Ben Davis: Marketers that put tech ahead of strategy will soon be found out

CMOs need to be wary of being suckered in by shiny new technology toys at the expense of more important tech or brand strategy.

marketing technology

The CMO increasingly aspires to have fingers in lots of pies – product management, customer experience, data. These aspirations are often dependent on technology.

The marketing technology (martech) ecosystem is more complex than it has ever been. Scott Brinker’s famous visualisation has grown from 150 company logos in 2011 to almost 7,000 in 2018. Consolidation is not yet occurring: Brinker points to only 4.5% churn and says that “as marketing technology has advanced – and as ever more specialised capabilities have emerged – we’re putting more flesh on our digital customers and striving to serve them in more human ways”.

This fleshing out has happened fairly quickly with new cloud tech, thanks to relatively low barriers to entry (forgive the mixed metaphors). There’s a long tail of companies that are hoping to get plugged in to the CMO’s marketing stack, with, for example, new categories of ‘bots and livechat’ and ‘compliance and privacy’ formalised by Brinker this year.

Brinker also highlights the “thriving category” of integration-platform-as-a-service – companies such as Mulesoft that do not keep hold of the data or execute the marketing, but simply link together many different martech components and act as the conduit for data. Big cloud vendors such as Adobe are likewise making things easier by growing their independent software vendor (ISV) programmes, which offer compatible martech from smaller companies.

This all sounds very exciting. To those not involved in project managing such integrations, it can sound almost like plug-and-play. But nobody is under any illusion as to how complex this stuff is. Diagrams of Lego-brick-style marketing stacks are tantalisingly simple.

Zone’s chief client officer Jon Davie says: “Creating an omnichannel customer experience strategy is one thing. But leading the team responsible for procuring, installing, configurating and operating the technology required to execute such a strategy is quite another.” Even with the help of the big players, there’s pressure on the CMO in this widened remit.

Davie admits: “The big martech brands like Adobe and Salesforce have done a great job selling the vision to CMOs. The pivot from the CIO to the CMO makes sense in that context. But how many CMOs are really equipped to take on responsibility for cyber security or data integrity – the nuts and bolts of the CIO world, and the issues where one security breach can undo years of careful brand-building?”

A skills gap may already be hindering investment in martech. In Econsultancy’s ‘Dark Martech’ report, in association with IBM Watson Marketing, 45% of B2B and B2C respondents cited a lack of skills as a main reason for a reluctance to invest. Sixty-six percent of respondents said they believe they don’t have the skills or talent to make the most of marketing technology.

Research from Wipro backs this up; it’s ‘State of Martech’ study found only 6% of respondents believed that most of their marketing team is martech conversant. Fifty-one percent of respondents said lack of martech was a barrier to success.

Martech competency is all well and good, but if your CMO is suckered in with shiny new toys at the expense of more important tech or indeed brand strategy, then the jig is up.

And here’s a really interesting stat from Wipro – more respondents ranked martech (47%) among the top three most important skills for a CMO’s success than marketing strategy (44%).

Combine this stat with another from Econsultancy’s ‘Dark Martech’ report: organisations where marketing teams outperformed against their top business goal over the last year, are two and a half times more likely than ‘mainstream’ companies to structure their marketing around an integrated marketing cloud.

You’d be forgiven for thinking a focus on tech is all it takes to succeed. But is there an alternative case to be made? There is certainly some food for thought before we go all-in on martech training. First, could the martech bubble be about to burst? Though consolidation has not yet occurred, some commentators are pointing to GDPR as a potential thorn in the side of martech.

Some pseudonymous data may be included in the new and broader definition of personally identifiable data under GDPR, and this is already sending shockwaves through programmatic buying of advertising in the EU.

David Raab, writing on the Customer Think blog, goes as far as to say that “nothing grows forever and sometimes one small jolt can cause a complex system to collapse. So something as seemingly trivial as a reluctance of core platforms to share data with other vendors could not only hurt those vendors, but vendors that connect with them in turn. The resulting domino effect could be devastating to the current crop of small firms while the need to prove compliance could impose a major barrier to entry for new companies.”

Alongside the threat of GDPR, there’s also a longer-term trend highlighted by venture capitalist Mary Meeker – that of martech such as Slack, Dropbox and Zoom, where a slick ‘consumer-grade’ user experience is created in order to gain individual users ahead of going out to the B2B market. Could such UX at least lower the skill levels marketers need to use new martech?

Taking this to its nth degree, one could imagine a future hinted at by AI-powered tech such as IBM’s Watson for Marketing or Google Analytics’ ‘ask a question’ feature. In this scenario, marketers may be able to interact with software using natural language, and take advantage of automated insights.

More prosaically, there’s always the question of whether all that martech is truly proving its worth. Martech competency is all well and good, but if your CMO is suckered in with shiny new toys at the expense of more important tech or indeed brand strategy, then the jig is up.

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