MOps: Bringing order to chaos

A journey into the world and minds of today's marketing operations professionals.

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After a day and a half of listening to presentations and conversations at the MO Pros Summer Camp in Atlanta, I had an observation to make.

“I have been to countless vendor conferences,” I told the room, “at which I heard how their solutions could create seamless, delightful customer experiences. Here, however, I’ve heard that things break, APIs don’t work, there’s no customer service at weekends and deadlines for projects are impossible anyway.”

As I spoke, Mike Rizzo, founder of MO Pros and convener of the Camp, silently pumped his first in the air in agreement. “This doesn’t all come as a complete surprise,” I said, “but it’s a refreshing reality check.”

Welcome to the world of marketing operations, where the professionals try to inject some order into chaos but are constantly beaten back by faulty tech, unreasonable workloads, and meaningless requests from uncomprehending business teams.

And that’s exactly how they like it.

Spend time with a group of marketing operations professionals and you quickly realize that they share a common mind-set. Whether it’s ensuring that each change or update to a tool or process is meticulously documented, or ensuring that the cash in their wallet is all in order and facing the right way (they can get a debate out of that). These are the admitted compulsive obsessives who make marketing work.

These people aren’t marketers

Recently, Scott Brinker of and HubSpot posted a terse update on LinkedIn: “Marketing = ops.” He did go on to explain that customer experience is fundamental to brand and that ops is responsible for customer experience. He got some pushback. 

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What was lacking, as some pointed out, was content – which I took to mean not just content in terms of text, image and video assets, but ideas. Ideas around go-to-market strategies, around campaigns, branding, messaging and so on. Operations may be key to executing on ideas, but that huge part of creative marketing generally sits elsewhere.

Operations, meanwhile, is trying to figure out the latest changes in Marketo or HubSpot – and document their response to them. As one attendee said, “We’re ops-focused, not marketing-focused.”

So marketing operations is what makes marketing work, but the MOps professionals (again, generally — there are exceptions) don’t consider themselves marketers. Marketers are such a different breed, in fact, that communicating with them is a challenge. Adam New-Waterson has a CMO role (at Stack Moxie) but he speaks from an operations perspective.

“We have a little bit of a rap for being like the bad cops. One of the teams I worked with, there was such animosity between marketing ops and the sales development team; they were always skirmishing.” The same goes, he said, for relationships between ops and other business teams. “One of the problems that we had was that MOPs wouldn’t communicate about priorities.” At worst they treated other business teams like kids: “Go away. I’m doing something over here. I got your ticket, I heard you.”

The challenge, he said, was maintaining an ops culture, but one that other people – i.e. business teams like marketing and sales – want to collaborate with.

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15 people skilled in marketing operations — and one journalist.

The need for soft skills

This sounded to me like a replication of the traditional relationship between business teams and IT. IT has always been good at saying no, but has frequently lacked the soft skills to explain why, or to negotiate what might be done instead.

Debbie Qaqish, author and Principal at the Pedowitz Group disagreed. “I see it very differently,” she said. “The marketing ops teams that I see are not like IT unless they report to IT – and that is the kiss of death. Because marketing ops are in marketing they just don’t have that traditional IT grind response.”

Nevertheless, people around the table agreed that, within the operations team, various technical competencies were not enough. Team members needed to be taught how to communicate with the rest of the business – four-time Marketo Champion Helena Abramova and B2B strategist Ali Schwanke both spoke of how they consciously trained team members in soft skills. In particular, Schwanke spoke about understanding the personas of stakeholders outside the operations team and how they best learn.

Dig deeper: What is marketing ops? We know it when we see it, but can we define it?

Taking marketing ops to the next level

Rizzo had kicked off proceedings by declaring that marketing ops has moved into the mainstream. In the past, marketing teams may have had a member who could find their way around the CRM or a marketing automation tool. Now marketing operations is recognized as a role and as a career and a wide set of skills, not just the ability to operate one solution. That’s what Abramova means when she says “MOps is no longer a job.”

 “(It’s) central to the overall business strategy and not just window-dressing,” said Rizzo.

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But if MOps professionals are no longer seen as the “button pushers,” is there a clear path for them beyond a primarily technical role? Qaqish would say yes: “What we will see is technology, and the use of technology to re-invent business is more of an imperative now than it’s ever been. I do think you’re going to see these multifaceted, multi-talented leaders of marketing ops step up to that CMO role. I absolutely do see that.”

But what about the MOps professionals themselves? The question was put to the group: “How many of you are interested in becoming a CMO.” Three or four hands were hesitantly raised. Many MOps people prefer, it seems, to be grappling with tools and projects. As one said, “You’re hands on, in the weeds, and you can lose that at the executive level.”

Part of the following morning was spent on a proposal to develop a certification program for MOps — one that would be independent of vendors and agnostic as to technologies. This seeded countless questions: How many levels should there be? How would people taking the course get experience using several different solutions? Should it remain at the conceptual rather than practical level? Should it include soft skills training?

They were back where they liked to be, and happy — in the weeds.

About the author

Kim Davis
Kim Davis is currently editor at large at MarTech. Born in London, but a New Yorker for almost three decades, Kim started covering enterprise software ten years ago. His experience encompasses SaaS for the enterprise, digital- ad data-driven urban planning, and applications of SaaS, digital technology, and data in the marketing space. He first wrote about marketing technology as editor of Haymarket’s The Hub, a dedicated marketing tech website, which subsequently became a channel on the established direct marketing brand DMN. Kim joined DMN proper in 2016, as a senior editor, becoming Executive Editor, then Editor-in-Chief a position he held until January 2020. Shortly thereafter he joined Third Door Media as Editorial Director at MarTech.

Kim was Associate Editor at a New York Times hyper-local news site, The Local: East Village, and has previously worked as an editor of an academic publication, and as a music journalist. He has written hundreds of New York restaurant reviews for a personal blog, and has been an occasional guest contributor to Eater.

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