Rent, buy or train? How to accelerate strategic marketing operations

Let’s face it — building a marketing operations (MO) function is hard. Building a world-class marketing operations function is even harder.

What makes this so challenging is finding the right people with the right skill sets to build a strategic MO function. In this column, I’ll share how to accelerate your strategic marketing operations capability through a rent, buy and/or train strategy.

I would never hire someone from an MBA program

I was vividly reminded of this acceleration challenge last year as I was facilitating a half-day Revenue Marketing workshop for the MBA program at the College of William and Mary.  I’ve taught this class for the last six years, and I always invite practitioners who can present on the topic from both an operational and business perspective.

This year, I brought in Dan Brown, the VP of marketing operations from martech company Verint. I asked Dan to share with the class how he built his marketing operations team, what they do and how they affect the marketing and the business. In addition, since everyone in the class is looking for their next job, I also asked him to define the skills required to work in a world-class marketing operations organization.

Imagine my surprise when I heard Dan say this: “I probably would not hire anyone from this class.”

You could have heard a pin drop when Dan uttered these words. As I sat there, I immediately understood his point. The skill set required to work as part of a marketing operations (MO) group is unique and certainly not something that’s taught in college — at the undergraduate or at the graduate level.

The unicorn — in pieces

Working in a marketing operations function (strategic or not) requires the holy trinity of skills: technology/analytical, marketing and business acumen. The charter of a regular MO function is to apply efficiency and effectiveness to marketing operations to help marketing meet their stated goals.

This type of function is typically more reactive in terms of strategy, but it serves a core function for marketing. In this type of MO function, we see fewer unicorns and more specialists, or pieces of the unicorn.

You have people who are specifically tech-savvy or analytical. The marketing knowledge is often borrowed from other parts of the marketing organization, and the business acumen typically resides solely in the VP of marketing or the CMO.

So, while the MO function has access to all the major required high-level skill sets of the unicorn (possessing the unusual combination of a marketing/technology skill set), it is a piece-part approach.

The holistic unicorn

An exciting development in our market is how the MO function continues to morph, transform and mature. When MO function achieves a higher level of maturity, I call it strategic MO.

The strategic MO function brings an operational discipline that allows the CMO to run marketing like a business, rather than simply deploying the technology. Much more than button-pushers and techies, a strategic MO function is instrumental in transforming marketing into a revenue growth engine.

A strategic marketing operations charter might read as follows:

To enable marketing accountability, digital transformation and customer centricity by employing marketing operations as a strategic capability comprised of people, process and technology, both within marketing and in collaboration with all customer-facing functions of the organization.

Let’s consider how to get this holistic unicorn skill set and use it to accelerate the maturation for your MO function. You have three main options: rent, train and/or buy. Of course, you can execute any combination of rent, train and/or buy. However, any effort should start in the same way.

The skills gap assessment

A critical leadership role is finding and managing talent. For the MO function, this begins with conducting a rigorous skills assessment. Here are five easy steps:

  1. The baseline for the assessment includes aligning the role of MO to the goals of the company and to the goals of marketing over a one- to three-year period.
  2. Once you have this baseline in place, you will next determine the full set of skills you will need to be able to execute successfully.
  3. Conduct a skills inventory across all of the MO group.
  4. Conduct a skills assessment by an employee.
  5. Define the skills missing from the group that needs to be filled.

Rent the skills

The great thing about living in the digital economy is that virtually anything can be delivered “as a service.” From fractional CMOs to software development, we live in a world where we can define our needs and “rent” the services.

The same is true for MO skills. There are two primary benefits to “renting” the skills you need. First, it can help immediately accelerate your growth as a MO function. By bringing in this talent, you can shorten the time it takes to reach the next level and produce tangible and credible results.

Second, renting MO skills can help you train your current staff. In our world, nothing compares to experience — having done something many times in many different types of environments is essential. Bringing in someone with this experience helps you fill the gaps but also assists your employees by allowing them to see someone use all the competencies to knit together a total solution.

The downside of renting is that if you do it for too long and for the wrong skills, you might find yourself in the uncomfortable situation of not owning the core competencies you need in MO. There is always a balance, and it can change over time as the needs of the business change.

Train the skills

In my many conversations with MO leaders, I find little patience for training, and I find even less rigor in training.

This is true across most parts of marketing. Most companies do not have formal training programs anywhere in marketing or MO specifically. What they do have is more focused on some of the pieces of unicorn competency. Yes, companies will make sure that the MAP administrator has the most current certification, but, after this, there isn’t much training to speak of.

I have yet to see a formal MO training program that encompasses all the unicorn competencies: tech/analytics, marketing and business. By the way, if you have one, please let me know!

Most training I see is informal and on-the-job. What folks in the MO group get exposed to determines what they learn. The latest conference they attended, the last project they worked on or the latest white paper they read determines their skill set. MO leaders need to address this gap in process and skills immediately.

Here are a few tricks:

  1. Create a unicorn development plan that includes rotations in all parts of marketing with certifications in communications, consulting and some aspects of tech/analysis.
  2. Hire someone with a technical skill set and have them take a rotation in marketing.
  3. Hire a marketing/business acumen person and have them take a rotation in some aspect of tech/analysis.
  4. Award unicorn badges and certification.

Buy the skills

I find that most MO leaders would rather buy or hire the right skill sets. This gives them ultimate control over their group and allows them to move with speed and agility. However, I have yet to meet a MO leader with an unlimited budget.

Real unicorns, required for the strategic MO, can be pricey.

What I most often see are key hires who bring in the ability to work with a combination of rented and trained assets to address skill gaps. At the same time, it is a Catch-22: Do you invest in the deeply technical skill sets you need or invest in a higher-level hire who can orchestrate resources between rent, train and buy?

Running a MO organization is one of the coolest places to be in marketing today! The possibilities for how this function can enable marketing to step up in terms of business accountability and leadership are both exciting and inspiring. Yet, talent is a huge gating factor.

The successful MO leader will address this challenge through a fluid combination of rent, buy or train that will meet the business needs of today and tomorrow.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech Today. Staff authors are listed here.


About The Author

Debbie Qaqish is Principal Partner and Chief Strategy Officer of The Pedowitz Group. Debbie manages global client relationships and leads the firm’s thought leadership initiatives. She has been helping B2B companies drive revenue growth for over 35 years. Debbie is author of the award winning book – “Rise of the Revenue Marketer,” Chancellor of Revenue Marketing University, and host of Revenue Marketing Radio, a podcast series for revenue marketing leaders which showcases marketing executives from companies like GE and Microsoft sharing advice on marketing transformation. A PhD candidate, Debbie also teaches an MBA course at College of William & Mary on Revenue Marketing. In March 2016, Kapost named Debbie among the Top 40 Most Inspiring Women in Marketing. For the last five years, Debbie has been named One of the 50 Most Influential People in Sales Lead Management. She has also won SLMA’s Top 20 Women to Watch distinction.

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