By Chuck Leddy
Dan Vawter is a Managing Partner at Sojourn Solutions. We caught up with him recently to discuss his career in marketing operations, his role and goals at Sojourn, what skills are necessary for success in marketing operations, and more. Most of all, Vawter expresses a clear, consistent drive to help Sojourn clients (and Sojourn consultants) continuously improve. This is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How do you see your role at Sojourn Solutions?
Vawter: I envision my role at Sojourn as driving growth. Our growth is completely dependent upon our being able to help our customers achieve success through real and positive business outcomes. I know to my core that our business only grows if our customers can achieve success.
To achieve success in our industry today requires great people coming together with their experience and ideas to improve processes and their use of technologies. So, as a marketing operations consulting business owner, I‘m constantly trying to ensure that our services are improving, our consultants are learning through knowledge sharing across the team, and that we’re able to apply this knowledge within our customers’ businesses.
There is nothing I enjoy more in my roles as a consultant and a business owner than facilitating this process of creating success. When our clients see that performance has improved, that business outcomes have gotten better, and maybe they even get promoted within their organization, that’s such a great feeling and it’s why I do what I do.
What was your background before your current role at Sojourn?
Vawter: I started as a mechanical engineer, a design engineer. I was lucky enough to have really good mentors. My first manager taught me about elegant design: I learned from him how to figure out the most elegant design to solve a particular problem. Then I worked as a software engineer in the late ‘90s. Another great mentor taught me about managing people and how to work in a large corporate environment on really high-level projects with lots of stakeholders. Those skills translated perfectly to my next job, which was implementing campaign management technology and marketing database technologies.
I learned about coordinating across different teams — marketing, sales, processes, technology — getting it all to come together in order to realize some goal the company had. Then I finally got into marketing automation consulting, and that was a sweet spot. It’s been a constant and fun learning process.
How has marketing operations changed over your career?
Vawter: There’s much more complexity now. Back in the day, we would purchase lists and use them for direct mail and outbound dialers. Now, we’ve got buyer personas, marketing automation, inbound marketing, account-based marketing, multiple channels, and thousands of vendors everywhere. We’ve got marketing and sales alignment. We’ve got more data. We’ve got revenue attribution. We’ve got ROI.
We’re much better today at setting up technologies and processes to support company goals. Some things haven’t changed, of course. It’s still about blending the right people, processes, and technologies.
Where do you see things moving in the next few years with data and analytics?
Vawter: We’re going in a lot of different directions, but it’ll certainly be more focused on understanding your buyers, how to attract them, and creating a better customer experience. Things have gotten tougher in some ways with GDPR, but when things get harder, people focus on what matters most. And that’s the buyer — what buyers want and need.
Does that go beyond data and data analysis?
Vawter: Yes. Effective marketers are also good at talking to actual, living customers, not just analyzing data. Speaking with actual, living customers about their buying experience, what they did in various phases of the buying process, what got them to move forward, etc., is so important. Obviously, data analysis and optimization is absolutely key, but speaking with your customers is also required for developing hypotheses and testing them.
What skills are needed for success in marketing operations today?
Vawter: Leadership is first. Marketing leaders today are optimizing and implementing processes across different groups within their organizations, processes that involve multiple stakeholders. They’ve got to be able to coordinate activities across these different groups, and that takes leadership.
You also need to be a lifelong learner: if you aren’t interested in constantly learning, this isn’t the career for you. Analysis and optimization are also huge. You’ve got to be able to look into what data is telling you and try to derive meaningful insights. Marketing technology experience/capability is another necessity. If you’re working in a marketing operations role, you’re going to be working with multiple technologies.
What do you see are the biggest challenges your customers face?
Vawter: We have clients who are so busy executing all the time and who have such heavy workloads that they’re unable to optimize or even look at some of the things they’re executing, to decide if it’s worth it. Then there are companies that are very sales driven, and they need strong marketing operation leaders and great marketers to come in and help drive better business outcomes for the sales team.
Probably the biggest challenge our customers face is lots of different systems with information that can help build a better customer experience, but none (or few) of these systems are working together. Getting those systems integrated is not a simple task, but can have massive impact.
What have you learned along the way that’s most valuable in your work?
Vawter: First, never lose sight of why you’re implementing all of these processes and technologies, which is to better serve your customers. Second, as a marketing operations practitioner, you’re operating within the framework of a business. We sometimes think, hey, we’re marketing experts and this is the way things should work, but we need to understand the entire business. If I could go back to the beginning of my career, I’d shadow salespeople and seek more exposure to the executive decision-making process.
What achievement are you proudest of?
Vawter: Helping our clients in ways large and small, every day, in iterative ways. If you’re always paying attention to what’s working and what’s not, then you’re going to be constantly making improvements. I prefer that constant optimization, not just one-and-done, hit the home run and walk away. It’s a constant and you’ve really got to be disciplined, making sure that your chosen metrics align with your corporate goals. Once aligned, if you improve those metrics, you’re achieving success for the organization.
What final thoughts would you like to offer?
Vawter: We’re trying to accomplish something very simple in a very complex environment. In marketing operations, we’re just trying to get the right message in front of the right people when they’re ready for it, and as they’re going through the buying process. In today’s world and in today’s organization, that’s incredibly complicated and important.