Interview with Scott Brinker: The new role of a chief marketing technologist


Scott BrinkerThis interview also appeared on the IDG Connect Marketer blog.

I recently talked with Scott Brinker, the co-founder and CTO of ion interactive. He is a thought leader in the area of marketing technology, blogging at and speaking at many conferences. His Marketing Technology Landscape Supergraphic, which he put out in January of this year, created quite a stir with its illustration of 947 marketing technology companies in 43 categories – and his noting that this wasn’t all of the companies or even all of the categories.

Louis: So I want to talk about this whole idea of the explosion of marketing technology and the new role of a marketing technology officer, or whatever the person is called at a particular company. In your ebook, A New Brand of Marketing, you say that within a decade marketing went from being one of the least tech-dependent business functions to being one of the most. How do you see that affecting the fundamental nature of marketing?

Scott: Before we talk about technology for marketers, let’s consider the bigger picture. The world has gone digital. Audiences, prospects and customers now engage through digital channels. In retail, digital channels are displacing traditional visits to stores. In B2B, they’re replacing early and mid-stage relationships with salespeople. Buyers prefer to go online in search and social channels. They go to your website, go to your competitor’s website, and use these digital channels and mechanisms as their preferred way to do business.

So marketers have a simple mission (laughs): we have to be where the audience is. We have to give the audience what they want. So, since customers have gone digital, marketers must too. And everything digital revolves around software. The web itself is software. Google, Facebook, Twitter — these are software programs, and marketers need to be adept at using them.

But then there’s also a huge collection of dedicated marketing software — the software that marketers use inside their organizations to produce and deploy digital content and experiences and to listen to and measure activity in these digital channels. These tools give us tremendous power. They give us unprecedented visibility into our audience and let us leverage those insights to craft amazing customer experiences. If there’s one fundamental way in which technology has changed the nature of marketing, it’s this: marketing has shifted from the business of communications to the business of experiences.

Louis: I know a lot of people in marketing who think of this as utterly changing the way that 90% of marketers think: to be very technical and to be very analytical and to incorporate the data into your decision-making is not something that a lot of marketers are comfortable with.

Scott: I agree, there is a whole new set of skills that need to be incorporated into the marketing team. But I would stress that these are additive skills. They don’t eliminate the need for traditional marketing skills such as a great eye for design and a great ear for copy. We still need inspired, creative talent to imagine and produce compelling content and experiences that really touch people. Use technology to deliver those experiences. Use data and analytics to learn which experiences resonate best. But at the same time, recognize that there has never been a greater opportunity for creative people to affect the world around them.

The new role of a chief marketing technologist

Louis: You’ve proposed this position which you say that more and more companies are starting to use which is a marketing technology officer. So why don’t you describe what that position involves and how that person works with both the marketing team and the technology team.

Scott: Good technology management and operations have become requirements for executing good marketing in a digital world. Therefore, you want people on the marketing team who have those skills, who are fluent in leveraging software in the service of brilliant marketing.

Given that, I believe there’s a role for a head of marketing technology to lead and coordinate these capabilities within the marketing department. This role is not a replacement for the IT organization, not a replacement for the CIO. But this role serves as the primary liaison between marketing and IT. They make sure marketing adheres to proper IT governance. They prioritize what marketing needs from IT in a rational fashion and translate marketing requirements into the language of IT. They put structure around how marketing adopts technology at scale.

Titles vary for this role. In some cases, it might be one of many hats that somebody on the marketing team wears. In a number of organizations, it’s marketing operations who wears this hat. In others, it’s a customer intelligence team. You might even have a digitally-savvy CMO who is comfortable in this role. But let me emphasize: not every CMO needs to become their department’s de facto chief technologist. Particularly in large organizations, the CMO has bigger things to focus on — the overall strategy of the business. Instead, they want a head of marketing technology as one of their right-hand lieutenants, their trusted technical advisor who helps inform and implement their business strategy through the lens of technology.

What technical and data skills do marketers need today?

Louis: So how much tech does a traditional marketer need to learn, and how much data analysis, and so forth to work in this world?

