By Scott Vaughan, Chief Marketing Officer at INTEGRATE

John Donlon is Research Director for Marketing Operations Strategies at Sirius Decisions. He works with Marketing Ops pros and teams every day. He is one of the six judges for the Marketing Ops Game Changers program which is recognizing the top 33 Marketing Ops leaders in B2B for breakthrough work.

We caught up with John to get his scoop on the past, present and future of Marketing Ops – a profession that has progressed from the “island of misfit toys” and an informal function to today being a trusted counselor to the CMO.

Scott: What’s the most important role that Marketing Ops plays in today’s customer-centric, data-driven marketing world?

The overarching theme is making it easy for the rest of marketing to do their job. Sometimes that means serving up the information they need in an easy-to-digest format, sometimes it’s smoothing out a process so that it can run more efficiently, and sometimes it’s recognizing connections across teams that others may not see from their individual silo. The beauty of marketing operations is that it spans the entire marketing team, so it needs to seize the opportunity to identify and correct inefficiencies across the whole marketing ecosystem.

Which of the following is most essential for Marketing Ops pros to master: business strategy, data and analytics, or technology?

The essential competency is actually becoming a bridge across all those things. In a large enough marketing operations team, you may have specialists for each of those disciplines, but the real value comes from stitching the concepts together. I grew up [professionally] in the IT space, and the most valuable people there were always those that could speak both technical jargon and the language of the business. The same is true here— the most effective marketing operations professionals that I know are able to wear the strategic hat of a Chief of Staff, but then also understand the very real operational and technical implications behind business-driven initiatives.

What’s the most under-valued skill of a good ops pro? What trait do many hiring managers neglect to look for?

The most under-valued skill I see is the ability to balance a customer-service orientation with leadership. Historically, marketing operations has been in danger of being the Island of Misfit Toys, where oddball projects and tasks tend to get dumped. With that, many marketing operations professionals have been conditioned to see themselves simply as order-takers.

While this has bred a strong [internal] customer-service attitude, the highest performing marketing operations leaders also layer in a change agent approach. This means drawing from their experience to not just suggest, but champion, alternative ways of doing things. So again, it’s a balance of a couple of traits; and from a hiring perspective this is easily overlooked, as recruiters usually focus on one or the other.

It’s a new year. What’s next for Marketing Ops? (and/or) Is Marketing Ops the right title based on your vision of the role?

For many marketing operations leaders what’s next is to evolve into that Chief of Staff role, even if that’s not their formal title. It’s really about a shift in attitude and presence, away from the tactical order-taker and into the consultative, trusted advisor. “Marketing Operations” as a title for the function is certainly still relevant, but it’s up to us as a community to raise its stature on the marketing team and beyond.

What are some of the pitfalls you frequently see marketing ops practitioners falling into?

There are a few. We all love to use the phrase “shiny new object” disparagingly when talking about technology, but how many of us have a tech roadmap for 2017 that calls for pruning the tech tree, rather than adding to it? I spoke with one practitioner recently and that’s his plan for the year ahead– nothing new, only decommissions. Every situation is different, but adding blindly to the tech stack is always a big pitfall.

Ignoring data quality and unification is another big one. It’s hard for me to fully express the advantage an organization gains by keeping its data clean and having a plan for pulling it all together. The insight and responsiveness it allows you is off the charts when done right, yet many organizations treat data management simply as a necessary evil.

Finally– and this gets at some of the earlier themes– marketing operations professionals need to better promote the good work they’re doing. Many of us are introverted by nature and just happy with a job well-done, but that does us a huge disservice. Get out of your comfort zone and make a point to publicize the impact you and the team are having on the organization.

What motivated you join the Game Changers judging panel?

Part of my role with SiriusDecisions is that I get to talk to a wide range of marketing operations practitioners and offer them guidance on how to execute industry best practices. Some are struggling with the basics while others are light years ahead, and it’s incredibly satisfying to be able to help all our clients, no matter where they are in the maturity spectrum.

Being on this panel gives me the chance to get exposure to even more great work that’s being done out there, and I’m thrilled to be able to recognize the excellence of these practitioners, since it helps all of us as a marketing operations community.