Marketing operations is something of a misunderstood role, and can be a catch-all for the responsibilities that don’t fit easily into other senior marketing remits. “You get everything the chief marketing officer likes the idea of but doesn’t have time to do,” is how one senior marketing operations executive describes it.
But while it’s still a relatively young discipline in marketing, it is increasingly becoming regarded as one of the most critical senior marketing portfolios, and an essential way for companies big and small to ensure they’re getting the most bang for their marketing buck.
So if the CMO is the captain of the ship, setting the marketing team’s destination and course, the head of marketing operations is the first mate, navigating the ship through often-uncharted waters.
That’s the person who ensures the crew are all on board and pulling in the same direction, using the best tools and processes for the job at hand, well-equipped to safely navigate any rocky shores. Ultimately, they are responsible for getting the Good Ship Marketing into port on time, on budget, with no crew lost overboard and logbooks complete, ship-shape and ready shortly to set sail again.
Two in five marketing executives surveyed in a study reported in The Wall Street Journal in the past year said they were looking to hire in the areas of marketing operations and technology, and digital engagement – making them two of the marketing industry’s most-desired skill sets. The study, conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit, was based on a survey of almost 500 chief marketing officers and senior marketing executives.
And executed well, marketing operations management can account for double-digit efficiency improvements, according to McKinsey & Co.
“You are usually the only centralised marketing resource other than the CMO,” our marketing operations expert says. “Everyone else is siloed. When the CMO wants something done they come to you to implement it.”
So what makes a good marketing operations chief?
Marketing operations professionals are charged with developing the strategy and process for monitoring, measuring, and analysing the effectiveness, efficiency and risk of marketing initiatives as they relate to an organisation’s overall goals.
Marketing operations typically requires more analytical, left brain-led skills than a traditional marketing executive. These include the ability to plan and forecast, build the right technical and operational infrastructure, track, implement and maintain execution of best-practice processes, and measure and improve the overall performance and return on investment of the marketing team, all the while minimising risk to brand and reputation.
An operations chief maximises and maintains the productivity of your marketing staff, allocates resources to projects, and forecasts resource requirements for future activity.
The marketing operations chief is also responsible for keeping an organisation’s marketing output in line with its business strategy, using their considerable people management skills to keep wasted activity and misspent budget to a minimum.
And they have the CMO’s back in other ways, ensuring all marketing activity meets its compliance obligations through approval processes that diminish the likelihood a brand will commit embarrassing or costly regulatory breaches.
They may be charged with monitoring and maintaining data quality within the marketing database.
And with digital marketing technology proliferating, marketing operations executives are often charged with identifying and recommending to the business new technologies that can streamline and improve digital marketing processes.
When that technology is implemented, and in other moments of procedural flux, change management becomes a key focus.
The head of marketing operations may also be responsible for developing the marketing team culture, keeping teams happy, challenged and productive, as well as holding them accountable.
Marketing ops: who needs it?
While senior marketing executives have in the past required more of a strategic and creative mindset than an analytical one, there is no doubt the marketing profession at large is becoming more metrics-oriented and revenue-focused.
As marketing becomes more closely linked to revenue generation, and therefore more influential within organisations, it will increase its contribution to the strategic direction of those organisations. The marketing operations portfolio is in an ideal catalyst for this transition.
Marketing operations as a formal function has mostly taken hold in large organisations such as public companies where regulatory compliance — and the development of processes that enshrine that compliance — is critical.
The role is considered crucial for banks, insurance firms and other large financial institutions.
A majority of large technology companies have appointed staff to formal marketing operations roles, according to IDC.
The trend is even more defined among B2B companies, which are creating defined marketing operations departments.
But few companies of any size would argue they don’t require process excellence, marketing accountability, and streamlined infrastructure just as much as large companies do.
If a company can’t support a defined marketing operations role, a focus on operations excellence must be instilled throughout the marketing team by creating a culture of accountability, focusing on the creation of efficient processes, and implementing the right software infrastructure.
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So where can you find good marketing operations staff?
As with all the newer marketing disciplines, good operatives are in demand, and hiring can be a problem.
But while the ranks of experienced marketing operations executives may not be as well populated as those of other marketing functions, there are some established areas in which companies looking to build up this function can go looking for the right personnel.
- Promote from within marketing: While marketing project managers are typically focused on external projects, operations managers are internally focused. However both need to be organised, methodical and decisive, as well as good at ensuring projects are completed on time and on budget.
- Poach from strategy: While the first instinct is to take someone who already works in marketing and give them charge of marketing operations, business strategists are another source of planning-focused executives who are comfortable with metrics and used to multi-tasking.
- Poach from IT: Marketing operations staff must be either technologically proficient, or technologically curious. Often they help the marketing team get what they need from the IT department. So if you can identify IT staff with an affinity for the creative output of marketing, it may be worth poaching from the CIO.
- Other operations teams: Operations executives from outside marketing may already have knowledge of the business or industry you are in, and be able to apply their focus on process to the marketing function.
- Consultancies: Consultancies give smart, young staff with an analytical bent a crash course in problem-solving, making them fertile ground for businesses looking to hire marketing operations executives.
- Agencies: Digital marketing account executives responsible for managing their own clients need to be highly organised, good at reading people and technologically proficient, as well as have a focus on the numbers.
- Investment banking: Executives with strong data and analytics skills are common in the investment banking profession, along with finance and economics, and may also have some exposure to compliance, satisfying some of the most critical marketing operations requirements.