Marketing Ops Confessions: Episode 1 With Darrell Alfonso

Jess Cody

We recently spoke with Darrell Alfonso, Global Marketing Operations at AWS. He shared his opinions on hot marketing ops topics and who he admires in the space. 

Read on for the full interview. 

Damaging misperceptions about marketing ops

Hana: What do you think some of the most damaging misperceptions are about those in marketing ops? 

Darrell: So I think that there are two big misperceptions here. One is from the leadership side or the organizational side, and then the other one is how we as marketing ops perceive ourselves. And the first big one is that marketing ops are order-takers who are supposed to take whatever leadership or other marketing stakeholders want and then build out those things. In reality, the better approach is to partner with marketing ops and have marketing operations inform what the strategy is and how to improve and optimize that strategy going forward. 

And then the other side. I’m also vocally self-critical here is the tendency or perception for marketing ops to be technology-led versus strategy-led. Right, so you're letting the technological capabilities or limitations dictate what you're going to do. And that is a really scary place to be in. And it's not the right order of things. And for many of us, we start to think, OK, what can Marketo do or what can Pardot do? It can do lead nurturing. You can do dynamic content. Well, then that's what we're going to do for our marketing strategy. That gets you part of the way there. The better way to do it is to think about our marketing goals and the customer experience. Then how do the tools and technologies support us in getting there? And I think it's important to imagine what that great customer experience looks like. 

Why is it so hard to define marketing ops?

Hana: And I can say or add to that as a marketer and somebody who has happened to own marketing ops as well, it’s so important to loop in your marketing ops team when you're building strategy. And if there is something that you want to do that can't be done, it's best to work together to figure out, like, well, what's the next action? Like, how do we get there by maybe doing something different or taking a different approach? Goals obviously are critical. It's so important that we're all aligned at one company goal, but it can be really difficult to form relationships and align on goals when you don't have a proper definition of that goal. From a marketing ops perspective, why is it so hard for us to define the role of marketing ops? 

Darrell: I do want to comment on shared goals real quick. And it's really easy to think of it when marketing ops is just when marketing, in general, is just like one or two people. It's very easy because when you're coming up with the strategy, you're also at the same time thinking, OK, how am I also going to do it? Is it realistic? If my idea is to put on a great virtual event, do we have the time to do it right? You're already automatically thinking about that. There's a natural congruency there when it's just you and maybe one other person when the teams are separated, and marketing ops is a different function now, all of it all of a sudden, it becomes, OK, we're throwing something over the fence and just expecting someone else to do it. So that's why there's going to be some inherent challenges there. 

For marketing ops in general, the way that I like to define it is the art of executing great marketing. It is a broad definition, but I think it frames things really well. And just kind of like the art of getting things done. I think it's hard to define marketing operations because operations is a broad, ambiguous subject. 

I also think that it's helpful to define what marketing operations isn't. I think marketing operations can inform these things, but it's not necessarily their goal to do that. And those things are the setting the marketing vision. So marketing ops should inform that and help kind of construct it. It’s not really their job to decide and sort of write that down on paper. And then the other thing is, is sort of like branding, brand identity, those things.

How do you bridge technical and soft skills as a marketing ops leader?

Hana: Yeah, I love that. And there's obviously a common theme here around relationships and collaborating with other departments. You know, even if you're not the owner of that specific initiative, you still have to collaborate on that. It's critical. Building successful relationships and having effective communication to make sure that that collaboration is happening definitely requires a certain set of soft skills, which I know you're very passionate about talking about. At the same time, on the other hand, you're trying to balance all of these technical skills that are really required for you to do your job. 

So how do you effectively bridge these two skill sets? 

Darrell: I was having a conversation with a friend of mine, and I think how she explained this to me really resonated. Depending on how senior your role is and how mature your company is should determine the breakdown of the technical skill you're going to need and the portion of the soft skills you're going to need. I think that if you're just getting going, those technical skills can differentiate you from your peers and help you become part of a really important part of the marketing team because you're the one that's implementing the strategy. You're finding practical solutions to solve problems. And this is that's something that I did early on in my career. I became a very technical marketer. And you have many, much more senior marketers relying on you and getting your opinion, even though you haven't been there for very long or even though you haven't been as tenured in your career. Those technical skills really help. 

As you progress to managing larger initiatives, it does become more about your people skills, the way that you prioritize. I wouldn't necessarily always call it soft skills. I think more I think of them as business skills. Being able to influence people that you may not necessarily have authority over becomes really, really important. One of my co-workers told me, and it made sense to me that 30% or more of our job is really internal selling and internal communication. We know what we need to do, but it's getting everyone moving in the same direction, agreeing to it. And then actually fulfilling what we set out to do. It is such a big part of it. So, I think that the maturity of the company and how many people you're working with will determine the breakdown of technical versus general business skills. 

Hana: I like how you reframe it into business skills versus soft skills. It's also learning to adapt to how people want to absorb information. So it's about really understanding humans. How is the best way to communicate my point with this specific person? Is it a more technical approach? Is it a less technical approach? And then even using those technical skills that you have to have to create adoption. Maybe you need to run a report in this tool versus this tool to make sure that they can receive that information as they're going to absorb it best. 

Darrell: Yeah, absolutely, and then and then just being able to translate, I think we had talked about this before, but I think the best marketing operations people can translate really technical concepts in simple ways that other people can understand. And those are the people that I admire the most, where they can take a really complex topic, whether it's complex lead nurture or a data management initiative, and then break that down for other people to grasp and get on board with that skill is so admirable. And I think it's up to us to take it upon ourselves, to learn our craft, so well that we can put it into layman's terms. That has helped me time and time again in speaking to maybe non-technical stakeholders.

