Meet the Marketing Owner, Agile Marketing's Make or Break Role

There are pretty much an unlimited number of factors that can impact the success or failure of an Agile marketing rollout. Organizational culture, team structure, strategic priorities, and tool selection are all on the short list of things can totally derail a group's efforts to go Agile.

But if we zoom in a little and talk about the team itself, there's one role that has an a disproportionate ability to make or break Agile marketing: the Marketing Owner.

Modeled after software's Product Owner role, this person has a number of crucial jobs:

  • Apply their strategic perspective to refine the backlog so the team knows what to work on and when.
  • Protect the team from external interruptions, separating legitimate emergencies and opportunities from pointless derailments.
  • Interface with other teams, both inside and outside of marketing, to help the team effectively collaborate with others.
  • Remove large scale impediments that are preventing the team from delivering value.
  • Help ensure an ongoing commitment to the customer/audience within the team.

An outstanding Marketing Owner (MO for short) can be like rocket fuel for an Agile marketing team. Having a lackluster person in this role, however, can put an anchor around the team's neck.

In this article we're going to examine the characteristics that make an MO effective, some distressingly common problems that emerge around this role, and a few ways you can improve your MO's impact in the short and long term.

The Effective Marketing Owner

One of my favorite descriptions of the Product Owner role comes from Lyssa Atkins' book Coaching Agile Teams, and it can be very easily adapted to describe a really good MO as well:

  • Business value driver: decisions and trade-offs, including when to stop projects, are made through considering which alternative gives the most business value now.
  • Vision keeper: keep marketing's long term strategic goals in the team’s sight, and direct them toward them each sprint.
  • Daily decision maker: be fully present with the team to engage in conversation and make decisions as they arise so that the team can move forward unimpeded.
  • Heat shield: protect the team from all outside noise and pressure, allowing them to focus on doing the right work at the right time. 
  • The one ultimately responsible: be completely invested in creating marketing work that serves the audience. The team’s work is not just another job assignment -- it matters to the MO's career -- so they graciously accept the burden of being the final personal answerable for the business results of the work.

When it comes to how an MO spends their day, their main focus is steering the team in the right direction. They spend time liaising with external stakeholders, communicating with other team leaders, and running interference to keep their team members from being distracted. And, of course, they communicate continuously with the team itself.

effective marketing owner

Importantly, they don't worry about how much stuff the team creates, they focus on how much value it's delivering.

Some high functioning MOs can do all of this great stuff for multiple teams simultaneously, particularly if all of those teams are working on interrelated things and/or if the teams are on the smaller side (4-5 individual contributors per team). For the most part, however, each MO should be devoted to just one Agile marketing team, and each team should have just one MO.

Common Marketing Owner Fails

There are as many ways for the MO role to fail as there are Agile marketing teams, but these are three of the most common pitfalls that we encounter on the Agile marketing teams we work with.

Too Many Cooks in the Marketing Kitchen

By far the most common (and most devastating) MO fail is to have multiple MOs vying for control of a single backlog. This happens most often when teams/departments are still organizing around projects and project managers (PMs) have partially taken on the MO role.

It's fine to maintain the PM role inside an Agile marketing department, particularly if projects are complex and flow across multiple teams/departments, but don't try to shoe horn a typical PM into an MO role while still forcing them to manage projects.

Instead, pull a particularly high performing PM out of that role and transform them into a true MO.

The MO then acts as the one ultimately responsible for the team and its backlog (less kindly referred to as "the last wringable neck"), prioritizing the work of multiple PMs.

All Responsibility, No Authority

If you're going to hold an MO accountable for the Agile marketing team delivering value, they need the authority to actually decide what that team is doing.

MOs can't be great if other people (I'm looking at you, executives) continually swoop in and make unilateral demands of the team.

Without the ability to say "No," even to their immediate bosses, MOs will be reduced to short order cooks taking orders from multiple stakeholders, and their teams will be no better off than they were before Agile came to marketing.

Solve this problem by getting someone fearless as your first MO, and really letting them push back on external demands. They still need to argue their case -- they are, after all, responsible for the value coming out of their team -- but they shouldn't feel threatened by doing so.

Valuing Output Over Outcome

If an organization is still valuing volume-centric outputs over customer-centric outcomes, MO behavior will mirror this preference and their effectiveness will diminish.

MOs who are in output mode focus on things like velocity and the results of A/B tests when communicating with their stakeholders, rather than describing the customer benefits their team has been able to provide.

This issue may or may not be traceable back to the MO him/herself; it may be more systemic and rooted in organizational culture. If it is down to the MO, help them understand how to shift their focus from output to outcome, and how to reflect that within the Agile team's backlog.

If the culture is to blame, the fix is going to be much bigger and longer term. Getting everyone closer to the customer, changing the focus of meetings, projects, and planning to center around customer needs, and even adjusting the language you use to talk about goals, will need to take place before you can expect to see behavior change at the MO level.

Making Your MOs More Awesome

If you've already got MOs in place or are considering adding them to your Agile marketing mix, here are a few keys to set them up for success:

  • Identify one -- and only one -- Marketing Owner per team. Communicate their role to any and everyone who might be interfacing with that team, making expectations and responsibilities crystal clear.
  • If they don't have a solid Agile background, consider some basic training for new MOs. Traditional Product Owner training can help, as can the array of online certification courses we offer at AgileSherpas. Among them, you will find Agile Marketing Fundamentals courses for teams as well as the Agile Marketing Leadership Certificate, designed specifically for marketers in an owner role.
  • Ensure team members understand the MO role and how they can interact with it most effectively. Make sure they don't take on work from external requestors without funneling it through their MO.
  • Give your MOs insight into strategic objectives so they can direct their teams accordingly.
  • Make sure executives understand the MO role and are willing to take "No" for an answer from these people.

Being a Marketing Owner can be one of the most challenging and rewarding roles on an Agile marketing team, and it's also a lynchpin that can make or break Agile in marketing.

So don't undermine your MOs. Give them the training and education they need, then step back and watch their teams do amazing things.


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