Transitioning to Strategic Marketing Operations: Lessons from Formula 1
Marketing ops managers who read this post should learn what they can do to position themselves as strategic partners to the other functions of the marketing org.
This is a guest essay by Osman. We met like most folks on Twitter, I really enjoyed his view on MOPS & Marketing. Many a tweets exchanged later - we figured out a way to work together. I am very excited to be publishing this with Osman. All too often RevOps & MOPS are seen as order takers. We sit in a room with tickets passed on to us to make new fields, upload a list or change something in the system without being in the actual room where decisions are made. I’ve long advocated for MOPS to be a strategic enablement partner. We understand the infrastructure & business outcomes & we can be strategic partners in the business.
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Before I watched an F1 race, I couldn't help but think "wouldn't the team with the most resources win every time?". With each team free to build their racing car as they see fit, my thinking was that the person in the driver's seat can only make so much of a difference. Obviously, that's not the case in Formula One racing; the magic is in the constraints. Both in terms of regulations on how F1 cars are built as well as in-race rules defining how many pit stops each driver must take.
As my interest in F1 grew, and especially after watching the Drive to Survive series, my curiosity pointed me to what happens off the track. I was surprised by how heavily systemized and data-driven the Formula 1 teams were in supporting drivers before, during, and after a race.
I've spent a long time in marketing operations, and so I found myself nodding silently reading the start of Vikash Koushik's essay in this same publication:
"Most organizations view marketing operations as plumbers who you can call to fix the broken pipe. But not enough companies look at them like an architect."
The "off-track" members of Formula 1 teams have mastered the art of being a supporting cast to their drivers and there are lessons here for marketing ops practitioners in becoming a strategic partner to the functions you serve.
So buckle up and let's see how far we can take this analogy. Here’s a roadmap for marketing ops practitioners to become more architect, less plumber.
Make Your Tech Stack Resilient
I couldn't help but feel second-hand embarrassment watching an episode of Netflix's "Drive to Survive" series. A driver calls in to the crew, letting them know his breaks aren't working and his engine is low on power. "We can't fix it", the engineer responds as the driver quits the race.
Post-race, an interviewer asks the McLaren team's Race Engineer whether he'll accept responsibility for what transpired. Laughing nervously, he tries to strike a balance between saving his job and acknowledging his responsibility.
Anyone in a role that involves building things for other team members to use can relate to this scenario, or hopefully not. From leads from a certain campaign not syncing correctly (looking at you LinkedIn Lead Gen forms) to automation breaking under increased scale, marketing ops failures often impact other functions, leading to a breakdown in trust.
Fickle marketing tech stacks built on bandaids and quick hacks will break constantly, draining time from work that can position marketing operations as a strategic partner. And so step one in building an ops function that is strategic is to build a resilient marketing tech stack that effectively serves end-users.
Much of what this entails requires marketing operations managers to act more like product managers or DevOps engineers, with the broader marketing team as the customer.
The greatest failure of that Race Engineer from "Drive to Survive" was that he and his team only knew that something was wrong when the driver ran into problems and reported them. This shows a lack of a good quality assurance (QA) and diagnostics process. If you only know something is broken when the end-user tells you so, something is wrong
By building monitoring and alerting into your tech stack, you can avoid hairy situations like this by knowing when things go wrong and fixing them before more damage is done. Common alerts I set up include:
Leads where lead source is null
Leads without a campaign membership
Missing UTM parameters
Automated website QA with Ghost Inspector
Focus on Continuous Improvement
F1 drivers race across 190 miles of track, with that distance split up into laps determined by the specifics of the course. With most races comprising 50-70 laps, each iteration after the first is an opportunity for the driver to improve upon the last lap.
The teams that can learn from each lap and pass those learnings on to the driver quickly and effectively are at an advantage. In fact, "evidence suggests... that the key determinants of a Formula One race are the internal efficiency and expertise of the teams"
Marketing operations managers need to stand up systems and processes that help their team improve with every campaign.
For marketers in B2B orgs, the ultimate goal is to achieve a measure of predictability and repeatability with how they go-to-market. What channels and messaging are most effective at accelerating stalled deals? When is the right moment to have an SDR reach out?
The only way to get even close to that level of calling your shot is to build the systems and processes necessary to retrospect campaigns, learn from their performance, and most importantly roll those learnings into the next campaign.
