A super graphic interview with Scott Brinker, Martech SuperGuy
(This interview is a companion piece to the post, Let’s Steal From The Marketing Technology Supergraphic, all about the strategy, execution and history of ‘Brinker’s Beast’.)
I’ve always admired Scott Brinker from afar (and sometimes, awkwardly, from a-near). He’s without doubt the smartest marketing technology analyst-blogger out there, with an unparalleled signal-to-noise ratio. He does innovative things —like the Martech Supergraphic and the Stackies Awards – and never fails to sniff out the most interesting issues of the day (then slam dunks them). And he does it all with an engaging but annoying humility (self-proclaimed “Keynote Speakers” with half his chops make three times more personal-brand-fanfare).
So when the Marketing Muse (Hypecastria?) touched my shoulder and said, “Why not write a Let’s Steal From post about the Martech Supergraphic?” I flinched, looked around to see if anyone else heard her, then resolved to get Scott on a Zoom call. Here’s how it went, techno-warts and all:
Scott: Hey, Doug. You hear me?
Scott: Testing, one two. Test, test. Hello? Hey. There you are.
Doug: Hey, Scott. Can you hear me?
Scott: Yes. Can you hear me?
Doug: No? Testing, one, two. Testing, one, two.
Scott: I can hear you.
Doug: Ah, you’re there. Sorry, I was on mute. You there?
Scott: Ah, yes. Can you hear me now?
Doug: Yes. All good.
Doug: So, who the hell are you and how did you get where you are?
Scott: The short version is, I’ve been a product guy at the intersection of marketing and software for pretty much my entire career. I was the co-founder and CTO of Ion Interactive, a SaaS company that helped marketers create interactive content.
That company was acquired last summer and I joined HubSpot as VP of platform ecosystem, helping HubSpot integrate and work better with all of these other amazing marketing and sales technologies out there in the world.
The other half of my life has been this fascination with the collision of technology and marketing. And in particular, the impact that’s having on marketing.
And so, over 10 years ago now, I started the Chief MarTec blog, really focused on this somewhat unique and very nichey hybrid professional called marketing technologists.
Around 2013, suddenly a lot of people became very interested in harnessing hybrid marketing technologist talent in their organizations. So the blog kind of took off, and we started a conference around that community as well, the MarTech conference, in 2014.
And that’s where I am now. I continue to actually work in the marketing technology field but I’m also just incredibly thrilled to be able to work with the larger martech community, sharing knowledge and figuring out this whole new world.
What kind of person tries to codify 7,000 vendors in one visual?
Clearly, one that needs to be on Lithium.
I want to ask about the Landscape from a content marketing perspective. It’s an awesome example of content and that’s what our ‘Let’s Steal From’ series is all about. Can we start with a simple description. What is the Supergraphic and who’s it for?
Sure. The Supergraphic is an attempt to show a representation of the entire field of marketing technology that’s out there, and to provide at least some high level structure, using categories.
It’s meant for a pretty broad audience: basically anyone who has a stake in understanding how marketing is changing. It’s just one facet of how marketing is changing, but it’s a very interesting one. It has a lot of ripple effects.
Were you surprised how much it took off?
It caught me by surprise as much as everyone else. The first version I created had around 150 vendors on it. I was just trying to make the case to marketing executives that, “Hey, your mission is becoming incredibly dependent on technology. Doesn’t it make sense to have someone who really understands those technologies, who can bring technology strategy and operations, to your team?”
Coming back to the graphic year over year, it was kind of surprising to see it double, and then double again, and then double again. All these folks kept insisting very loudly that, “This is just unsustainable. It’s going to all collapse and consolidate into six vendors.” Frankly, my response was always, “Yes please, because this is becoming a lot of work!”
That must’ve been quite a ride. Did you feel like, “It’s going to get out of control. I can’t keep doing this.”?
It did get out of control. It was more than I could do alone. So, a couple years ago I started working with another fellow who’s very passionate about martech, Anand Thaker. And then this past year, we also brought in Jeff Eckman and his team at Blue Green to help with the visualization.
So, yeah, it definitely expanded beyond the scope of what one person can do. And the thing is, frankly, it’s still woefully incomplete.
It seems like the whole discussion about martech consolidation or fragmentation takes place against the background of the Supergraphic. It’s the venue for that perennial discussion.
Every time there’s a merger announcement, I get these emails, “Aha! Adobe bought such-and-such. See? Your martech landscape is consolidating.”
I appreciate the emails but for every one of these, I get 20 others from all these firms that were incredibly annoyed that I left them off the chart because they’re 10 million dollars with hundreds of clients, and how could I have missed them? And then a dozen emails from new startups. So yes, there’s acquisition activity but so far it’s been overwhelmed by new entrants.
I like how you always say, “Guys, don’t think of this as comprehensive, it’s representative of the market. And it’s for discussion.” That feels like a really important part of its success because people can take it for what it is instead of spiraling down into weeds.
Well, a number of people do that anyway. Turns out people don’t always read the disclaimers!
