You Might Need to Hire a MarTech Agency If...


Digital Transformation is back. You would be right to wonder, “Where did it go?”

I've worked in the email marketing industry for a little more than twenty years. Before that, I earned a master’s degree in Technology Management at Mercer University in Atlanta. That was in the late 90s and, I swear, we’ve been talking about digital transformation ever since. It’s one of those trends that keeps resurfacing as each new generation of computer technologies introduces ever-more-promising gains in efficiency, personalization and business opportunity.

Even though it seems we’ve been talking about “digital transformation” for-like-ever…change takes time, especially the transformational kind. In May of this year, a Harvard Business Review article titled, “Digital Transformation Comes Down to Talent in 4 Key Areas.” The article described four key talent areas that contribute to success with these initiatives.

1. Technology
No surprise here. Technology talent is key to building applications for mobile, blockchain, Internet-of-things and developing products. Tech talent is also key to building data lakes and ETL processes to make data more useful as well as constructing data pipelines that can extract and route data to connected systems and applications. 

2. Data
Data is everywhere and ever-growing. It’s easy for data to spiral out of control within an organization. It’s much harder to harness it, unify it, make it accessible in a form that is actionable and extract value out of it. Not to mention issues surrounding data quality, format, structured vs. unstructured data, externally sourced data, customer generated data, transactional data, product usage data, site analytics data. It all needs to be unified, transformed and made accessible to external systems.

3. Process
Process management puts the transformation into digital transformation, breaking down internal silos, helping the organization rethink how it interacts with customers and meets their needs into the future. Process management connects the dots across the enterprise to ensure that digital transformation projects amount to more than a series of incremental improvements.

4. Organizational Change
Another buzzword from recent years, organizational change specialists provide the people skills that make change possible. The folks involved in the technology, data or process aspects may not be the best fit for shepherding and championing change within an organization. This requires people skills to overcome pockets of resistance that inevitably accompany these initiatives and persuasion skills to prevent sabotage by employees who may feel threatened.

Previously, Marketing Insider Group published an article in November 2019 titled, “Why Marketing Should Lead Your Digital Transformation.” The article persuasively argued that the marketing team is best positioned within most companies to lead digital transformation initiatives. Why? Because they are most familiar with the customer journey and can best identify new opportunities that may come with “going digital.”

What’s more, marketers are now among the most technically adept members of organizations outside of core IT, Database and Development teams. “Marketers are no strangers to digital transformation. Advances in digital technology have transformed the world of marketing, perhaps more than any other industry,” the author wrote.

2020 may (finally) prove to be a tipping point. This year, a global pandemic forced businesses to look for new ways to operate more efficiently and deliver on some of the most promising aspects of digital transformation – better analytics, cloud technologies, Internet of Things, improved personalization and real-time decisioning via artificial intelligence and machine learning.

As a result, marketers will have access to even more data flowing into their marketing databases. Many companies have already built centralized marketing databases where customer data from disparate and previously disjointed points across the enterprise is unified and transformed to make it actionable. A further push toward digital technologies spurred by the pandemic will generate even more and, hopefully, richer data that will easily flow through this existing infrastructure.

During my career in email, I have worked on the client, platform vendor and agency consulting sides of the industry. These multiple perspectives provided me with valuable experience and insights on how to apply technology to solve complex marketing problems. I have witnessed marketing technology platforms evolve from doing one thing really well (sending email) to becoming multi-channel marketing hubs that function as the nerve center of successful organizations. With this evolution comes complexity.

As a marketer on the client / brand side of the industry, I used and selected ESP and MarTech platforms. For most of my client-side jobs, I didn’t have the option of hiring outside consultants and agencies, primarily because I came up working for dot-coms and startups where budgets are notoriously tight. In the early days, most vendor platforms were pretty easy to setup and use.

Early ESPs offered relatively limited feature sets. Though revolutionary at the time, the front-end UI for most early ESP platforms consisted primarily of three main components:

  1. Data Management – tools for uploading and managing subscriber lists and creating audience segments
  2. Content Editor – tools for configuring text and HTML multi-part MIME email messages
  3. Reporting – mostly out of the box “canned reports” along with a few customizable bell-and-whistle reports

The truly revolutionary aspects of ESP platforms included their early embrace of the Software as a Service (Saas) business model and the fact that ESP platforms were one of the earliest and most commercially successful applications of what we now call Cloud technologies – or simply, the Cloud.

The SaaS model went on to radically transform the software distribution business as we used to know it. When is the last time you bought a piece of new software on a CD-ROM packaged inside a box from an electronics store? And as for the Cloud? Cloud technologies became one of the most disruptive business trends we have ever seen – maybe on par with the invention of the printing press.

When I started working at CheetahMail in 2002, the company was notable as one of the first companies to offer both a self-service platform and a full-service client services team with named, assigned team members for every client. Clients could choose their service model or choose a mixed service model, whereby we offered staff augmentation and other professional services on an as-needed basis. In my view, the “full service ESP” was one of the early iterations of what we know today as MarTech agencies.

As ESPs continued to innovate and differentiate themselves in an ever-more crowded marketplace, their platforms inevitably became more technically complex. While much of the innovation – like drag-and-drop template editors and better reporting and analytics tools – served to complement their overall ease-of-use, other innovations added more complexity and required more technical skills to integrate and use them.

New data management tools along with the addition of new digital communication channels drove their technical complexity to new levels. The platforms grew ever-more-powerful and ever-more-complex, as a result. The proliferation of customer data generated from across the enterprise and the ubiquity of mobile devices only added to the technical expertise that was required to integrate these platforms and execute on coordinated, multi-channel marketing strategies.

