Software doesn’t solve strategy problems. Don’t rage against the tools if your foundation isn’t right.

In a recent episode of the Marketing Companion podcast, host Mark Schaefer and guest Mitch Joel, president of Mirum, took on a weighty topic: the future of the digital agency.

What a doozy.

They volleyed smart predictions and insights around many of the chief threats: in-sourcing, encroaching global consultancies, fluctuating levels of ad spend, the as-yet unrealized dominance of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and the tectonic shifts wrought by marketing technologies.

Mitch Joel, an incisive voice in the debate, threw a dagger by declaring we should separate marketing from marketing automation. They’re related, yes. But they’re not the same.

Marketing automation vendors are out there selling big solutions to big companies, small solutions to smaller companies, and everything between. The martech marketplace is long on apps and features to seemingly fix every one of our marketing-induced migraines.

This isn’t a problem. The problem comes when the challenges that drove the tech investment – difficulty generating demand, personalizing at scale, managing leads across a complex organization, whatever they may be – remain unsolved by the technology alone.


Too often, brands are left holding the bag. They’ve purchased a competent and powerful software suite to automate their marketing, but where’s the rest?


Where’s the strategy? The creativity? The implementation? The organizational adoption? Where’s the requisite business context and the relentless commitment to iterative testing and learning? Where’s the straight-up elbow grease that it takes to create a robust, revenue-driving marketing operation? Unfortunately, these are not off-the-shelf commodities. 

Marketing technology isn’t a switch to flip.

A common reaction to the stubborn difficulty of demonstrating return on investment is to blame the tools. Stakeholders fear underutilization, and are often reluctant to admit poor implementation.

The question quickly becomes, “What should we have bought instead?” Followed closely by, “I think it’s time to look at other options.” Is Salesforce better than Eloqua? Should we be using Sitecore instead of Umbraco? Is Optimizely a better testing platform than VWO?

These are the wrong questions. Here's a better one: "Where did we go wrong?" 

Savvy marketers are adept at capturing data to drive insight, then action. They don’t expect that their tech stacks are going to replace their core strategic, creative and analytical functions. The tools enable a marketer’s ability to make connections, but it’s incumbent on the marketer and their partners to know what to look for. 

The key to knowing what you’re looking for is to be firm in your strategy and clear on your purpose. Chris Lynch, the CMO of Cision, won’t so much as consider a tech investment unless it directly supports one of his organization’s three objectives: revenue growth, market presence or efficiency.


If you’re in the market for martech, make a list. Ask yourself, “What is the distinct benefit I’m going get by switching to this tool?” Be ruthlessly specific.


Effective CMOs want to see maturity and progress. They understand that success is a series of small wins painstakingly built on the knowledge gained before it. They know the tools never deliver the solution. It’s always the strategy, the people and the process. It’s a clear-eyed awareness of how their martech stack supports the broader landscape of business goals. They have little patience for VPs or directors who obfuscate results and blame the tools.

Don’t be that guy.

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