Scott: It’s a great question. We can think about it at two different levels: individuals and their personal career paths, and then the overall organization, the marketing department as a whole. For marketing as a whole, it’s important that you collectively have all the necessary capabilities to be able to operate in the modern digital world. That means that you’ve got people who are producing great creative. You’ve got people who are leveraging technology to get that creative out in the world, in the right places at the right time. You’ve got data-savvy people who are analyzing those customer experiences and broader data sources from the market to help inform the evolution of the marketing strategy. So you need all of those capabilities in the aggregate.

However, I don’t think that every single person needs to have high marks in every single one of those categories. It’s just asking too much. The CMO’s mission is to assemble a team that collectively covers all those bases and is effective in how they work together.

Now, if you’re an individual, the more you know about technology and data in a digital world the better.  I don’t think every marketer should go out and become a software developer. But I do think that, say, taking a class in programming can be useful to a marketer. Not because they’re going to graduate that course and start cranking out code. The benefit is that they develop a sense of programmatic thinking. Because today, if you’re a marketer, and you’re designing a marketing automation campaign, you find yourself thinking about algorithmic rules and logic-based flows. For example: if this happens at this stage, then do this, unless some other property holds true, in which case, do this other thing. That’s programmatic thinking. Having a mental model to think that way is incredibly helpful in structuring those kinds of modern marketing programs.

How marketing teams with diverse skill sets can work together

Louis: So, you’re going to have a situation that you’re describing, where people on the team are going to have very uneven technical skills and data skills, it’s a team where people are going to have to very much defer to and respect the knowledge of others. If someone on the data side comes in and says, Oh, our data shows that this is the message or this is what people are responding to. And the creative people say, Oh, I hate that. I much prefer one of these others. They still have to defer to what those data people are saying in a situation like that.

Scott: Yes, and that’s another reason for individual marketers to learn a bit about data-driven thinking, data-driven decision making. They don’t have to become a statistician or a data scientist. But they should feel comfortable with the principles of how to reason with data. That way, when they’re working with someone who is more analytical, they’re able to communicate around a common understanding of what a given set of data is useful for — and also what it’s not useful for.

On that last point, while I encourage marketers to take advantage of data, I also caution them that most data is only partial truth. Data can be deceptive. You have to frame it in the context in which it was collected. It’s important to balance quantitative metrics with a more qualitative understanding of your audience. You want to keep pursuing the “why” behind the “what.” This is how intuitive marketers and analytical marketers can complement each other. So, coming back to your point about having people on the team who aren’t really as data savvy as others, as long as they can appreciate where data-driven capabilities are helpful and respect those perspectives, then you can develop that multi-faceted team dynamic.

What issues come up when companies implement this new marketing technologist position?

Louis: You’ve talked to a few companies who have implemented this kind of senior marketing technology position. So what issues have they run into that other companies might learn from when they try to do it?

Scott: It depends on the circumstances, but I’d say the biggest challenge is usually change management. For many years, marketing departments had a relatively stable organizational structure and operated a certain way. They executed work with well-established patterns along a well-known chain of command. The interfaces to external service providers, such as agencies, and internal service providers, such as IT, were well understood.

Previously, the CIO could make a blanket statement: if it’s a piece of software, you need to work with my team. But now those lines are blurring. Software has become pervasive throughout everything we do. Relationships with service providers and agencies are changing too, because the more you move from simple advertising campaigns to sophisticated customer experiences — and all the data associated with them — it’s hard for a company to outsource that in its entirety.

Marketing technology and these new kinds of tech-savvy marketers who harness it are disrupting those traditional boundaries and power structures. You may have had a marketing operations group before, but it may not have been a particularly strong force in the department. They were often in the background doing reporting. But now, if they’re running the technology platforms that the rest of the marketing team depends upon for crafting campaigns and customer experiences, they become critical to everyone’s success. They also alter the relationship between marketing and IT.

These are big changes. It’s a very different kind of marketing organization and, frankly, a very different kind of business organization. Be prepared to evolve your organizational structure, your business processes, and even your culture. The technology itself is the easy part.

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