Chief Marketing Technologist: The CMO’s Unicorn

White Papers | September, 2015

Marketing organizations are caught in a tug-of-war between the inertia of the print world and the inevitability of the digital world. The floor beneath conventional TV, radio and billboard advertising has vanished. Marketing leaders feel pressure to react, but the best approach seems to change daily. Social networks rise and fall; the Internet of Things (IoT) creates infinite channels; new machine learning algorithms make yesterday’s data analytics look like Stone Age solutions. With more than 2,000 ‘martech’ (marketing technology) vendors in operation, the choices are overwhelming.

For a CMO, entering this fray is dangerous without a wingman. This is why a new executive role has emerged: the Chief Marketing Technologist (CMT).

In 2014, Gartner, the world’s leading information technology research and advisory company, reported that 81 percent of large organizations ($500M in revenue or more) had the equivalent of a CMT, as compared to 70 percent in 2013. Nonetheless, they have been dubbed “unicorns” because of how difficult they are to find. They appear under other titles including Marketing Business Information Officer, Marketing Technology Manager and Director of Marketing Technology. Part technologist, part marketer and part business strategist, they win the tug-of-war for digital. 

To many corporate boards and executives, the value of a CMT can seem opaque. Thus, our objective in this paper is to define the role of a CMT, highlight the value they bring to an organization, and discuss what decision-makers should look for in candidates. To provide both a consultant and practitioner’s perspective, we in DHR’s Advanced Technology Practice interviewed Scott Brinker, co-founder and CTO of ion interactive, author of, and an expert on the rise of CMTs. As we will illustrate, the CMT becomes the CMO’s wingman by assembling a martech portfolio that enables the entire organization to create superior customer experiences.

Why a Chief Marketing Technologist?

To understand the purpose of the CMT, we need to examine the grand trend in marketing: what Scott Brinker calls “the shift from the business of communications to the business of delivering experiences.”

When Gartner surveyed 200 marketing leaders for its report, “Customer Experience Emerges as the Marketers' Next Battlefield”, 89 percent said they expect their companies to compete primarily on the basis of the customer experience by 2017. Indeed, the researchers predict that 50 percent of consumer product investments will be redirected to customer experience innovations by that year.

Not coincidentally, Gartner also predicts that CMOs will spend more on IT than CIOs by 2017.  Forrester is on top of this trend, too. Their 2014 Customer Experience Index (CXi) estimated that companies are missing out on $1.6 billion in revenue due to subpar customer experiences.

So, the difference between analog versus digital marketing is communications versus experience. The difference between communications and experience is initiation and exposure over time. Whereas traditional communications are usually brief and almost always initiated by the marketer (because no one watches TV to watch commercials), experiences are usually habitual and initiated by the consumer. Modern marketers want their audience to visit their blog daily or even multiple times per day. The experience is one of learning, entertainment or inspiration – not a sales pitch, like most communications. To qualify as an experience, marketing can’t feel like marketing in the traditional sense.

However, “Because of the need to craft experiences,” explains Scott Brinker, “marketers are dealing with an explosive amount of technology, and most marketing teams don’t have that tech savviness.” Enter the Chief Marketing Technologist. If customer experience is the ‘battlefield’, as Gartner terms it, then marketing technology is the arsenal available to companies, and the CMT is the most valuable fighter in the fray.

Defining the Role of the Chief Marketing Technologist

The Chief Marketing Technologist is responsible both for the front-end and back-end technologies that power marketing experiences. According to a Harvard Business Review article by Brinker and Gartner Analyst Laura McClellan, the CMT’s job is to align marketing technology with business goals, serve as a liaison to IT, and evaluate and choose technology providers.

To meet business objectives, the CMT serves as a technology advisor to the CMO and other marketing leaders. As the marketing organization defines its digital strategy – the set of experiences it wishes to provide – the CMT figures out what technology portfolio would enable it.

Second, the CMT collaborates with IT, which will be concerned with the cost-efficiency and security of new marketing technology. CMTs should not become a form of “Shadow IT”. Rather, they create a tight relationship with IT because they can speak in marketing and technical parlance equally well.

Third, based on the company’s strategy and IT parameters, the CMT builds a portfolio of marketing platforms. The CMT leads the process of vetting and selecting vendors. By Brinker’s count, there are more than 43 categories of marketing technology. Most large companies will use more than a dozen marketing services covering multi-channel marketing automation, content management, media optimization, and analytics, at minimum.

Companies seek out a CMT when their marketing technology stack becomes unwieldly. If customer data is silo’d in three or more disconnected martech platforms, it’s time to hire a CMT who can integrate and build the portfolio in a strategic way.

Challenges Facing the Chief Marketing Technologist

The prime challenges facing a Chief Marketing Technologist will be shifting culture, training team members and demonstrating value.

Technology used to be owned by IT, which feels threatened by the democratization of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions. Often, marketers (and other departments) see IT as an obstacle rather than a partner because SaaS technology can be implemented without IT’s assistance. However, CMTs understand that IT can play a vital role in making new technology reliable and secure. The CMT serves as an emissary both to marketers and IT, which are likely to ram heads without this mediation.

Similarly, the CMT has to create a healthy culture inside the marketing department. CMTs often build their own sub-department within marketing, hire technical personnel, and also train existing employees to use platforms in the martech stack. The CMT has to build camaraderie and coordination between traditional marketers and the new technical team. In addition, the CMT needs to develop a program to train marketers on multiple technologies so skillsets don’t become difficult to replace.  

