All living things have cycles. They come into being, develop and mature. Businesses have lifecycles, too, from seed or development to startup, establishment and expansion (or exit).

Marketing is no exception, although opinions vary on what its lifecycle looks like. ITSMA has a five-stage marketing maturity model. Google and Boston Consulting Group put together a four-stage one. The framework Forbes published last year has only three stages and covers a dozen competency areas. Each take is wildly different.

Here’s one of my own: marketing, particularly in the digital arena, grows up just like humans. There’s a toddler stage, then adolescence, and finally a stage where things reach maturity. At last, you’re in a position with the wisdom to acknowledge the need for outside help and marshal the resources to get it. Sound familiar?

Digital marketing success means overall company success.

As a digital marketer (if you aren’t one yet, you will be), knowing what stage your company is in can add clarity to your journey, make the right decisions, meet goals and be successful. And success goes far beyond marketing. At many businesses, marketing is driving the company’s digital strategies and leading digital transformation. Which means digital marketing success means overall company success.

Learning to Crawl

At this crucial growth stage, you’re finding your base of customers. But you have way too much to do and you need help. A lot of help. And you don’t even know exactly what kind of help you need or how to ask for it.

As a toddler, you’re growing fast and learning fast, and building your digital skills. Millions of synapses are forming in the brain. There’s a lot to figure out, both for the company and for its marketing. Value proposition. Target customers. Channels. The brand.

The Terrible Teens

You made it through the first stage, and you know how to do the basics: build campaigns, measure ROI, expand your channels. And you’ve started to build a solid foundation around digital testing and experimentation. But you’re still growing, with more adventures and missteps on the road ahead.

How do you get there—create new products, acquire more customers, stake your claim in the marketplace? You’ve been building marketing muscle and fine-tuning as best you can. The problem is, you think you have it all figured out. But you don’t.

Welcome to adolescence.

The irony of adolescence is, while you have infinite energy and resources, you let much of it go to waste. You’re full of big ideas, but you can’t see the big picture. No one can tell you what to do. You jump headfirst into situations and think you know everything. But you don’t. To some extent, this is okay. This is your experimental stage. You can make mistakes now and learn from them.

Business is about the results.

But there’s a way to do adolescence better, and that’s with a coach. Someone with experience and an eye for potential who recognizes yours and helps develop and harness it for success. Someone who can make thoughtful suggestions. Guide you past the pitfalls. Apply the knowledge that others acquired along their own paths to greatness.

Imagine if you’d listened more to the wisdom of your parents, mentors and teachers—or, in your marketing organization, the recommendations of colleagues, peers, industry experts and investors who’ve been there and done that.

You’d be way ahead of the game. This is where one big difference between business and life emerges. Life is about the journey. Business is about the results.

Reaching maturity - adulthood

Then one day you realize you’re an adult. Your marketing is now sustainable—with predictability and structure. Bigger budgets, bigger departments. Accountability. Organizational constraints. You’ve honed your digital skills and become more digitally mature.

With maturity comes a certain acceptance of what your marketing team can (and probably should) do well internally. You are also more digitally savvy and understand the power of advanced technology and artificial intelligence and in a better position to allocate resources.

Understand where you are right now, so you can make the right decisions.

Every adult realizes the same thing: you can’t possibly do everything. Nor should you. I’m still looking for that adult who loves putting up drywall—some things are better left for professionals. It’s the same in marketing. Why try to do it all? Digital, social, email, content, PR—name it, and there’s probably someone with the technology and expertise who can help you to do it better.

The moral of the story is this: don’t wait until after the fact to get your marketing right. Understand where you are right now, so you can make the right decisions for the maturity stage you’re in. Given the pace of change in digital marketing, you really can’t afford not to.