Should marketing operations exist? Q&A with Brent Adamson from CEB


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I’m convinced that marketing operations is only increasing in importance for B2B marketing organizations worldwide. The folks at Integrate agree with me, which is why we’re together naming the top 33 professionals in marketing operations as Marketing Ops Game Changers later this spring. We’re accepting nominees until January 31st, 2017, and have several prominent judges lined up to help us select the winners in February.

Brent Adamson from CEB, one of the program judges and co-author of both The Challenger Sale and The Challenger Customer, sat down with me recently to talk about marketing operations. And when the first thing out of his mouth challenged the very idea of marketing operations as a separate focus area, I knew it was going to be a great conversation.

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Matt: We’ve done sales enablement work with a number of vendors and part of what we realize in trying to do state of the sales enablement surveys is a lot of people are doing sales enablement but don’t call it sales enablement. And so we’ve had to be really careful we are not putting too much of inside baseball names on things where people are otherwise doing really well.

Brent: The question I would have is what part of marketing is not marketing operations?

Matt: All right, talk more about what that means.

Brent: Is marketing operations just marketing… I mean sales operations and sales is pretty clear to me, right? So, sales operations is the back of the house where you are not out calling on customers. But marketing, it’s funny because there are various definitions of marketing operations that I’ve read, if you put them all together at some point you’re just marketing. So, it’s the back office, it’s the MarTech, it’s the metrics, it’s the working with sales, it’s demand gen, it’s the content. Okay, then what is it not? It’s not that I have a problem with the term per se, I am just more curious than anything else.

Matt: It’s a great question and makes me think about how marketing has changed. I mean if we were having this conversation 20 years ago, we might think of marketing operations as the guy that traffics the ads to the trade publications or something. If we’ve got a story, we know what we want to say to customers, how do execute on that?

When I think of marketing operations I think it’s great to have a PowerPoint that says what our strategy is, it’s great to have our Challenger messaging and our personas developed and our buying community identified and our buying stages, that’s all great but now how do we go to market on that? Like the plumbing behind that execution I think is a lot of what sales enablement, sales and marketing operations do.

Brent: You see, I would call that marketing. Again, I don’t know if it matters, if we are just splitting hairs that don’t need to be split. The marketing operation, the functions emerged due to the need to be more transparent, efficient, accountable, the marketing, the leadership, etc. But the scope of responsibility

varies – clearly, across marketing teams but then it kind of looks like it starts a strategy which is weird because I don’t know what’s not included in marketing operations.

Matt: This is fascinating because maybe we are staring at our own tiny four walls, right? And so your perspective on this thinking wait a minute, why are you calling it something different when this is just marketing? I think that’s a really interesting perspective.

Brent: So, for example, I’ve got this list of questions that you sent over and the first one is what is the most important role that marketing operation plays in a customer centric data-driven marketing world? The only way that I think I can answer that question is from the perspective of what’s the most important role for marketing to play today. Now, whether or not the role that I would describe would then be assigned to someone with say a “marketing operation” title or not I don’t know.

Again, I will just keep coming back to the same question over and over again – what part of marketing is not marketing operations? That would help differentiate between what marketing operations does versus what everyone else does. But if marketing operations equals marketing then let’s talk about what marketing should do.

Matt: We live in a world that is far more transparent, far more complicated and I would argue far more customer centric than ever. If only because our prospects have access to more information, they are self-directing, they are buying generally far more than they ever have. So in that world where we also have access to a lot more data about our customers, about the market, buying signals about what they are thinking about, how does that environment change marketing’s role in 2017?

Brent: The keynote presentation I did at the CEB conference last fall I think in many ways in my mind picks up on exactly how I would answer this question. You think about the most important role for marketing (operations) to play in today’s customer centric world is to understand customers better than they do now.

And so I think traditionally again marketing has been so focused on putting customers at the “center of everything we do” and generally they are still asking a very limited set of questions around what does the customer think about us? Are they satisfied with us? Would they recommend us? What products do they want from us? How can we deliberate a better experience from us? And so what they are really focused on is the clients or the customer’s experience thoughts, reactions, satisfaction with the supplier. What they are really trying to figure out is how do our customers think about us?

What if we were to look at the customer through the lens of the customer? And I think that is the under leveraged opportunity for most marketing organizations out there, operations or otherwise, is trying to get a better sense for how customers think about themselves, about their opportunities, about who they need to get involved in not just a purchase but in an initiative and who are those different players?

Do the customers understand who those players are? Do they understand the potential disconnects? How do they achieve agreement? What is going to get in the way of their agreement? Do we as a supplier understand that broader set of dynamics around how customers think about themselves or not think

about themselves irrespective of us the supplier? That to me seems to be the single biggest under leveraged opportunity for any B2B marketing organization out there.

