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Technology Management and the Rise of Marketing Technologists

September 8, 2016 | By

A recent study found that 76% of U.S. marketing departments had a team member primarily responsible for marketing technology usage and 66% of companies worldwide had a chief marketing technologist.* If those figures don’t strike you as astonishing, your lack of surprise is only more evidence of how quickly things have changed. Ten years ago, such positions scarcely existed.

The growth of martech staff can be considered a result of the growth of martech itself: with all that (presumably) valuable technology available, companies had to hire someone to help them choose and manage it. But the presence of martech staff also changes how martech is purchased and used. As martech professionals become more established within their organizations and more experienced at their jobs, their focus shifts from immediate tactical decisions about what to buy next, to more strategic questions of how to organize their technology resources to best support long-term goals.

One result of this shift is the surge in interest in marketing technology architectures: witness the new pastime of drawing “martech stacks,” which has reached Pokémon Go-level popularity in some circles. If you want more evidence: nearly all of Raab Associates’ consulting work in the past year has been focused on architecture design.

Another result is that companies now pay more attention to the boring-but-essential data foundation that supports all marketing systems. Google Trends shows that interest in “customer data” has doubled in the past five years. Vendors report an even sharper rise in interest in customer data platforms (CDPs) in the past twelve months. Indeed, CDP appeared on its first Gartner Hype Cycle report in July.**

Raab September_graph

All this attention to fundamentals has its downside: marketing technologists can no longer work independently of corporate IT groups. That wasn’t the case when their job was mostly to buy stand-alone Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications that were funded by the marketing budget, hosted outside of the corporate data center, and had little interaction with the company’s core systems. Increasingly though, martech strategy is too clearly a part of corporate technology strategy, and marketing data is too clearly a part of corporate data, for foundational martech projects to escape the notice of the corporate IT group.

Not that they should. Corporate IT groups (or at least the good ones) bring deep understanding of technical and planning issues that martech staff sometimes lacks. And, of course, the corporate IT group has a better sense of long-term IT plans than the martech team. This helps to ensure that new marketing applications will not suddenly be cut off from important data streams because of changes in corporate systems.

But corporate IT groups are inherently conservative. Their foremost concern for decades has been to keep the corporate systems running under any circumstances. Improving those systems and providing data for better decision-making have been important goals but not worth the risk of operational disruption. Good IT departments have strategies that balance these concerns by enabling innovation while protecting stability. Yet even the best departments will move more slowly than martech staff who have few legacy systems to protect and are tasked with chasing innovations that occur at a breakneck pace.

The result can be an epic culture clash. I recently spoke with a client who several months ago had selected a customer data platform vendor to use for a test. Checking in, I expected to hear how the test had worked out.  Instead, I was told that corporate IT had gotten involved and the martech group was now waiting to get final approval at the IT group’s monthly meeting.

Truth be told, I nearly fell out of my chair at the words “monthly meeting.” Is there any martech group in the world that makes its decisions once a month? I was surprised that even a corporate IT group would still be moving at such a glacial pace.  Had I fallen into a time warp and landed in the 1950’s? Do they take notes at that monthly meeting with quill pens and distribute the resulting memos by Pony Express (or, more likely, oxcart)?

This particular client’s situation is not unique. I had another conversation that same week with a different client whose plans had also been slowed (though nowhere near as much) by an IT team that had raised security issues of questionable relevance. And I spoke the following week with a third client who wasn’t sure her martech team would be allowed to support the systems that didn’t match the standards preferred by corporate IT.

My goal here isn’t to bash corporate IT groups. Rather, it’s to point out that they have different cultures and priorities from martech teams. As martech matures and martech staff becomes more involved with core architecture and data issues, the need for martech to work with corporate IT will grow. Both teams need to learn from each other, to take advantage of each other’s strengths, and to avoid each other’s weaknesses.

Martech managers may not want to hear it, but they are likely to become more like corporate IT groups as they take on new and deeper responsibilities. Keeping mission-critical marketing and customer management systems running is just as important as keeping mission-critical finance and operational systems running. The solutions to achieve those goals won’t be so different.

I still hope that no martech department will ever wait for monthly meetings to make its decisions. But martech teams do need to expect they will be more structured and deliberate as their responsibilities evolve. Recognizing this is the best way to make the changes without losing the agility they need to support marketing as effectively as possible.


* DataXu, Modernizing The Mix: Transforming Marketing Through Technology And Analytics, July 2016
** Gartner, Hype Cycle for Digital Marketing and Advertising, July 2016

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