Creative technologists: meet marketing technologists

I had the pleasure of speaking this week at CreateTech, a conference run by the 4A’s (America Association of Advertising Agencies). The gist of my talk was to introduce creative technologists — who work primarily in agencies — to the marketing technology movement that’s happening in marketing departments at brands.

Those of you who are already familiar with the my talks about the rise of the marketing technologist will find much of this to be familiar, although I have updated it with the latest trends and research on rapidly evolving subject.

Here are my slides, followed by an essay version of my talk:

Let me begin by saying: congratulations. You — creative technologists — have changed the agency world. What used to be a world of art and copy is now embracing code and data as equals (well, almost) in the conception and execution of powerful marketing creative. Great creative technologists have joined the pantheon of agency rockstars.

You even have your own conference, produced by the prestigious 4A’s. Getting any 95-year-old organization to embrace technological innovation is no small feat. Well done! Taken from this event’s website, “Technologists are moving to the front lines in creative, strategy, and agency management.” Sweet.

But there’s a crack in this picture. That crack is the fault line that has divided marketing responsibilities for decades. Agencies are responsible for creative. But brands are responsible for customer experiences. And increasingly, we seem to be tripping over that gap.

Now, some of you may say, “That’s not a bug, it’s a feature!” That gap gives you perspective. Creative freedom. Peace and quiet to get some real work done. But I’m afraid it’s starting to look more like a bug these days. Why? One acronym: ZMOT. Google’s Zero Moment of Truth.

In the old model of marketing, advertising eventually led people to a store, and only after purchase did customer experience come into play. There was typically quite some distance between the advertising and the end game, and that distance gave creative a wide, open territory to roam, free from the constraining shackles of customer reality.

But now, that safe distance has evaporated. Upon an adverting or other marketing stimulus, prospective buyers can instantly jump online — on their laptops, tablets, mobile phones — and dig reality right up. They search on Google. Visit the brand’s website. Visit competitors, read reviews, talk with their friends, ask complete strangers for opinions, hear what existing customers have to say. In many cases, they can start to directly engage with the company.

The distance between creative and customer experience has collapsed to a click (or a tap). More importantly, the line has blurred between creative and customer experience in the mind of the customer. They expect continuity between the rational and emotional promises of the ad and subsequent next steps. For them, this is one continuous flow, and any discontinuities are considered bugs.

But that’s a real tough challenge. Forrester Research came up with this great diagram showing these concentric circles of how buyers going through the initial purchase cycle, then working with using the product or service, eventually becoming repeat customers and maybe, in the best case, brand advocates. At each point these groups intersect, and the individuals hop across channels and devices and touchpoints with alarming ease. And they expect that brand promise to be met at each point!

You might be saying to yourself, “I feel sorry for the poor bloke who’s responsible for that.” Well, welcome to the modern life of the CMO.

IBM published a study of hundreds of CMOs last year, and 79% of them expect high to very high level of complexity in marketing over the next five years. Yet only 48% of them feel prepared for that complexity. And, frankly, I suspect that many of those 48% are blissfully delusional. Because this is seriously complex stuff.

CMOs are navigating the big migration from a small number of traditional vehicles to a kaleidoscope of fractured digital vehicles. Thanks to the ZMOT, their previous hopes of organizing this into independent silos are being shattered as paid, earned, and owned media converge. They’re wrestling with the shift from well-structured, yearly marketing plans — well-placed dominoes in their 5-year plans — to a much more dynamic environment that demands agile iterations on the time scale of weeks or days.

But the biggest change is moving from a mission that was largely about communications to one that is more about experiences. It’s not just what companies say, it’s what they do. And, as with the agency world, “doing” now involves code and data. A lot of code and data. And that’s not something that most CMOs were prepared for.

I was at a CMO summit last year, when one of the attendees burst out in frustration, “I feel more like a CIO than a CMO! I have marketing automation, CRM, listening platforms — I’m up to my eyeballs in technology.”

The marketing technology landscape these days is breathtaking in its size. (“Breathtaking” as in, “Oh, my God, I’m having a panic attack, I can’t breathe!”) This graphic includes a mere 350 marketing technology companies out of thousands in the space. There are companies you are probably already familiar with for display advertising, video advertising, audience targeting, perhaps creative optimization. There are companies for managing massive PPC campaigns on search engines and social networks, and organic search engine optimization tools.

Then there’s all the technology for building and maintaining large-scale web sites, for producing landing pages and microsites that orbit those web sites, and for testing and optimizing all of these experiences. Deeper into the funnel, there are major software platforms for email marketing, CRM, marketing automation. There’s a galloping herd of social media marketing software solutions out there. A bevy of analytics companies. And data, data, data, from granddaddy databases to new big data technologies and business intelligence systems.

Did I mention that this graphic is woefully incomplete?

Is this sustainable? Surely, Oracle and IBM will consolidate all this for us, right? They’re certainly trying. But for every consolidation, two or three times as many new ventures take flight. Marketing technology is diversifying, not consolidating. But why? Three reasons.

First, technology isn’t standing still. New technology is constantly emerging at a breakneck pace. We’re just now starting to glimpse what’s possible with mobile device, what would have been science fiction 5 years ago. Digital homes, digital cars, wearable computing. There’s incredible innovation ahead, and each new wave of it, changes the landscape of what’s possible with marketing.

