I’ve grown to dislike the label “unicorn” in martech.
In the early years of the marketing technology revolution, marketing technologists — hybrid professionals who applied technical skills in a marketing context — were sometimes called unicorns. Partly because they brought seemingly magical capabilities to marketing. But mostly because finding the perfect blend of marketing and technology talent was incredibly rare.
“Oh, you’re looking for a unicorn,” was HR’s way of saying, “Good luck, Don Quixote.”
Today, the supply problem has eased a little bit. There are now tens of thousands of bona fide marketing technologists in the world, and it’s become a recognized profession. They’re not so rare anymore, and that’s a good thing.
Yet you still hear the term unicorn bandied about. Here’s why that’s a deceptive label.
Debunking the Martech Unicorn Myth
The big reason the “unicorn” moniker doesn’t sit well with me anymore is that unicorns are, well, just too damn conceptually perfect.
The expectation is unrealistic.
Most hybrid professionals have a rather messy career background — they’ve built websites or business plans, done sales or product development, studied engineering or the arts, learned finance or SQL, become self-taught designers or programmers, etc. There’s a high degree of variance in their experience and education.
(This drives HR recruiters absolutely bonkers, because these kinds of candidates are hard to pattern match with a simple heuristic.)
As a result, the strength of their different skills and how they’ve blended them together also varies significantly. This is actually a feature, not a bug. That high variance in experience and skills enables these hybrids to bring fresh and imaginative ideas to an organization, to reveal insights from different points of view.
But then how do you determine which of those variants is the perfect one?
Even if you didn’t consider all that wondrous variety a plus — which would be like buying a cupcake, but not eating the frosting — you’d have a hard time defining a cookie-cutter set of martech job requirements that every hiring manager would agree on.
The range of skills associated with martech roles themselves are insanely diverse. Just consider the kaleidoscope of technologies across the full marketing technology landscape, and you can appreciate the jaw-dropping extent of different kinds of expertise that marketing technologists can be asked to bring to the table.
On top of that, you mix in requirements for a candidate’s marketing and management skills, which come in a rainbow of Technicolor flavors, and there are more possible combinations than atoms in the universe.
Now, that’s not to say it’s impossible to hire a great marketing technologist.
But if you insist on the martech incarnation of Martec’s Law.
The best marketing technologists continually learn and experiment, driven by their curiosity to explore new ideas and rethink old ones. Their adaptability is far more important than a theoretically perfect combination of skills at a particular moment in time. They’re more of a shape-shifting
In this Great Convergence, hybrids who bring gifts of knowledge and wisdom from several different disciplines together can serve as guides for the rest of the organization, leading us from the Old World of rigid, hierarchical silos to the New World of a fluid, networked digital fabric.
They can be translators, teachers, and ambassadors. They can connect the dots between cross-departmental operations that on the surface seem unrelated but in truth are deeply entangled. They can identify and correct misaligned processes, metrics, and incentives. They can help find globally optimal solutions where previously suboptimal, local maximums constrained what an organization could achieve.
This isn’t limited to marketing technologists either. Almost any fusion of marketing with other disciplines produces powerful combinations:
- marketing and IT/software development (“marketing technologists”)
- marketing, IT, and product (“growth hackers”)
- marketing, sales, and IT (“revenue technologists” or “revenue operations”)
- marketing, sales, customer service, and IT (“customer operations”)
- marketing, customer service, IT, and legal (“chief privacy officer”)
- marketing and finance (“your best friend during budget season”)
These cross-disciplinary superpowers aren’t only for marketing either. For example, sales tech and sales operations bring sales, IT, operations, and finance together.
Combinatorial innovation in business springs from innovative combinations of talent.
We can seek out these hybrids in our hiring. We can help create them by encouraging moves between and collaborations across departments. But most of all, we should celebrate them.
They’re not perfect unicorns. But they are fantastic creatures.
P.S. Like the concept, but not crazy about the chimera metaphor? Wikipedia has zebroid.” knew zebras were so indiscriminate at their local watering hole>