Marketing Operations in 2017: Q&A with Ross Graber


By Matt Heinz, President of Heinz Marketing

A couple weeks ago we published an extended Q&A with Brent Adamson from CEB, featuring his take on the marketing operations role.  I loved his perspective, which started with wondering whether all marketers are in a marketing operations role these days.

It’s a fair point to argue, but I’m still convinced a marketing operations function is critical to modern B2B success.

Ross Graber agrees.  He’s senior research director at Sirius Decisions with a focus on marketing operations best practices worldwide.  Below is an excerpt from my recent conversation with Ross about marketing ops today, tomorrow and ongoing.

Matt: What’s the state of B2B marketing operations as we start 2017?

Ross: To talk about the state of marketing operations in b-to-b, we really need to start by looking one level up, and consider the drivers that affect b-to-b marketing overall.  When I look at the largest pressures affecting marketing leaders, they boil down to a handful of core things. First marketers need to understand the buyer more deeply than any other function.

Marketers must use that understanding to help their organizations productively engage buyers – using the tool kits of marketing. That engagement needs to satisfy buyer needs while driving favorable business outcomes.

At the same time b-to-b marketing must prove to the organization that it has used resources effectively and continue to drive learning.  Together this makes up a tall order, but it’s also what makes b-to-b marketing so exciting.

Now let’s look at the role marketing operations plays in this story. In broad terms, marketing operations serves as the champions for insights, accountability and scalable process efficiency.  These are all mandatory elements if b-to-b marketing is to fulfill its mission. In those terms, the outlook for marketing operations is really strong.

It’s bringing to bear an essential skill set and focus. Companies that do marketing operations well do marketing well. But we’re also seeing that the state of marketing operations is uneven.

Many companies operating in tech sectors “get it.” They were the first to understand the mission of marketing operations and see the benefits of having a strategically oriented operations function with strong leadership.  These are companies that have generally been more progressive and have embraced changes in buyer behaviors, technology and accountability early on.

But in companies that are too heavily product focused, or that operate in more traditional industries, they’ve been slower to adapt their marketing approaches to their buyers. In turn have not evolved their organizations to divide responsibilities in a way that allows marketing practitioners to develop deep expertise and become nimble in addressing the needs of their buyers.

For companies that haven’t really embraced this shift, marketing operations is a tougher idea – they still operate under the mindset that operations responsibilities can be handled by everyone, in addition to their day jobs. Our research show this approach is simply not sustainable.

Matt: Why is marketing ops so critical to treat as a stand-alone function?

Ross: I love this question and find it critically important. The job responsibilities of marketing operations work at rhythms that are very different from the rhythms of other marketing jobs and the jobs of sales Think about the pressures that campaign managers, field marketers, demand managers or social media specialists are under.

Sure they need to dedicate significant time for planning and analysis, but so much of their focus revolves around executing the next tactic, making necessary adjustments and then moving on to the next tactic after that.  How can they find the time or focus to construct an integrated planning process, develop a measurement system, deploy technology or work on cross-functional process efficiency?

If you relied upon team members with responsibilities for everyday marketing execution, meaningful operational improvement would never happen.  Our research has consistently shown us that b-to-b organizations that don’t have marketing operations responsibilities that are formally assigned, don’t get these things done.  As a result, their marketing performance suffers.

Matt: How should marketing operations integrate with sales ops to be successful?

Ross: I prefer the word collaborate to integrate when we’re talking about how marketing operations and sales operations should be interacting.  Earlier I mentioned that marketing operations works at different rhythms than other marketing functions.  The differences are even more pronounced when we’re talking about sales operations. For better or worse, the efforts of many sales operations teams are driven by quarterly close deadlines.

Some of the least effective marketing operations teams that I’ve seen sit within the sales operations function.  What happens is that instead of being able to concentrate on efforts that will make a big impact three and four quarters out, the marketing operations team has its efforts completely disrupted for 2-3 weeks out of every12 weeks because extra focus is needed on achieving quarterly sales targets.

That’s not in any way meant to minimize the importance of meeting quarterly expectations. What it’s meant to emphasize is that a business needs to focus some of its resources on the current quarter, some next quarter and so on if it’s going to be successful.

Marketing operations and sales operations do need to collaborate intensively around processes where sales and marketing intersect.  We’ve identified a few key ones: measurement, data management, lead management and planning.

In each of these areas, sales and marketing operations need to be actively working together to identify areas of improvement.  And that means being proactive in involving one another in the process.  Whether it’s an annual planning process or an effort to improve the measurements that are brought to the QBR.

It all begins with understanding the areas of intersection and respecting the relative responsibilities of sales and marketing to ensure the underlying infrastructure can support buyer-centricity.

Matt: What attributes of a successful marketing ops professional do you look for?  What should hiring managers prioritize?

Ross: It’s important to specify the type of role we’re focused on.  Sometimes there’s a tendency to think of marketing operations as being handled by a jack-of-all-trades generalist. While this may be the case at smaller companies, we also see specialization taking place at many larger companies. This can mean that different people handle measurement, data management, technology, or planning and budgeting.  And each of those roles have different competency requirements.

I’ll focus on what I see in the most effective marketing operations leaders. The most successful leaders bring a deep understanding of the mission of b-to-b marketing and what marketers have to do to be successful.  They take that understanding and apply technical knowledge and a process-driven vision to add efficiency and effectiveness to the jobs of marketing.

Marketing operations leaders who do their jobs well are clearly driving change within their businesses, and among the most valuable skills I see are those around persuasion and socialization. Operations leaders need to be able to sell a vision for why the changes  – whether they be changes to measurement, a planning process or even an approach to data management – are important.  And they need to appreciate their own roles in supporting their stakeholders and helping them become comfortable with those changes.

In the research area I spend most of my time, measurement and reporting, I’m seeing that the most effective measurement organizations are those with leaders who invest their time in building consensus around a measurement vision. They invest their time in helping organizational stakeholders use reporting to make better decisions.  I think this is just one strong example of the types of things marketing operations leaders need to be concerned about.