So you do get some abuse for that, do you?
That’s okay. I’m fascinated by the different kinds of conversations that the Landscape has started. Certainly, there are the straightforward conversations about market fragmentation vs consolidation.
But some of the other conversations that get really interesting are people looking at this through a lens of change. We all know marketing is changing, right? We all feel it, this incredible pace of change and the pressure to keep up and adapt strategies and the ways we operate.
But even though we feel this change, it’s actually very hard to quantify it. To say, “Well, marketing changed 60% this year.” It’s a very amorphous evolution. And the Landscape, while it only represents a tiny, tiny fragment of the change that’s happening in marketing, it is actually something we can quantify. So we can say that when the martech landscape has doubled from this year to this year, or it’s grown an order of magnitude in just seven years. That, in some way, is a concrete reflection of just how dramatically the marketing environment has changed.
How do you measure the success of the Landscape?
I’ll be honest: actually, I don’t really have metrics. I don’t say that with any pride. I actually consider it a flaw.
I am, without a doubt, an accidental content marketer. The entire reason I do the Chief MarTec blog and things like the Landscape, is quite frankly just my own personal fascination with what’s happening here.
And while I certainly enjoy the opportunity to connect with other people who are interested in it, really, for much of the history of Chief MarTec, I had no desire to even look at it through the lens of, “Oh, this is some sort of property that I am intentionally trying to grow.”
But I have come around to this feeling – particularly with things like the MarTech conference – that this is a community here. And I have tried to be a little bit more conscious in the past couple years about making sure that, “Okay. Well, now that there is this community, how can I serve them best? What do they want? How do I know what I’m creating is of value to them?”
But the main metric is still that anyone is interested in chatting about it. I’m still like, “Awesome. Great.”
So does the Landscape pass that value test?
Yeah. I remember back in the mid 2000s when Brian Solis started his Conversation Prism, I remember thinking, “What an amazing piece of content.” For years, in fact, even today, it would still be my benchmark. There’s something visceral about it. It’s not just an analytical thing. There’s some sort of visceral thing that causes this trigger in people.
I remember when it came out, thinking, “Wow.” It was like a songwriter who hears a great song that someone else wrote, and they’re like, “Ah, I wish I’d written that.” It kind of surprised me that the Martech Landscape ended up going that way.
It’s kind of ironic that you don’t use any of the many martech tools to track your own martech landscape.
I probably should be evaluating everything. I think one of the reasons I’ve avoided that – and it’s not something I’m proud of or advocate for others – is that this has always been a parallel track for me. And one of the reasons I’ve been able to keep investing my passion in Chief MarTec for the past ten years is because I really do insist that I’m only going to write things I enjoy writing. That I’m passionate about.
If it’s something I want to learn more about or I want to explain, and I get real joy out of working on it, then I’m delighted to do it. And if there’s a week when I’m not feeling inspired by something, I just have zero obligation to say, “It’s Monday, so I’ve got to get a post up.”
By not treating it as a commercial venture, I’m allowed to keep it as a passion that’s separate from all the commercial work I do for 80 hours a week.
We’re often like that with Velocity’s marketing (probably to a fault). I know we could optimize better and max it out more, but fun is the fuel. And we don’t want to slime people.
Yeah. One of the examples when people who need to grow their audience use this web pop-up, saying, “Hey, why don’t you subscribe to this?” And I want to stab myself in the eye with a fork every time one of those hits me on a site.
I’d sooner lay on the tracks than I would put one of those things on my blog. But I know that I’m not getting the same growth rate on my email subscription lists that I’m sure I would if I needed to optimize for that.
So how do you get the word out there when a new Supergraphic is released?
It’s very lightweight. I distribute these things through my social channels. But I’m not doing nearly as much as I could.
I do a lot of speaking. That’s probably how I try and get these ideas out into the world. And I really enjoy that. There’s so many interesting things here to connect with people around. Weirdly, I’m an introvert, and I used to get terrible stage fright and had zero presentation skills. But over the years, I’m getting better. While I’m still an introvert, I don’t get stage fright anymore. And I’d like to say my presentation skills have at least reached up to the amateur level. So I get a lot of joy out of connecting with people face-to-face around these topics.
Again, please do not follow my advice on content marketing.
One thing I like about the Supergraphic is that, in the age of Big Data, it’s kind of the opposite. It’s not a huge data set. It’s hand-assembled, stuck in a spreadsheet, simply presented. It’s ‘small data’ that happened to go big. Does that feel right?
Yes. This is a philosophical thing. I think the power of small data has been overlooked unfairly in this day and age.
There are a lot of interesting opportunities in small data. It’s the difference between diamond mining and actually crafting a jewel. You need people who are going to sort through tons and tons of earth to try and find these raw diamonds. That’s one process, and there’s value in that. But you also need the jeweller who gets the raw diamond and pulls out the jewel hidden inside. There’s a lot more to analytics than just the big earth-moving machinery.
