DNA of a strategic marketing operations leader: 3 seismic shifts, Part 2

In Part 2 of a series, contributor Debbie Qaqish takes a look at the evolving role today’s successful marketing operations leader plays within an organization.

DNA of a strategic marketing operations leader: 3 seismic shifts, Part 2

Marketing operations (MO) as a dedicated, funded and strategic capability has exploded across B2B marketing organizations. Driven by traditional marketing’s poor response to changes in technology, customer behavior and use of data for decision-making, the marketing operations function is not only filling the gap, but also creating a competitive advantage for organizations by enabling change and revenue results from marketing.

I see a big difference in companies of all sizes with a marketing operations team versus those without one. Businesses I work with that have a dedicated operations team typically have and achieve revenue targets. Companies that do not have a dedicated marketing operations organization are laggards on the revenue marketing journey.

I’ve been lucky to have a front-row seat to the evolution of marketing operations as a capability. But what fascinates me most is the new generation of marketing operations leaders who are emerging.

I write a lot about the changing role of the CMO, and it’s also the topic of my Ph.D. research. I began working with and interviewing marketing operations leaders in 2016 and have seen three dramatic transformations in the role that an effective marketing operations leader plays within an organization:

  1. Button-pusher to tech visionary and interpreter
  2. Tech geek to multidisciplined business leader
  3. One-trick pony to multifunctional process improvement engineer

Button-pusher to visionary and interpreter

Whether the marketing operations executive is viewed and treated as a “button-pusher” or a visionary often relates to the maturity level of the marketing and the marketing operations.

In the early stages of transforming marketing from a cost center to a revenue center, marketing operations is typically represented by a single person who has some affinity for technology and is tasked with figuring out how to work the new marketing automation platform. As more technologies are added to the stack, another person may be added.

In this example, these resources are often viewed as “button-pushers” because the vision of what marketing can do with the right technology has not yet been established. One marketing leader I spoke with put it best: “I’m seen as the tactical execution guy, and while I do it very well, I’m never invited into strategic conversations.”

In contrast, marketing organizations that are more mature, meaning they are revenue contributors to the business, are run by executives who serve as digital transformation visionaries and interpreters. Let me break this down.

First, as a digital transformation visionary, the marketing ops executive works in concert with the CMO to create, sell and execute the entire digital transformation strategy. The executive blends a deep understanding of current and future technologies with a business approach to help marketing become the revenue and growth engine for a company.

It’s no longer good enough to have a surface knowledge and understanding of these technologies. They are too pervasive and are changing things too dramatically and quickly. It’s the job of the visionary to make sense of the madness and find out what works best for the company.

Tech geek to multidisciplined business leader

This has been a fascinating transformation to watch. When I first began to work with companies that were just putting marketing ops teams into place, it seemed many were only focused on the technology.

The “tech geek” mentality is even worse in companies that place the marketing ops group in IT. It just never seems to work out, because a new approach to technology is needed — one that requires the marketing ops leader to be a multidisciplined leader.

When was the last time you looked at all the responsibilities of a mature and effective marketing operations group? The marketing ops leader is increasingly responsible for more than the technology and the data. They are now tasked with applying technology and data to help solve different elements of the business. This includes sales productivity, budgeting and planning, product development, customer service and more.

Because the marketing ops leader holds so much customer data and has the resources to slice and dice to derive business insights, they are being asked to work across more and more disciplines. Expect this role to expand.

I really love the role of tech interpreter. Have you talked with a marketing ops executive recently? They can rattle off about 50 to 100 different technologies at the drop of a hat. AND they can talk about these technologies in terms of what is right for their business and why it’s right for marketing.

Being able to bridge the language barrier between technical and non-technical types is a key element of the marketing ops leader’s DNA.

When I attended the MarTech Conference earlier this year, SapientRazorfish had a session in which they highlighted their training program for today’s CMO. It encompassed helping rising executives better understand technology by actually working on projects using various digital marketing technologies.

One-trick pony to multifunctional process improvement engineer

I vividly remember talking with marketers about their technical resources in the early days of marketing operations. This person was always characterized as the odd character who kept her head down and just ran and administered technology systems such as marketing automation. Today, one of the most exciting aspects of the marketing ops leader’s job is being a multifunctional process improvement engineer for vital functions such as lead management.

For years, both marketing and sales have been frustrated by their inability to get on the same page in terms of lead flow and lead processing. Marketing worked hard to produce high-quality leads that are often summarily dismissed by sales. There is something magical that happens when marketing operations looks at this broken process and takes it on as a project.

First, marketing ops seem to have more credibility with sales than does marketing. Perhaps it is because of the working history of marketing and sales. But whatever the case, marketing ops seems to be able to influence sales to adopt changes in CRM (customer relationship management) that marketing alone could not do.

Second, marketing ops takes a project management approach with no spillover emotions in figuring out what’s wrong and what they need to do to fix it.

Finally — and this is a biggie — marketing ops makes data-driven decisions. No more “he said, she said” shenanigans.

Lead management is only one process that I’ve seen marketing ops take on, get buy-in into the changes and drive more value from the business. I was recently talking with a marketing ops about his job as a process engineer, and he admitted that while his role didn’t start out that way, given his group’s position in the company, he was doing a lot of it and loved it.


Visionary, interpreter, business leader and process engineer are pretty big words that describe the makeup of today’s successful marketing ops leader. Right before our very eyes, this new breed of leader is emerging and helping marketing smash through what I call the “perception barrier.” This is the set of beliefs and perceptions held across a company that marketing is the pens and mugs department and a money pit.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Marketing today needs a new name because it’s now the growth and revenue engine in our digital engagement economy. And it’s the marketing ops leader who is leading the charge to smash these perceptions for good.


[Article on MarTech Today.]

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