Second, brands are continuously seeking differentiation. Standardizing on the exact same technologies for customer experiences cedes the opportunity to stand out from their competitors. Different software enables different experiences — we’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Finally, software is simply easier than ever to create and scale. Open source software and frameworks, cloud-based infrastructure-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service offerings, and 24/7 access to expert developer communities, etc., let a couple of developers working from their homes produce something that it would have taken a multi-million dollar venture to do in the not too distant past.

All this means I think we’re going to see a lot of diversified marketing software for the foreseeable future. I don’t think this space will consolidate down to a handful of giants. Although — maybe — we may end up with a few platforms that act as a “marketing operating system” below a diversified range of specialized applications. I call that the “iOS vision” of marketing consolidation.

Regardless of how it evolves, we have clearly entered The Golden Age of Marketing Software.

It’s not just the plethora of software choices marketers have. It’s that software has become the primary interface by which marketing sees and touches the world. Think about it:

  • Analytics shapes our perceptions of customer behavior.
  • Automation guides the processes by which we interact with customers.
  • Optimization software points us to particular choices of tactics.
  • Listening platforms direct our attention for engaging with customers.
  • Targeting software defines what we think of as audience segments.
  • CRMs provide structure to our relationships with customers.

To a very real degree, you are the software you use.

A lot of this software revolves around the delivery of customer experiences — what we do, not just what we say. Speaking of doing, who actually does this? Who designs, implements, and operates these software-driven customer experiences?

In the old days — you know, a few years ago — marketing would have turned to IT for its technology needs. But in the era of digital marketing, and even more the era of digital business, the relationship between IT and marketing has been strained.

A Forrester survey last year asked marketers what their perceptions of IT were. Here are their unvarnished answers:

  • IT is the department of “no.”
  • IT doesn’t speak marketing’s language.
  • IT doesn’t understand the need for speed.
  • IT isn’t concerned with the customer.

Not exactly a rousing endorsement of a business partner. Forrester also asked IT people what they thought of marketing, and their top two answers were:

  • Marketing is spin.
  • Marketers don’t care about integration.

Fair enough. But even when we rise above the name calling and talk to CMOs and CIOs, the fundamental problem is that they have divergent priorities. Sure, they both want the business to grow. But the CIO has key priorities of maintaining control of technology costs and minimizing risk. The CMO, in contrast, wants to define the future of customer relationships and create the new brand experience.

They may respect each other’s positions, but they rate their priorities in very different ways. It’s not that marketers are against standardizing technologies to reduce costs or minimize risks — but it’s more important to them to push the envelope and experiment with new and better ways to engage their customers.

Companies have tried a variety of ways to balance these two camps with different matrixed and hybrid organizational structures between IT and marketing. But many of these structures, in my opinion, don’t work because they make the flawed assumption that you can split marketing technology — King Solomon style — with the marketing handled by one team and the technology handled by another.

As creative technologists, you more than anyone, know that the power is in viewing marketing and technology holistically.

Therefore, the most effective structure that I’ve seen is the one that Forrester recommended: create a marketing technology office within the marketing department. It’s led by a chief marketing technologist who reports directly to the CMO. This “marketing CTO” may have dotted line engagement with the CIO, but his or her primary mission is to harness technology to serve the agenda of the CMO.

The chief marketing technologist owns and operates the company’s marketing technology stack, from off-the-shelf solutions to custom software and databases all glued together.

Last week, Gartner announced new data validating the presence of “chief marketing technologists.” At least among high-tech providers, 72% have someone in that role today, and 87% expect to have that role within the next two years. In some cases, these roles are reporting to the CIO, but in 2/3 of the companies, this role reports to marketing.

Now, you may be saying, that’s interesting and all, but what does it have to do with me? This is a creative technologist conference, not some marketing technologist conference. But here’s why you should care.

Increasingly, these client-side marketing technologists will be managing or interfacing with vendors throughout the marketing ecosystem, including marketing service providers and agencies. The importance of this technology interface should not be underestimated. This will enable or prevent the next generation of creative technology projects. And to frame it in economic terms, it’s now predicted that by 2017 CMOs will spend more on IT products and services than CIOs.

Think about that for a minute. Chief marketing technologists, under the direction of the CMO, will wield tremendous influence over a massive technology budget.

And this is where things get interesting, because there are a lot of people that want a piece of that. There’s agencies, who need to interoperate with marketing’s technology stack more seamlessly — especially where creative technology projects are involved. There’s the big tech consultancies who are looking at the CMO with the same lust they used to harbor for the CIO. And there’s software vendors — that thundering herd from the marketing technology landscape.

These different players aren’t necessarily enemies, but they’re not necessarily friends either. It’s the marketing technology frenemy triangle. Both strategically and technically, this is a sordid and complex intersection. It’s like that wacky bar of alien characters in Star Wars at Mos Eisley spaceport.

Or, to quote another sci-fi movie from the previous century, Dune, “He who controls the spice, controls the universe.” I’d argue that our future will be guided by the maxim, “He who controls the software, controls the marketing.

He who controls the software, controls the marketing.

So to you, I propose three things:

First, embrace the marketing technologists. The alliance of creative technologists in agencies and marketing technologists in brands has the potential to unleash a new generation of marketing that we’re only beginning to imagine.

Second, work to bridge the gap between creative and customer experience. There’s opportunity to redefine creative as something much deeper. Some of you are already doing this — and it’s some of the most exciting work being done today.

Finally, think about the transformations the CMO and his or her organization are going through and ways you can help coach, advise, and assist them on that journey. Certainly you have much insight and experience to offer. But it’s also essential to your destiny that you contribute to the shaping of that marketing department of the future.

He who controls the software, controls the marketing.

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