Do you limit vendors to a certain number of categories? That seems to be one of the big challenges in putting the Supergraphic together.
I don’t have a hard limit. What I try to do is be very conservative about how many categories companies can be in. There are the platform players, Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce, Hubspot… and they have products in so many categories. It wouldn’t be a fair representation to leave them out of those.
But if I get a small company that essentially has one product, I try and put them into the category that best matches them, even though they might say, “Well, yeah, sure. It’s a content marketing tool, but we use it on social media marketing, and we use it over here, and you can use it for optimization here.” I appreciate that.
Categorization has always troubled me. First of all, the category boundaries are a very vendor-centric world view rather than a marketer’s world view. And a lot of the vendors that are doing the most interesting things are the ones that are crossing those category boundaries. They’re not constrained by labels that analysts and the industry might have adopted years ago. The companies that are actually hard to categorize are, in some ways, the ones I admire most.
If the market doubled again, would you still try to do it in one sheet?
My answer to that has been ‘no’ for the past three years and yet look where I’ve ended up.
Do you think it’ll start shrinking? I mean, not necessarily consolidating in a big way, but we’ve got to reach Peak Martech at some point.
Well, yes and no. The velocity of the things that I’ve tracked has certainly, as a rate of growth, slowed down. I think this last year it grew 40% or something. So, it’s no longer doubling every year.
My general sense is, yes, it should slow down. But I’ll tell you two reasons why I think it might not.
When we talk about software eating the world, it’s getting harder and harder to find a company that wouldn’t create software as some part of its value proposition. Agencies are a terrific example. Yes, agencies are going to leverage all these commercial tools, but won’t they increasingly be looking for ways to capture some particular aspect of what they do – part of their secret formula – and package it as software?
Maybe these things are built on top of those larger, more horizontal software things, which is one of the reasons I’m a big advocate for platforms. But I see lots and lots of companies creating really specialized software. And so that’s one trend. More and more companies are creating software as some piece of their special service.
The other thing is, software keeps getting more and more granular. So, we went from these big monolithic apps to now this spread of various SaaS apps that have APIs. Then there’s microservices architectures. And this idea of functional computing, where it’s even smaller pieces – individual pieces of functionality that spin up on demand when you need them.
You could keep breaking software up into finer pieces. Any time someone captures some particular new thing in a function, they’ll make it available as a function, as a service, then anyone else in the software world that gets access to that can leverage it on demand.
These transformative changes in software will change how disciplines like Marketing, Sales, and HR leverage technology.
I have a very hard time imagining that the future is six software companies that do everything for everyone. I think you’ll have maybe six platforms at the center, as centers of gravity. But there are a number of different software components and elements that marketers are going to leverage from all these different places. I can see that being tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. Maybe millions.
I’m not going to chart that, just so you know.
I was going to say-
I’m going to draw a hard line at the one million mark. I’ll put the line in the sand now.
So no Peak Martech in sight?
I thought we’d reach Peak Martech at the 5,000 mark. In fact, that’s why I started calling it the Martech 5000.
If it grows or shrinks by 1,000 or 2,000 in either direction, I don’t think it changes the fundamental narrative: we live in a world of incredible choice, and incredible heterogeneity around marketing technology. It’s continually changing. And a fundamental challenge for any marketing organization is, “Okay. What’s going to be our technology and operations strategy so we can leverage this stuff in the service of our broader strategy?”
To me, the narrative is not, “How does Scott deal with moving 5,000 logos around?” It’s more like, “How does a CMO deal with having 5,000 potential vendors out there?”.
You often use the term “serving a community” and that feels like the essence of what’s going on here.
Remember, I’m not doing this for a living. I have no boss on this project. I’m not going to have a CEO walk into my home office and be like, “You didn’t get that landscape out on time. You’re fired, Brinker.”
Actual marketers with real jobs have got real missions. They’re accountable for delivering results to their company. And I have a lot of respect that. Me having this carefree passion and approach to what I’m doing is nice for me. I’m not getting a paycheck from it. If I was, I’m quite sure I’d have a different lens on it.
So, in the interview for the HubSpot job, VP of platform ecosystem, did they ask, “What the hell do you know about the martech ecosystem?”
I think they took that for granted.
A kind of summary
See what I mean about Scott?
Even though he keeps saying that content marketers shouldn’t follow his lead, I think we really, really should. Maybe not on the metrics thing. But on the most important things in content marketing:
- Not just ‘starting with your audience’ but never drifting from the mission of serving them.
- Putting the bulk of your time, budget and energy into one simple thing: creating content people value.
- Following what you love. Make genuine curiosity be your guide.
- Simply facilitating conversations in your marketplace is a worthy goal. You don’t have to dominate those conversations.
- Being (and staying) humble makes it easier to serve your market instead of your ego.
If this is what Introvert Content Marketing looks like, I want more of it.
Those are some lessons from Brinker the person. For lessons from the Supergraphic itself, check out the companion post, Let’s Steal From The Marketing Technology Supergraphic.