Selecting the right tools to manage digital marketing is one of the biggest challenges that modern marketing teams face. Scott Brinker has had his finger on the pulse of the marketing world for many years, having famously been the first person to map the entire MarTech ecosystem. We sat down with Scott to get his insights into the vast array of marketing tools that are out there and how the right technology used in the right way can make your marketing more human.
Scott Brinker | Interview
Scott—a graduate of Columbia, Harvard, and MIT—is a very well-respected figure in the MarTech industry. His first venture involved running operations for Galacticomm Inc., a commercial software company whose customers included AT&T, Boeing, Dell, and Sony. After this, he became the CEO of CyberOps —an internet technology consulting firm—before co-founding ion interactive, a SaaS business for digital marketers.
In 2008, Scott created chiefmartec.com, and in 2014 he founded the industry-renowned MarTech Conference series. Since September 2017, he’s been the VP Platform Ecosystem for Hubspot where his main responsibilities involve charting the direction of Hubspot’s platform ecosystem strategy and nurturing their global community of technology partners.
Hi Scott, thanks so much for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit more about your career to date?
Sure, so I’ve always been very entrepreneurially minded but I started out as a software engineer before I got interested in marketing. I’ve always found myself at the intersection between technology and the end-user. While this is perfect for modern marketers, things were quite different when I started—so I always felt like I had a foot in both camps but wasn’t wholeheartedly in either one of them.
I’m currently the VP Platform Ecosystem at HubSpot, which means that I essentially shape the company’s platform strategy and lead business programs for its global technology partner ecosystem. Before that, I was the co-founder and CTO of ion interactive, a SaaS company that pioneered interactive content for global enterprises (including Cisco, Dell, DHL, General Mills, Microsoft, etc.) before it was acquired back in 2017.
Since 2008, I’ve also run the Chief Marketing Technologist blog, chiefmartec.com, with over 50,000 readers—analyzing topics at the intersection of marketing, technology, and management. As one of my projects, I created the Marketing Technology Landscape which mapped the growth of the MarTech industry from a few hundred vendors to 8,000. In 2014, I launched the MarTech conference, where I currently serve as the event’s program chair: bringing together a community of thousands of senior marketing operations and technology professionals.
I wrote the best-selling book “Hacking Marketing“, published by Wiley in 2016, and co-authored the article “The Rise of the Chief Marketing Technologist” which was published in Harvard Business Review back in 2014. Lastly, I’m a frequent keynote speaker at marketing conferences around the world.
What do you think are the biggest challenges for marketers right now?
In my opinion, it rests on making the most of the technology at our disposal. The MarTech industry has exploded in recent years—marketers now have access to an incredibly diverse set of tools. However, they need to make sure that they’re making the most out of this technology.
I’m encouraged though—I think the industry has made a lot of progress over the last few years, including the platformisation of software and new integration technologies. Technology (and agile mindsets) are also changing the way that marketing teams operate. It’s fascinating. Variations of software engineering methodologies are suddenly popping up in marketing.
Ten or twenty years ago, everything in marketing was planned out in advance. The general rule of thumb was “Let’s decide on something first and then experiment”. Nowadays, of course, that’s totally flipped on its head. Digital-first approaches have pushed agility to the forefront—ongoing experimentation and iteration is the norm, no matter what company or industry you’re working in.
This shift in mindset presents both opportunities and challenges in equal measure. Marketers who embrace agility and constantly try to push boundaries are the ones that will thrive going forward.
How do you think marketers can balance the increasing presence of automation with remaining as human as possible?
This is a really difficult challenge but clearly one that we have to master. The default assumption is that we will keep introducing more and more automation into businesses. In theory, this is supposed to provide our customers with a better experience—it will help them get what they want quicker and more easily than before. But that’s just theory. In practice, it’s not quite that simple.
Customers are more complex than what we give them credit for. It’s easy for marketers to say “If we introduce this shiny new piece of automation, consumers will love it”, but that doesn’t ring true for everyone. Think about customer communications. Sure—chatbots can be very useful—but you wouldn’t want a chatbot working on a suicide hotline, for instance.
That’s a very drastic example, but you get the picture. Automation (and technology in general) still lacks nuance in many regards—so you can’t just roll it out and expect it to be perfect in all circumstances.
Personally, I believe that we need to give customers the option to engage with other humans if they find that more useful. Automation can handle routine requests, generic troubleshooting, and more, but certain situations require a person-to-person interaction.
As both a marketing and technology enthusiast, what are your thoughts on the ‘Golden Age’ of MarTech?
I think the last 8 years have indeed been the Golden Age of Martech, but I actually don’t think this is going to change any time soon. We’ve reached an inflection point where the next 8 years could see some even more drastic changes to marketing as we know it…
For many marketers, the first Golden Age revolved around one major issue: suite versus best-of-breed. Do you buy all your tools from one vendor or build the perfect stack using bits and pieces from different vendors? I think we’re reaching a point where most major MarTech providers are taking an open platform approach and investing heavily in partnerships. As such, this shouldn’t be such an issue going forward—I think we’re going to see platform ecosystems take over in the near future.
Oddly enough, the MarTech nirvana has little to do with the technology itself—that’s just a means to an end. The best marketers are focused on quantitative metrics and outcomes. It doesn’t matter how you made the dish, it matters whether or not the customer liked the meal.
So there’s no “Once you do this, you’ve reached nirvana” point. It totally depends on how your customers are reacting. If they love everything you do and you have tangible metrics to prove this, this then you’re doing an amazing job—it’s as simple as that.
How do you go further and keep pushing the boundaries?
It’s hard, I’m not going to lie. I think that any market leader faces the ‘winner’s curse’. At some point or another, you just end up competing with yourself—so the question becomes, “How can we out-do what we did last year?”.
However, the world’s changing so quickly nowadays that you can never rest on your laurels for too long. There are new opportunities and new competitors popping up left, right, and centre, so you’ve always got to keep moving forward and innovating.
I’ve always been very passionate about the topic of centralisation versus decentralisation. Marketing has always gone through these cycles where everything’s centralised one minute and then it suddenly all becomes decentralised—different markets and product teams are suddenly given all this freedom to do their own thing.
What interests me most is the fact that MarTech kind of allows companies to be both centralised and decentralised. You can have decentralised departments but due to the ability to rapidly share information across systems and teams, you’re also somewhat centralised. Take something like a CMS, for example, where one central platform can be so crucial in enabling lots of decentralised teams to do their job.
What’s the coolest thing that you’ve seen in the last year?
No-code products absolutely fascinate me. The term ‘no-code’ is a bit vague, but it essentially means a tool that allows non-specialists to self-serve. It’s a powerful transition if you’re suddenly able to give highly technical tools to laymen and they can just operate it themselves. It democratises access to a variety of technical outcomes and this switch will open a lot of doors in the years to come.
No-code products will be the future: take my word for it.