The importance of communication skills as a marketing ops leader

Hana: Again, pulling from my time on the agency side where we worked with a team of marketing operations specialists for clients, they weren't always going in front of the clients because there was this gap of like, how do I explain this? And they couldn't break it down in a simple way. But we had some amazing, amazing people who were all-stars at that. And they were in front of the clients, and they were explaining it. And I think it encouraged better collaboration between our internal teams, too, because we weren't left scrambling, trying to do that translation, and getting it wrong. Let me hear a little confession from you. 

If you could go back in time, what would you do differently in your career to better set yourself apart or better set yourself up for success? 

Darrell: The first thing that I would do, I think this might be a little contrarian, or it might surprise people, I would work on improving my writing skills and improving my business writing specifically. But overall, I think just overall writing is such a difference-maker. And it's one of the reasons why I like to write articles, why I like to spend time writing posts on LinkedIn because it helps clarify your thinking. It helps vet your ideas and also helps you communicate with others. When marketing ops speaks to other stakeholders, we might just tell them the tip of the iceberg. And hope that they understand, right? So if you're talking about trying to improve conversion rates or trying to have a healthy database, when you say that verbally or just in passing and you think that people get it and you think that people have those same goals, they usually don't. 

There are so many disconnects, the disconnected goals, and the misunderstanding of what everyone's working on. There are so many places that the game of telephone gets ruined. And when you improve your writing, you're also sort of trying to figure out how people interpret your message and see it from their point of view. And the reason why it's so hard for people is because of so many breaks. When you're writing, there are so many breaks that happen, right? There's the idea in your mind, and then you put it on the paper. So there's already a break there. And then there's the paper to the other person's eyes, right to the reader's eyes. So there's another break, and then the person has to interpret those ideas. So you can see almost four breaks just between you writing something and someone else reading it. And when you think through that, all those pieces, then your writing becomes much stronger. And then your ideas can come through more. 

And the secondary benefit of that is that you're vetting your ideas because you'll see that when you're writing if it’s not good. You're like, whoa, you know, I need to think through this more, or I need to maybe I need to change my approach or the way I think about this because it doesn't make sense on paper where it might make sense in your head. 

And to share some practical examples when we want to launch a new process or a new platform at Amazon, we need to write a six-page document on everything about it. It's almost like a business case study, and we're not allowed to present a PowerPoint on it. We're not allowed to show visuals means maybe some visuals. When we're going over our plan, everyone reads in silence, which is a peculiar part of our culture. And at first, I thought it was kind of weird, but I slowly really kind of became enamored with it because of those things that I just mentioned. It really clarifies. It's like the great equalizer, if you will. You just have the text, and you have people debating ideas on their merit versus maybe how passionate someone is about a specific topic. 

Challenges managing a global marketing operations organization

Hana: I love that. Speaking of how things are done at Amazon, you obviously have a lot on your plate between just the sheer number of people you're collaborating with and trying to enable the various technologies and all of the different requests you're navigating through. What do you find the most challenging in your role, and what are some of the rituals that keep you grounded? 

Darrell: You know, one thing that I don't think any of the blog posts or any of the business books sort of share with you is how do you implement change management? When everybody disagrees with you, I think that that is a really big, big one and something that, you know, something that I've had to deal with recently and the project that I recently worked on was a change of process. 

To give you an idea, we have about 800 marketers who log into our marketing automation platform every day and deploy campaigns around the globe. So any process change for us has a really large scale. And the consequences of that are sort of cascading because of how big it is. We always have to think about scale. But, you know, it's so funny that in blog posts and when you get advice, people always say, like, oh, try to find the shared goals and try to see it from their perspective. And then try to convince them that way so that you're on the same team. But no one ever tells you what happens when that doesn't work. And people still hate your idea, and you still have to do it anyway, like you still have to stay strong and stick to what you believe and roll out a really unpopular change. 

And for me, these past couple of months, I went through that. And I found a couple of things. I found that one thing that really helps is just to listen to people for the sake of it. One thing that I did when I was in to give you an idea was I met with 50 different people across 10 different meetings. And one of the things that I did was acknowledge what they said, repeated it back to them. And then explained my point of view and whether we agreed or not; what really helped was just knowing that I heard them and what they had to say. Even though I wasn't, you know, everyone's favorite person, I think that we can still get work done, and it's something that I think that I'll take from that experience. 

Marketing ops leaders in the space

Hana: This is one of my favorites because I know how important it is to be inspired by individuals that came before you or are just doing things in a really unique way. And kind of changing the narrative. So to that, who is a marketing ops leader, you admire and why? 

Darrell: There's so many. I think that you and I both know Sarah McNamara and then Helen Abromova. She heads marketing ops at Verizon and is also someone that I am an avid follower of. And you know, I believe that marketing ops folks are the future marketing leaders. And I think that's because we get exposed to so many different parts of the business. And we're also really invested in how work gets done. How are you actually going to do it? So like execution is the real deal. And I think it's the key to that business success that everyone's looking for. So I really believe that that marketing ops is positioned to be the future marketing leaders. And we already see that the CMO of ActiveCampaign comes from an ops background. It's just so exciting to see the marketing ops profession grow and become more mainstay within the marketing community.

You can watch the full episode with Darrell and sign up for future episodes here. We’ll be live every Thursday at 11 AM PT!

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