Navigating the martech maze: How to get started

In the first of Marketing Week’s new three-part series, in partnership with SAP, we chart the journey of buying marketing technology, giving marketers the guidance they need to avoid hitting dead ends.

Martech mazeYou know a sector is getting complicated when experts start referencing a diagram called a ‘supergraphic’. That is how Scott Brinker refers to his illustration of the 6,829 marketing technology (martech) solutions marketers can choose.

That’s a baffling number of suppliers, even for those in the know. For most marketers, whose core skills don’t revolve around APIs and cloud-based web services, it’s inconceivable. And yet, to not only function but succeed in a competitive, multichannel marketplace, understanding how to choose and use martech solutions is critical.

To help marketers manage this crowded landscape, Marketing Week has partnered with SAP to create a series of guides to navigating the martech maze. Starting right at the beginning with understanding the problems you want martech to solve, all the way up to the final platform integrations and getting the team on board, we speak to a range of brand experts who share their experiences and offer their learnings.

In this, the first of the series, we look at the early steps. There’s no getting around it: the quality of your martech implementation relies almost entirely on the choices you make right at the start.

What do you want?

Before even contemplating a vendor, marketers have to begin by interrogating their own business. “There are plenty of suppliers out there, many solutions to problems you didn’t realise you even had. You must look at what works for your business and create a plan first. You can have all the tech in the world, but if you haven’t defined the problem you’re trying to solve then it’s pointless,” warns Virgin Holidays’ CRM executive Liam Savage.

“It’s a really simple question: what do I get out of it?” suggests John Bernard, EMEA marketing director for health technology company Dexcom. “Is it acquisition of customers, retention, revenue, market share or all of the above?”

Knowing your broad goals is a start but individual martech products often have very specific functions. Dan Baker, EMEA general manager at, narrows the task down and asks: “What is the KPI that you’re trying to impact with a new tool? Are you trying to increase your repeat rate or use automation to improve on-site conversion?”

Even if you consider yourself a complete novice when it comes to using martech today, it doesn’t hurt to look into the future, suggests Bobby Dilawari, head of product for digital platforms at News UK. “How likely is it that our strategy is going to change over time – are we volatile or quite stable? Looking as far as you can into your future and assessing as many of your needs as possible is a really good question to ask of yourself, as well as the supplier.”

It’s a really simple question: what do I get out of it? Acquisition of customers, retention, revenue, market share or all of the above?

John Bernard, Dexcom

While much is made of the ability of technology to ‘plug and play’ with companies’ existing systems, what is often forgotten about is the organisation’s ability to manage the software or its outputs. Dilawari insists: “Be honest about how much you can take on. You may find you have the know-how and skills to control a tool or you may find that you are also going to need support and consultancy to make the right choices.”

Baker adds: “When you’re adding a resource to the company, the initial investment may be hundreds of thousands but then you have to spend even more to maximise the ROI.” So, before you’ve even begun, you need to think about what you need to achieve, what impact you expect it to have and how your business will cope with the consequences of bringing in new technology.

Setting parameters

Hand in hand with an understanding of business need goes the process of setting objectives and success measures. “Revenue number is usually the north star. The success measure is what that looks like one year on,” explains Bernard.

Cost – including opportunity cost – is another clear imperative for many.

“Time to market is a very important success measure,” states Dilawari. “If I compare how long it takes to get campaigns to market today compared to the future, that is a key indicator of success. There are other aspects such as cost to run and what levels of resource are needed today versus tomorrow, or what scale uplift we have had using the same level of resource.”

It is important to make sure that whatever measure of success is chosen, it is going to feed into the success of the whole business. “Take my experience at Mozilla. If the goal is brand awareness, aided versus unaided, my measurement happens at the end of a brand research phase. But the moment of truth is when I add market share, users and revenue,” Bernard insists.

Recognition that objectives and success measures may not always be exactly aligned is also key. It’s not an excuse for implementations to go fantastically awry, but it is an acknowledgement that reality will always intrude on best laid plans.

“It’s super-important to have clear goals but products take longer than planned and nothing happens as smoothly as you hope. Companies don’t become expert in their tools overnight but if they benchmark as they go, know the numbers expected beforehand and track the KPIs, there should be incremental improvement,” Baker claims.

Ready to take the leap?