As with most things in marketing ops, this starts with clean data. Without a clean and well-maintained Marketing Automation Platform (MAP), you'll never be able to reconstruct a customer's journey and understand the campaigns that led to key inflection points.
Going even further, I believe that having a data warehouse like Snowflake is table-stakes for a mature B2B marketing team and one big reason is being able to take snapshots of your CRM and MAP to then create cohort reports. While most commonly used for measuring in-product metrics like Daily Active Users, cohort reports can also be used to measure the impact of a campaign over time. By creating a cohort of all accounts and leads touched by a campaign, you can visualize how they move through different funnel stages.
Improve Your Team’s Learning Rate
A key part of continuous improvement is learning, and specifically how fast your organization learns. As a marketing ops practitioner, you have two main levers to improve your team’s learning rate; speed and process.
Setting a goal for how long it takes your team to go from campaign kick-off to launch is important now only because it will help identify inefficiencies in your processes, but also because rapid learning requires rapid iteration. The more campaigns you can launch with a defined audience and clean data, the faster you can learn. The more at-bats your team has, the more assumptions can be tested.
The easiest way to speed up campaign creation is to templatize the common elements of a campaign. From having a standard library of creative templates to pre-built workflows that can be cloned and adjusted for different campaigns, marketing ops practitioners should be looking for areas where templates can reduce duplicated efforts.
The second lever, process, may seem boring but it is arguably even more important than speed. A lot of marketing teams “do A/B testing”, but much fewer actually have an experimentation program. An experimentation program goes beyond simply running A/B tests. It includes defining how A/B test ideas are generated and prioritized, the process for rolling out successful tests once a hypothesis is validated, and knowledge capture to document the tests run, the hypothesis, and the result.
A/B testing sporadically may lead to the occasional win, but consistent results require a process. A good place to start is to think through how ideas are generated and captured on your team. Good test ideas can come from anywhere. Each team member should know how and where to submit their ideas for experiments, and experiment results should be easily available along with the different variations and their results. It’s often a good idea to archive your test results in a spreadsheet as it can be difficult to filter down to specific tests in some A/B testing tools like Google Optimize.
Know When to Experiment and When to Build for Scale
One of my favorite books on marketing is Hacking Marketing: Rethinking Marketing Management in a Software World by Scott Brinker, editor at chiefmartec.com. A key lesson from the book is the distinction between building for scalability and building for innovation.
Building for innovation means building just what you need to validate or invalidate your assumptions. Something built for innovation should be expected to work, but is clearly not expected to scale. These are quick experiments that have a purposefully short shelf-life. On the other hand, building for scalability means building systems that are standardized and documented.
While many marketing ops practitioners may already bifurcate their work in this manner, it is critical that this distinction is made clear to your team. Make sure you specifically call out and make known what is an experiment built for quick iteration and learning and what’s an established system. For example, when building for innovation, highlight potential points of failure, like a workflow that can only handle a certain number of leads concurrently.
Build with the User in Mind
F1 drivers have different driving styles and this can impact how their cars are built. Some drivers perform best with an unstable car that allows them to oversteer when needed, while others prefer a stable rear. Throughout Drive to Survive, race engineers analyze drivers’ styles to adjust their vehicles for maximum performance, often asking the driver how certain parts of the track feel.
For marketing operations practitioners, it’s important to have the same level of clarity around who you’re building for and what kind of solution works best. If there’s one skill that separates world-class marketing operations practitioners from the rest, it’s requirements gathering. Early career marketing ops practitioners will often jump quickly to building out a solution and I still fall into this trap myself sometimes. It takes patience and trust to take a step back, ask the right questions and only then move on to building.
A simple question like “will this be used just for this campaign, or are you planning to roll out this workflow to more campaigns?” can completely change the kind of solution you build.
Get Comfortable with Being a Background Actor
I’ve yet to see a post-mortem of a successful startup where clean data, spiffy automations, and good operational practices were credited for that success.
Marketing operations is by its nature a supporting role and it’s the product, performance, growth, and content marketers that will get credit for success and so marketing operations practitioners should be comfortable with that supporting role and aim to make themselves a force multiplier for their team.
By building a resilient martech stack and creating systems and process that help your team learn and improve with every campaign, you can free yourself from constantly fixing bugs and taking in requests and use that time to do what marketing ops is best positioned to do in a marketing organization; see both the whole picture and the small details in order to identify areas for improvement and automation.
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