By way of example, think about this. Sometime around 2010, give or take a few years, Exact Target launched “Data Extensions,” new tools for managing relational customer data and linking it to customer profiles. The Data Extensions feature was a game changer for marketers.

It was also a game changer for MarTech agencies. At one point, Exact Target had a six-month waiting period for new clients to be integrated onto its platform. Rumors swirled that the company could no longer handle the load of integrating and supporting all their new clients due to the exponential demand for their platform. Competitors circled like vultures to pick up the crumbs from ETs table. They were few and far between.

From my vantage point as one of their competitors, Exact Target trail-blazed a few important digital transformation trends during this time.

  1. Exact Target solved a vexing problem for marketers – how to integrate all their customer data and link it to other organizational data to make it more actionable.
  2. Exact Target spawned a successful partner eco-system, a veritable library of third-party plug-ins that extended the platform’s native functionality, enabling it to offer customizable applications for specific verticals.
  3. These innovations resulted in an extremely powerful platform that was arguably the most technically complex application most marketers had ever worked with.

Exact Target’s Data Extensions and its app ecosystem moved the complexity needle for marketers, requiring an integration project to involve a multifunctional team made up of IT, Database and Marketing teams.  The marketer no longer simply had a list and an email creative to upload and link together. They had complex data tables to link together and behavior-based segments to build with data from disparate sources being joined together to form a new “marketing database.”

In order to deal with the onslaught of new business, Exact Target outsourced client onboarding to 3rd party agencies, paving the way for a new generation of MarTech agencies to gain traction and find fundamental ways to deliver immediate value.

It was an unpopular decision for some potential clients at the time but ended up being quite a genius long-term play. Exact Target removed itself from one of the most laborious and expensive parts of their client lifecycle and avoided the pressure to discount or waive onboarding service fees, as most of their competitors continued to do for years.

While a lot has changed over the past 20 years, a lot also remains the same.

  • Most marketing teams still operate on the lean side and are ill-equipped to scale up or down as business opportunities develop or as business conditions change.
  • Marketing teams often do not have all the necessary core competencies or prior experiences to successfully navigate a crowded MarTech marketplace offering solutions that frequently overlap.
  • As a result, internal marketing organizations – who are experts on issues and opportunities affecting the company – can struggle to identify and execute on the BEST technology solutions available to meet the company’s specific needs.

This is where MarTech agencies come into play. I’m a firm believer that an outsider’s perspective can introduce outside-the-box thinking that can shed new light on existing problems or identify novel ways to capitalize on new opportunities.

So, without further ado, here are some of the scenarios and situations in which hiring a MarTech agency can make a lot of sense and deliver tremendous business value.

You Might Need to Hire a MarTech Agency if…

You want to maximize efficiency through marketing automation
These high-value programs frequently involve integrating multiple components across the marketing stack. They require the marketing team’s accessibility to complex customer data. They require a data-oriented approach to identifying data signals or triggers that can be used to drive automation programs. Finally, they require a thoughtful approach to measurement.  

You need to better align your marketing strategy and your MarTech capabilities
This may involve finding and integrating new platforms or integrating your existing platforms in new ways.

You need to add new digital communication channels like SMS or Push Messaging
This may involve a decision to integrate channel-specific communication platforms or look for an all-in-one solution. It involves planning for how those platforms integrate with your existing customer data and marketing databases. SMS requires shortcodes and special types of opt-in. Push requires SDKs that must be integrated into your mobile apps. And you will usually want to layer in analytics that pulls together data across multiple customer touchpoints.

You want to integrate more customer data into your marketing data ecosystem
Sounds easy, right? Problem is that data comes in all shapes and sizes. It often needs to be transformed to become a useful data point for marketers to action against. Finally, with more data comes an increasing necessity of getting the data quality, ETL processes, orchestration and data pipelines right.

You’re building a new marketing stack
You will need to assess your current marketing technology components and make decisions about integrating or replacing them. You will need to understand how to scope out your business needs and match them to one of dozens or more competitive platforms. Then comes evaluating, figuring out how the platforms integrate and where they overlap, creating scorecards and negotiating terms of potential deals with your top choices.

You need to add staff to your team temporarily to meet a seasonal business condition or new opportunity
Staff augmentation around specific specialties is a cornerstone benefit of a MarTech agency relationship, providing a level of flexibility not available with hiring FTEs. Agencies have a larger talent pool and are adept at finding talent with the specific experience you need at the moment you need it most.

You need an outsider’s perspective
Best way to introduce novel ways of approaching problems or leveraging opportunities.

You have a problem that requires a specialist
Deliverability, data management, creative, analytics, customer journey mapping, identifying data signals for trigger programs – each one requires special skills, experience and domain knowledge.

Digital transformation initiatives, particularly after a year of pandemic lockdowns and an accelerated embrace of ‘going digital,' will have big and small marketing repercussions for years to come. Paired with a booming marketing technology landscape, it’s more important than ever to invest in talent in the four key areas of technology, data, process and organizational change.

Partnering with a MarTech agency can help accelerate your timeline for reaching key milestones on your journey to transformative organizational change, by providing diverse expertise and the ability to flex to your resource needs.

Do you have stories or experiences you’d like to share? When did an agency come to your rescue? As an agency, when did you really deliver on behalf of your client to drive exciting change?  Please share your stories. Leave a comment below and keep the discussion going.

If you think about it, digital transformation is kinda why we’re all here.