The questions you ask of your own business should go quite a long way to triaging the 6,829 suppliers into relevant or not, and then knowing what to ask of this group to narrow the field yet further is the next task.

Desk research is a useful tool: “We look for suppliers who are the right scale for our operations,” says Dilawari. “That’s important because you can have relatively nascent suppliers who have a compelling offering with a great feature set but the moment you test it at scale, it falls down.”

You can’t put off speaking to vendors forever and eventually you need to solicit information – and understand what you’re being told. “There is always some standard stuff you should seek to clarify such as what support you can expect during the integration, and is there a dedicated resource that will help you get live quickly and iron out the inevitable problems?” Baker suggests.

Bernard supports the plain English approach. “For anything new, I’ve looked at some agencies and used them as my sounding board. I ask them to tell me what they’re doing but explain it simply. It’s not so much knowing exactly what questions to ask but finding one who knows I’m a novice and can break it down for me. There’s a lot of trust in knowing an agency can understand your challenges and deliver a solution.”

For many marketers who have been down this road, it can often be something as simple as a personality match or clash.

Savage proposes: “You need to choose vendors that fit in with your brand’s ethos and culture. For example, Virgin Holidays is an agile brand that moves quickly, and ethics are really important to us.”

One-stop shop?

If you throw AI and machine learning into the mix, then theoretically anything is possible with martech. Realistically, however, this is unlikely; not least because it seems martech will never be fully immune from human error.

“If the customer experience is poor when customers get the product, your martech isn’t going to help,” Baker warns. “It’s really important that you understand what the true problem is.”

“Martech is oversold and we overestimate what it can do and underestimate the work it takes to run,” adds Dilawari. “It’s very easy to say we’ll use machine learning to target communications but what it can’t help you with is really understanding audiences, having an idea of who they are and what they look for. More traditional marketing science is important at the beginning of the martech journey when you create frameworks for these tools.”

We look for suppliers who are the right scale for our operations.

Bobby Dilawari, News UK

“Martech cannot do strategy,” Bernard chimes in. “It can do lots of execution or drive revenue but we are still a little bit away from applications such as AI and machine learning being fully used.”

The same can be said of the seductive nature of the single suite provider. One thing that sticks out about the martech provider space is the sheer difference in size between startup specialist solutions and the might of the handful of global providers with huge portfolios – or ‘marketing clouds’ – that cover everything from email lists to chatbots and beyond.

“There are definite benefits to having a one-size-fits-all system if you are starting out. It makes sense if you are dipping a toe to have it all administered by a single company. As you get more sophisticated, there are many subject matter experts within martech. Interoperability is really good. It’s one of the real benefits of collaboration between technology companies today and it helps marketers do our job,” Bernard admits.

In deciding between cutting-edge solutions, and between a single provider or creating a bespoke suite, the advice takes us right back to the beginning of the martech journey: “You need to define the problem that needs to be solved, and then choose the tech to fix it,” Savage says, simply.

Sponsored viewpoint 

Nicholas Cumins, general manager, SAP Marketing Cloud 

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by technology. It may seem obvious, but to avoid this you first need to be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish. You want to drive technology, not be driven by technology. It’s interesting to see that the role of marketing itself is going through changes, so get that topic on the table early when deciding your martech approach – is marketing in your organisation purely demand generation or is it driving the full scope of customer experience? 

Choosing a supplier then comes down to that company’s ability to support the transformation challenge ahead. If that’s going to be significant, you need to know what experience a vendor has in shepherding that scale of transformation and whether they have the right partners in place to help. This is far more important than purely product capabilities. In any case, it’s unlikely any single vendor will have a silver bullet so finding out how they coexist with others is critical.  

Setting clear objectives and KPIs is obviously going to be important to help you stay focused on the challenge ahead, but even more important is setting out shared objectives between marketing and the other departments. We say marketing is in charge of demand but what kind of demand are we talking about: acquiring new customers, increasing the share of wallet with existing customers, reducing churn? That depends very much on the shape of your business.  

Above all, you have to be clear that the technology is just here to help. You can’t rely on it to transform your business. You need to have a culture within your marketing team that is highly collaborative and adaptive. Change will be a constant and there’s no sign it’s going to slow down. Culture prepares teams for change and technology plays a part in enabling it. Once you have that, the rest flows very nicely.