CMO’s Notebook: How CMOs Can Reconcile The ‘Change Gap’

Does it feel like your job is getting harder? “You’re not imagining things,” said Scott “Chief Marketing Technologist” Brinker.

CMO’s Notebook: How CMOs Can Reconcile The ‘Change Gap’ readers may know of Scott Brinker from his Chief Marketing Technologist blog or as the program chair of the rapidly expanding MarTech Conference.

Indeed, Brinker, who also is the co-founder and CTO of ion interactive, has become an important thought leader in the mar-tech space. I recently caught up with him at the “Great Minds Series,” a senior marketing event hosted by the MSLGROUP. Read on for our conversation. What is the premise of your recently published book “Hacking Marketing”?

Brinker: As marketing has become so entangled and dependent on technology and software capabilities to execute its business mission, it increasingly makes sense to have some DNA from the tech and software development world embedded into the marketing organization. This is the idea of “marketing technologist” roles—technically savvy people with backgrounds in software engineering or IT who are committed and excited about the opportunities to apply their skills in the context of marketing What are the parallels between software development and modern marketing?

Brinker: Digital marketing has shifted from the periphery to the center of marketing. Today everything in marketing, in some way or another, is either delivered through digital channels or supported behind the scenes by digital capabilities. And the obvious-but-revolutionary realization marketers must face is that everything digital is run by software.

Therefore, marketers are becoming responsible for architecting and operating sophisticated software ecosystems to achieve marketing outcomes. And as marketing moves beyond communications, taking on greater responsibility for delivering functional consumer experiences at digital and offline touchpoints, the need to wield software solutions as a marketing capability continues to grow. This ushers us into a world where the art of software development and the art of marketing overlap more and more. When a marketer architects a user experience on a website, which is actually just a kind of software program, they are, in fact, managing a software design project.

This shift in thinking—integrating marketing thinking with software thinking—is a massive transformation in marketing management. How have agile software development management methods lead to the agile marketing opportunity?

Brinker: Agile practices emerged in software development in response to the problems that the waterfall method of building software—in which a product would be built over months or years as a giant, monolithic, preplanned project—could not keep pace with accelerating changes in user expectations and requirements. So software developers created agile methodologies that reimagined the development process as a series of shorter, iterative development cycles that would deliver a product in a more emergent fashion. Each short cycle, a sprint, focuses on the most important priorities to build next and then quickly shares the output with stakeholders to get feedback. This then creates the opportunity to tweak the product in the next cycle based on that feedback. You keep iterating through these development cycles and let the software grow organically.

I think this is now very applicable to how marketing needs to operate as consumer expectations and requirements evolve more and more quickly. What is involved for CMOs to put this into practice?

Brinker: The technology part is the easiest part of this equation. The difficulty is that agile concepts often rub up against the traditional way in which marketing has been managed, particularly in larger organizations, with rigid, long-term plans, overly strict processes, siloed functions, etc. While that waterfall-like approach to marketing worked in the past, the environment in which companies find themselves today changes too quickly for that approach to keep up.

Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight. It took the IT community about 15 years to adopt and learn how to do agile well. Early adopters in the marketing community have been doing agile for about five years, and we are approaching the “crossing the chasm” point where more mainstream marketers are now embracing agile. This takes a lot of change management and culture shift; it needs support and reinforcement at the top and requires a lot of bottom up adoption for it to work.

But agile is the way of the digital world. Consider Mark Zuckerberg’s motto in the early days of Facebook to push for continuous innovation: “Move fast and break things.” Or consider cross-functional teams at Amazon who are constantly experimenting and pushing tweaks to their customers at an incredibly high frequency, continually updating the software. This is the bar that’s being set for the rest of us, and it’s a transformative shift in management thinking. How should CMOs think about balancing the competing management trade-offs of innovation and scalability?

Brinker: CMOs have two types of responsibility. First, traditionally, they have been responsible for scaling marketing according to key metrics, such as traffic, transactions, conversions, qualified leads, revenue, profitability, etc. We have typically structured and operated marketing to achieve such scalability.

But in today’s world, CMOs increasingly have responsibility for innovation inside the marketing department, too. In “Hacking Marketing,” I describe the things you need to do differently to effectively manage programs for innovation versus scalability. They’re often diametrically opposed characteristics (see graphic, below). Marketers can’t abandon their responsibilities to scale. But they must recognize that they also need to nurture innovation—and they must manage those activities with a different set of principles, practices, processes, and people than the scalable part of their business. What are your calls-to-action to CMOs and the C-suite to embrace the hacking marketing transformation?

Brinker: Technology is changing at an exponential rate. But organizations do not change at that speed. So the gap between technological change and organizational change is growing wider over time. If you are a CMO and feel like your job is getting harder, you’re not imagining things. It is objectively harder, and this gap between technological change and organizational change is the reason why.

So one of the biggest challenges that CMOs and other leaders must address is how to reconcile that “change gap” to satisfy consumers and outmaneuver competitors. They must be highly selective and focus on which changes they will adopt and when. That may mean intentionally ignoring some change opportunities in order to focus more intently on others, so that you don’t overload your organization or short-change the necessary co-evolution of your company culture.