Matt: If you think about that less as marketing operations and more as the bar to which we are challenging marketers to reach, if someone is reading this and says yeah, I think that makes a lot of sense I am not as worried about calling this operations or the tech team or whatever, that sounds like a great approach to marketing, how do I make better strides towards that in 2017?

Because ultimately people might want to look at this and say okay pragmatically what do I do? What tools do I need? Is there a different role that I need on my team? Are there skills that I need my marketers to have that they might not have today? And I think you had content on this out of Vegas as well, so as you think about this now a couple of months later, how do you prioritize those next steps?

Brent: Well, in my mind, the thing that’s going to make this work is the right set of questions, and are we even asking the right questions in the first place? For example, are you willing to recommend us as a supplier to colleagues, to friends?

So very practically, when I think of questions I almost immediately in my mind go to framework. What’s a tool, a framework, a guide that we might use to help figure out what are the questions that we should even be asking in the first place? And that’s why at our conference, the CEB Sales and Marketing Summit, I presented those three ideas in a mental model, of an interpersonal persona and of a customer buying journey map as just three different scaffolds or three different frameworks that one can use.

Either they can be independent or they can be used together as frameworks to help you figure out what are the right questions. What do we even know? What do we not know but should know? What are we trying to achieve in the first place?

The goal of a mental model is to understand how does the customer think about their business, what are their priorities in a way that allows us to step back and ask how can we challenge that thinking? The goal of an interpersonal persona is to understand the various customer stakeholders involved in a potential purchase and what their connection, points of connections and disconnect, are in a way that allows them to overcome the obstacles that they are going to run into.

The goal of the buying journey map is to understand what journey your customer goes on. So one, we can identify where we might insert ourselves through our content. And two, to understand the problems or concerns or barriers that those buyers might run into in a way that allows us to very practically identify means to overcome those barriers and move them forward in that purchase process. It’s having a very practical framework or tool that we can use to figure out what is it that we don’t know about our customers that we should.

Matt: What I like about what we are covering here is that if you don’t have these things in place, if you don’t understand your approach, if you don’t understand your customer well enough, if you don’t understand these issues they are facing and how to navigate the beginning of that conversation to get

engagement, to drive urgency, then you really have nothing of value to get your marketing tools to execute, right?

I think the idea for me to go into marketing operations is that we’ve got people that are actually going and executing on the marketing. But if you’ve got all the great tools and you haven’t done everything that you’ve just talked about, it’s an empty vessel, it’s not going to work. And I guess just a tool without a strategy or a tool without a message is not going to work.

Brent: If you think about the world that we live in now, you will see how different it is from five years ago or 10 years ago. What I mean by that is it’s the reality that customers delay interactions with sales reps so far later in the purchase process thus leaving so much more of the buying journey happens on the watch of marketing, right?

So traditionally, what would happen I think is that marketers would leave it to sales to figure all of this stuff out, right? It’s their problem, they need to figure out. Well we need to figure it out as well, what’s our brand? What’s our positioning? How do we present ourselves out to the marketplace? But when we live in a world that we do today where so much more of the buying journey happens on marketing’s watch as opposed to sales’ watch, we now need a marketing team that begins to think about very clearly, concretely, tactically, how can we be doing the things, particularly at arms’ length and at scale, that our sales reps additionally have done at an individual person- to-person basis.

And what it means is we actually have to start asking questions that we didn’t have to ask those five short years ago about things like, how does the customer perceive their business? Who is involved and what are their disconnects? These are the types of questions frankly that would have had significantly less urgency from marketers in the past because we could always leave it to sales to figure out. We just don’t live in that world anymore because customers don’t engage with sales early enough to make it relevant for sales to rely on sales independently to figure that out.

Matt: So if marketing, and I agree with everything you’re saying, marketing has an even greater responsibility to identify and respond to those insights and needs. How do they do that? I mean part of marketing’s task, what you call marketing operations, just marketing, part of marketing’s challenge moving forward is to create those systems that not only give them a solid beginning fundamental foundation of understanding the customer but give them ongoing insights to further color that, to identify new buying signals, to upgrade or downgrade certain prospects based on what’s going on in their business from in the market etc.

What are you seeing from B2B clients that are doing a good job of capturing those insights and building that profile?

Brent: Well I don’t know that we are to be honest. I think that B2B marketing is woefully underprepared for this new environment. And part of it is actually at the very conceptual level of just understanding what is marketing’s role full stop. And so what’s interesting is if you get into small and medium businesses, the relatively young companies that are growing fast and call their marketing field teams “smarketing” or something like that, right? They kind of get this because it’s the only world they’ve ever known.

