go-to-market strategy. The magic happens when all three are working in unison—not when marketing is in a silo.

What would you say to a CEO who might be thinking about skipping that marketing foundation?

ADAM: The job of a startup CEO is tough. You have a limited runway and so it can be easy to rely on short-term fixes. But, unfortunately, the companies that truly shake up their markets and change industries develop a brand and identity that people love and want to get behind. Doing that takes time and energy. It is an investment you have to be willing to make. 

My partner, Joe Raczka, who leads our investment practice and has a finance background, used to think that all I did was fluff. Until he talked to thousands of companies with great technology. He realized the ones that succeed are the ones that tell a story and build an audience. That is done through good marketing. 

When is it important to invest in marketing? 

ADAM: Now. I say this regardless of size, stage or economic factors. However, not all investments are created equal. I have always cringed at early stage companies that spend a lot of money on paid advertising. Why would you spend money to test messaging when you can do it for free through owned content? That is why I often advocate for starting with owned channels. Creating content, putting out thoughtful social posts, having unique opinions is a minimum expense. This is why it is important to keep the machine running. During difficult economic times, it can be tempting to turn off marketing. But that is short-sighted. In those times, you have to compete even harder for every new client. You need to stand out even more. You need to market more, not less. And, again, done responsibly this will pay off.

And when it does, expanding your program is a natural next step. 

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About Adam Coughlin:

Adam is co-founder, CMO and managing partner at York IE where he leads the company's marketing efforts and its advisory services practice. Adam works with startups on foundational messaging, content and communications, go-to-market strategy and corporate story-telling. He also helps entrepreneurs find their voice and personal brand, which is integral in today’s digital marketplace.

Previously, Adam spent more than seven years at Dyn and then Oracle. At Dyn, Adam built the company’s corporate communications function, including: public relations, analyst relations, investor relations, speakers bureau, and internal communications. While at Oracle, Adam oversaw Oracle Cloud Infrastructure’s blog (the largest and most trafficked at Oracle), social media, influencer and media relations efforts leading a cross organization team of talented writers, content producers, designers and freelancers. Adam has earned content placement and coverage in an ever expanding list of publications, including: Politico, TechCrunch, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Next Web, Fortune and Venturebeat. Adam is also a member of the invite-only Forbes Communications Council.

Adam began his career as an award-winning journalist and columnist for both local and international publications covering a wide range of topics such as international relations, technology, arts, government and education. Adam has a degree in Journalism from the University of Richmond.

Tiffany Darmetko

Tiffany helps tech innovators – both emerging-growth and established companies – to differentiate themselves and succeed in competitive markets through targeted and aggressive integrated communications programs. Her expertise spans markets such as cyber security, cloud computing, enterprise software and renewable energy. Tiffany has led the PR efforts of more than a dozen IT security companies, leading to numerous acquisitions. She has a B.S. in Public Relations from Boston University’s College of Communication.

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