“You don’t know what you don’t know”—The Case for Marketing Operations

An interview with Mayer Becker of MarketSphere. Originally published January 2007.

Mayer Becker is a senior member of MarketSphere’s Enterprise Marketing Management practice and has over 25 years experience in sales and marketing management. Although the concept of marketing operations management has been around for several years now, it is the rare marketing department that has developed a true operations function or even fully integrated operational thinking. I spoke with Mayer to figure out just what he means by “marketing operations” and what challenges organizations face when they decide to adopt this organizational approach.

What is marketing operations?

I think of marketing operations as the “fifth role” in marketing. Traditionally, marketing departments are responsible for four areas: brand, product, voice of customer, and revenue generation. The marketing operations role, which should be at the same level organizationally as these others, is responsible for making sure that the other functions are working together effectively and that people inside and outside the department understand how their activities are linked to the overarching corporate objectives.

The key is recognizing that marketing operations, as a function, needs to operate at the same level as the other marketing functions. Aside from the conceptual reasons for this parity, there are also very practical reasons for it. Chief among these reasons is the fact that marketing operations requires a fundamentally different set of skills than those required by any of the other marketing functions. Marketing operations management is neither brand management nor product management nor market research, though it should be the function that makes it possible for the people concentrating on those areas to do their jobs better.

There is also a broader organizational reason for this separate but equal status. Since marketing operations should manage the process and technologies that run across and connect the various functions, it doesn’t make sense for anyone within a particular function to be responsible for the maintenance and implementation of that stuff. You really need someone who has that as his or her core focus.

What are the problems a marketing operations function should solve?

Well, one problem is the one I just mentioned: explicitly linking the activities of the other four roles to corporate objectives. To give you a quick example, when budgeting time rolls around, since you know that you are going to be sending out a lot of direct mail pieces, you create a budget item called “postage” and put a chunk of money in that slot. You then go ahead and do 22 mailings, which all hit this budget line. Looking back, you end up knowing what you spent as an aggregate, but it usually takes a lot of backtracking to figure out how much you spent on individual mailings and even more work to figure out how that spending translated into business results.

Marketing operations should help you solve this visibility issue by creating a single, comprehensive view of marketing activity that makes the links apparent from the top-level business objective to the spend and return on particular programs.

Of course, this means that marketing operations can and should play a role in planning marketing activities. At a large company, for instance, you may have an ad department, a direct-to-consumer department, and an Internet department, and each one will have its own plan for the year. But how do the people in one department, or the CMO for that matter, know if the messages and actions of these departments are in conflict or concert with one another? You don’t, unless you have some sort of integrated calendar that shows what each team is saying to whom and when they plan on saying it. And you don’t have that unless you have a function that stands outside those areas coordinating things.

Finally, marketing operations can bridge the gap separating marketing from finance by providing the linkage between budgets, marketing activities, and the general ledger. The detailed visibility into the costs and results of individual programs offered by marketing operations not only allows the folks in marketing to translate the metrics they follow—cost of acquisition, for example—into the metrics of concern to the folks in finance, such as ROI, it also makes it possible to respond quickly and effectively when the need for cost-cutting arises.

For instance, I was once asked to cut $500,000 from a multimillion-dollar marketing budget that I managed. Because I didn’t have the tools, my team and I had to do a lot of manual calculations to make sure we weren’t cutting money from high-performing programs. If we had had the right tools, like Marketing Resources Management, this would have been a straightforward exercise.

Reflecting on the challenges they face, I think all marketers can see the value in a marketing operations function. So why don’t more companies adopt this approach?

The most basic reason that companies don’t adopt this approach is that the whole idea is off their radar. Marketing people learn how to do the things they do very well—PR, branding, what have you—but we don’t learn how to run marketing as a business and we aren’t trained in the practices of professional project management. Ultimately, we don’t have the learning in our community; we’re biased by our own area of specialization and, ultimately, we don’t know what we don’t know.

To get at other reasons why this doesn’t happen, I think it’s worth looking at why companies do start moving in this direction. Usually, there will be some event that creates a compelling reason to operationalize marketing. Maybe you get a new CMO and they want to get their house in order. Maybe you get a new CEO who starts asking, “Why are we spending all this money?” Maybe there’s competitive pressure and you just need to become more efficient to get things out faster. In other words, typically nothing happens unless circumstances sort of force the issue.

Of course, even with a compelling reason, the first response is usually some sort of point solution: “We need to get things out faster, so let’s focus on improving execution.” In order to elevate things to the next level, where you are really thinking about an organizational solution, you need a senior champion, someone at the C level who is willing to push these changes through. This is not an insignificant undertaking. It involves a lot of people in a lot of different parts of the business, and getting it prioritized, especially in other departments, can take a lot of high-level advocacy work. If there isn’t a commitment at that level, this won’t happen.

Are there any companies out there that you think have successfully implemented marketing operations? And when companies start down this path, what common obstacles do they encounter?

To start with the first part of your question, very few companies have made the full transition from before to after, so to speak. And even companies that have made a lot of progress toward the end goal haven’t had the systems and structures in place long enough to run the numbers and see exactly how things are going. This whole way of thinking is fairly new and everything is still pretty much in motion.

As far as common obstacles are concerned, I touched on a couple of them already. Lack of ongoing support at a senior level, that is, lack of an internal champion with enough clout to make it happen, is a recurrent issue. Impatience is another obstacle. It takes a long time to get all the pieces in place, and then it takes time after that to demonstrate that all the effort was worth it. We’re frequently trying to “boil the ocean,” so it’s hard to quickly demonstrate significant improvements, though they do emerge eventually.

In the end, though, I think the biggest obstacle that companies face is inertia. Everyone is already trying to do more with less, which is often why they see the need for marketing operations, but because they are doing so much, it’s hard to take time out to devote to making this happen. You can’t just stop your marketing activities in order to fix your processes. You have to try to fix them while you are still using them, and that’s hard.

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