But you get in a large enterprise that has sold in a very traditional way for decades and many of their marketing organizations, as smart and talented as those marketers are, are nonetheless only just barely coming to terms with the fact that customers buy today in a radically different way. And as a result, what we are finding is that most of the interesting ideas in sales and marketing integration of demand gen, of martech and of what’s in your stack and what you do with it and artificial intelligence and scraping the Internet for information and all of that kind of stuff, most of it is happening, and these things if you agree with it is in the small to medium space and not in the large enterprise space.

There is a huge amount of inertia in big companies in B2B marketing around change and as a result we are not seeing a lot of innovation there.

And so whether content falls inside the scope of marketing operations or whether it falls outside of the scope of marketing operations, I am not completely clear, but the innovations that we do see are largely around design and deployment of content in insights that challenge the way customers think about their business.

And only just recently in the last couple of years we’ve begun to see a couple companies beginning to think about designing that content in a way whereby the consumption of that content becomes a relatively clear indicator of where that customer is on their purchase journey. Most companies that we do see doing that are more the small to medium ones that have more flexibility to make that change happen relatively quickly.

Matt: The bigger you are the more likely you are to turn the ship and change the way you’ve always done things.

Brent: I don’t know that many big marketing organizations that literally just conceptually come to terms with the new reality that they are in, and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way because I do think they work very hard. But it’s just that there is just so much inertia around what always worked in the past.

We see this on the sales side all the time, a sales rep says I’ve been selling for 30 years, I think I know what I am doing. We see effectively the same thing on the marketing side – look, this has always worked in the past, why shouldn’t it work going forward? Let’s just double down and try harder as opposed to let’s do something radically different.

Matt: How does this change the role or the challenge for marketing leadership? If you are a CMO and you agree with this but you look at your organization and you say I’ve got people that are just stuck in their old way, I’ve got an organization that doesn’t see marketing as playing this kind of strategic role, how do you start to change the culture in your organization to be more accepting of this?

Brent: I do think every senior marketer needs to become a dedicated student of the customer.

It goes back to what I was saying before, I think CMOs need to be asking the question more than any other question – how is B2B buying changing? How are B2B purchases happening today in ways that are different than the way they happened two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago?

Every one of us needs to have expertise in that particular question because that’s what’s driving the change. It’s not that marketing is changing because there is new technology. It’s not that marketing is changing because there are new capabilities.

So you add new technology just because you can I suppose that’s kind of neat, but the real reason why you have to change marketing is not because marketing is changing but because buying is changing.

So two parts to this. One, to answer the first part of your question, that would be my number one recommendation to a senior marketer is, do they truly have an understanding and a deep appreciation of the implications for commercial excellence from those buying changes?

And then the second thing I would tell you is, how do I revamp the culture to get the rest of the team re-oriented to this new perspective? I think this is a really important point that actually plays out in the sales side equally as much if not more so.

We spend a lot of our time talking to sales organizations about challenges, and what I found personally is if you get up in front of a group of 500 sales reps, if you are not careful, the way it sounds to a sales professional is everything that you’ve done in the past is wrong and I am here to fix you. And as soon as you create that perception of I am here to fix you, you make people defensive. You make people resistant to the new idea, you get people frankly ticked off.

And understandably, right? It feels like a direct frontal assault on their capability, perhaps even on their identity, right? And so what we tell sales leaders all the time is that to get your sales reps open to these new ideas, to get them moving in the right direction, don’t start with a selling story, start with a buying story.

The whole idea is that the narrative is not, you are selling well and I am here to fix you, but rather you are selling right, you are doing a great job but the world you are selling into is changing and as a result we need to adapt our great selling to be different to adapt to this new world.

And I would suggest that that same narrative is equally important in B2B marketing as it is in sales. The point being as a leadership team if we can understand these changing buying dynamics and we can help our teams understand these changing buying dynamics, then the narrative is less “you guys are doing it wrong and I am going to hire this new MarTech expert to fix everything or I’m going to get me a digital specialist to show you how it’s done,” right?

Instead let’s say look, we need to up our game. To up our game is code for you are bad, right? So I think the posture and the narrative is actually really important for change management reasons and in many functions, it’s the leadership helping his or her team wrap their brains around the fact that the world that we are marketing into is not only different but infinitely more exciting if you are a marketer because so much more of it happens on our watch.

And if we can understand how that buying behavior is changing it’s going to open up a vast new set of opportunities for us to take the skills that we’ve already developed and exercise and explore them in all sorts of new ways.