According to Brinker, the CMT’s performance is measured by “customer-facing impact.” How does new marketing technology influence the company’s pipeline, brand value, social engagement and so on? Of course, attribution is tricky because CMTs primarily serve a support role. They don’t directly manage the martech platforms or produce content, and thus, they don’t have full ownership over the ROI or customer satisfaction. To our knowledge, this challenge has not been adequately addressed.

The CMT may land in the uncomfortable position of “data broker.” Data scientists, analysts, merchandisers, HR, dev-ops, customer service and others will want data from the martech stack. Social analytics, for instance, are as valuable to customer service as they are to marketing because the departments share that turf. Smart CMTs will figure out how give other departments self-service access to the data they want.

The Rare Skillset of Chief Marketing Technologists

While CMTs share some core proficiencies, they may differ significantly in their technical and marketing backgrounds. Rather than search for a generic CMT, companies will need to think about what type of CMT they need.

First and foremost, “Great CMTs are very effective communicators,” says Brinker. “They understand the technology and marketing sides, and have the ability to explain one side to the other. They can sit with IT leadership and explain why marketing needs a new automation system. Likewise, they can show the finance department why replacing the marketing automation system is a good investment.”

CMTs aren’t necessarily genius software engineers or data scientists, but they could be. In a report on CMTs, researchers at SapientNitro, a top digital agency, found that only 26 percent have STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) degrees. This may or may not be problematic, depending on a company’s marketing strategy.

Overall, SapientNitro categorized CMTs into six archetypes: Marketing Mavens (generalists), Content Curators, Media and Marketing Analyzers, Data Divas, Infrastructure Architects and Experience Engineers. Roughly half of CMTs identify with the three marketing archetypes and the other half identify with the three technical personas. While it’s not impossible to find both skillsets in one individual, it’s extremely rare. Thus, companies searching for a CMT will need to decide which of the above skillsets matter most to their business. Large enterprises might empower their CMO to hire several marketing technologists with complementary skillsets.

Where to Find Chief Marketing Technologists

CMTs are likely to be found in web 2.0 startups and digital agencies, where formal (and informal) training programs exist. SapientNitro, for instance, created a yearlong “Chief Marketing Technology Officer University” to train future leader in the CMT skillset.

In an article for The Economist Group, Sheldon Monteiro, CTO of SapientNitro and founder of the CMTO University, explains that they launched the program because “clients often ask us to play advisory CMTO roles.” Moreover, Monteiro says the “paucity of qualified marketing technologist talent is an urgent, industry-wide issue.” 

The U.S. education system is just reacting to the CMT trend. The University of Wisconsin-Stout is the first and only institution that offers a bachelor’s degree in Digital Marketing Technology. Unlike traditional marketing programs that ignore technical skillsets, UW-Stout teaches HTML5 / CSS3, web development, server applications and more. The program was officially approved in June 2015, so it will be a while before other universities follow suit, and even longer before graduates become experienced enough to fill a CMT role. 

Brinker argues that companies should not discount their IT department: “Truth is, inside IT, there are many talented people who are super excited about the evolution of this technology and the opportunity to have a front-office impact.” IT employees who have been very supportive of marketing initiatives might be able to crossover into the CMT role. A head of product development could also make a strong CMT, as he or she will have a management background, technical skills and experience coordinating across multiple departments.

Conclusion: Finding a Narrative for the Chief Marketing Technologist

Despite the hype around CMTs, little has been written about their accomplishments. As we mentioned, it is difficult to trace quantifiable results directly back to a CMT because ultimately, someone else uses the technology they selected and implemented. If the new lead generation platform increases email marketing conversion rates by 15 percent, who deserves credit? The product, the marketer who manages it, or the CMT who chose it? If 81 percent of large companies have a Chief Marketing Technologist, where are their stories?

Analysts, agencies and practitioners all seem to agree that a CMT is crucial in enterprises. However, corporate boards and CEOs need stories that demonstrate the value of CMTs. In 2012, the Fournaise Marketing Group in London found that 80 percent of CEOs “do not really trust and are not very impressed by the work being done by Marketers – while in comparison, 90 percent of CEOs do trust and value the work of CFOs and CIOs.” The 2015 CMO Survey Report found that only 42 percent of CMOs claim they can demonstrate the short-term impact of marketing spend quantitatively, while just 34 percent say they can prove the long-term impact. 

This presents an opportunity rather than a threat because CMTs have the talent to address this problem. They can implement martech systems that replace intuition and gut-based marketing with a data-driven operation. They can figure out how to measure their own performance and that of the entire marketing department. CMTs may be ‘unicorns,’ but they do exist and can transform a company.

Brinker’s inaugural award program, “The Stackies”, invited marketing technologists to send a one-page diagram of their marketing technology stack. The submissions illustrated just how much strategy, research and craftsmanship goes into the development of a cohesive martech portfolio. This is a good step towards illuminating the value of CMTs. 

In an interview with Harvard Business Review, Gartner Analyst Laura McLellan argued that “As people try to find CMTs now, you don’t interview them; they interview you. The best ones can choose their jobs.” The Chief Marketing Technologist is indeed a ‘unicorn’ and a wingman that no CMO can afford to go without. The print versus digital tug-of-war has a predictable outcome. The tug-of-war between organizations competing for a handful of CMTs will be far more aggressive.