Now again that might sound a little cliché but what I found in companies all over the world is that narratives matter for change management and being able to tell that story to your marketing team in a way that gets people jazzed as opposed to getting them resistant is really going to matter. You buy that?

Matt: I do, and I think it goes back to where we started on this. The idea here is that we’ve got to focus on what marketing operations does, but if you don’t emphasize the story, it gets lost.

I think when we live today in a world where there are growth hackers, where there are people who are marketing automation specialists that really know how to use Marketo but have no idea what to say, have no idea how to talk in the customer’s language, when you talk about marketing increasingly as a science that’s great but the message, the stories, the narratives in there are always going to be important and I really hope that that doesn’t become a lost art.

I really hope that we don’t start focusing so much on the big data, so much on the technology, so much on this scalable system we can build in marketing and then consider the story to be an afterthought. I think that would be a very dangerous thing.

Brent: I totally agree. I was having an email conversation yesterday with someone in a sales and marketing operations enablement whatever you call it, and he was asking about artificial intelligence. And of course this is the new big thing for 2017 going forward, or at least that marketers can use AI to gather insights better than they were doing before.

And my first gut reaction to AI is thinking: how marketing automation or any other tool that is potentially game changing and mind blowing in terms of its possibility and potential completely contingent upon the parameters and the criteria that we choose to set for it to search against in the first place, right?

So if we’re going to use AI tools and go out and scrape the world for new information, it is only going to scrape the world for new information along the lines of whatever we guide it to do, right?

So are we even asking the right questions in the first place? Otherwise we will deploy our AI to go find stuff that frankly isn’t going to be all that helpful because the AI is bad or because we directed it to the wrong place.

And so it all comes back to strategy, right? Your second question about which of the following is most essential for marketing pros to master – strategy, data, analytics, technology – it comes back to one of those, if you give me those choices I would come back to strategy. What are we ultimately trying to do? And the only way to answer that question is to answer what is that customer trying to do and how do we need to change that? How do we need to guide it? How do we need to direct it in a way that maybe they themselves haven’t fully anticipated is going to matter?

The other thing that becomes hugely important is collaboration and effective teamwork. Working across colleagues is going to become massively important in this new world and that’s part of what marketing operations owns and guides.

Because one of the things we found when we studied personalization is that the teams that really figured out how to get the benefits from personalization efforts were the ones that truly focused on people. And it wasn’t people at the individual specialist level but it’s people on the collaborative integrated working together level.

If you think about the talent, the capability that we need to put together today to make all these things work, I’ve got technology, I’ve got data, I’ve got content, I’ve got creative, I’ve got agencies, I’ve got strategy and different people are obviously going to spike in different places and on that continuum.

A technology person isn’t necessarily going to be great at content. My content person isn’t necessarily going to understand how to do data analysis but nonetheless you’ve got to bring all of those things to bear to truly realize the benefit of all of these great capabilities.

And it’s one of these things where one plus one plus one can equal four if you get it all to work together, or where one plus one plus one can equal one or zero if they don’t. And because you can’t have one person that owns all of those because the expertise is too broad, you’re going to have to find a way to get people to collaborate more effectively and if you don’t you will underperform.

Matt: One of the underlying themes that you are addressing here that I think is really important in driving this change is culture, right? It is the culture within your marketing organization, it is the culture within your company, the way that marketing is perceived by sales, perceived by the C-suite, this comes down to what words you use, right?

From the beginning of this conversation we talk about marketing operations and it’s like, WTF, what is that? Is it just a buzzword? Is it marketing? And if we as marketers even as marketing leaders go back to the C-suite and start using our MQLS, QLA, Whatever-QL acronyms with the CFOs, like what the hell is that? Use my language! Where are you driving my revenue? Where are you helping me create sales?

Use words I know and then go back to your little geeky corner and do your own thing, that’s fine but separate the operational dashboard from your executive dashboard to show me that you know what’s important to the business.

And there is tactical ways to do it but that cultural change cannot be overstated as far as I am concerned to help companies big and small be better at this.

Brent: I am right there with you man. At the end of the day it’s not about marketing operations, it’s about commercial performance and I think the best marketers out there will perceive their role not as a marketing operations person but as a leader in driving commercial performance where I would expand the scope rather than contract it.

To learn more about the Marketing Operations Game Changer program, or to nominate someone you know, click here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Matt Heinz
Prolific author and nationally recognized, award-winning blogger, Matt Heinz is President and Founder of Heinz Marketing with 20 years of marketing, business development and sales experience from a variety of organizations and industries. He is a dynamic speaker, memorable not only for his keen insight and humor, but his actionable and motivating takeaways.Matt’s career focuses on consistently delivering measurable results with greater sales, revenue growth, product success and customer loyalty.


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