Scott Brinker

June 6, 2016 Mark Emmons

"Everyone wants to understand what all of this really means"

Scott Brinker

Age: 44

Position: Editor of the Chief Marketing Technology blog at chiefmartec.com. Program chair of the MarTech conference series. Co-founder and CTO of ion interactive, a marketing software company that works with brands including General Mills, Symantec and Dell. Author of the recent book, “Hacking Marketing: Agile Practices to Make Marketing Smarter, Faster, and More Innovative.”

Home: Belmont, Mass.

Education: Bachelor’s degree at Columbia, MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management, master’s degree in computer science at Harvard.

Family: Wife, Jill; daughter Jordan (7)

Career: An entrepreneur while still in high school, he wrote software for dial-up, multiplayer games before the birth of the World Wide Web. At 21, he was CEO of Galacticomm, a bulletin board software provider. He later ran an Internet technology consulting company, CyberOps.

Favorite movie: “Contact,” the adaption of Carl Sagan’s science-fiction novel. “It’s the classic entrepreneur trope,” Brinker said. “It’s believing in something really great that’s a longshot and then having the opportunity to actually make it come true.”

Influential books: “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Clayton Christensen. “That book has been the most influential for me partly because of the experience I went through when I was a lot younger watching what happened to bulletin-board systems and the web,” Brinker said. “It also captures what an interesting time that marketing is today.”

Fun Fact: He was the class valedictorian at Columbia in the School of General Studies.

Interests: Brinker has some eclectic interests including underground jazz halls, grand symphony halls, small-production wineries, Star Wars movies, wandering Byzantine streets in old cities and British humor ranging from Monty Python to John Oliver. “Sounds like the weirdest personal ad ever, eh,” Brinker joked.

It began as a modest project. Scott Brinker counted up the vendors who made software tools that help marketers do their jobs better. Then he squeezed those 150 logos onto a single slide and called it the Marketing Technology Landscape.

And for that, Brinker received some nice pats on the back for defining a niche industry that was drawing interest mostly from curious early-adopters.

That was 2011.

Then everything changed. Three years later, Brinker had to shoehorn nearly 1,000 companies into his 2014 supergraphic. MarTech had officially become a “thing.” And Brinker was unofficially known as the guy who could make sense of the complicated, exploding sector.

“I remember the reaction that year was like, ‘Oh my god. You mean there’s really 1,000 marketing technologies?’” Brinker recalled. “That got people’s attention. They suddenly realized MarTech was getting big. And because it’s all new, it’s exciting, terrifying and everything in-between. So everyone wants to understand what all of this really means.”

That’s why at the intersection of marketing and technology, you’ll find Brinker. He’s the one directing traffic. It’s not just that Brinker does the best job of quantifying the sprawling MarTech universe. (This year’s supergraphic contains a whopping 3,874 companies — almost twice as many as in 2015.) Brinker attracts a following because he’s viewed as a trusted resource who can explain the rapidly evolving space.

“There’s no question that he’s the most influential person in marketing technology today,” said Brian Hansford, the director of client services at Heinz Marketing. “He drives the conversation. Scott is the catalyst who has brought order to the chaos. It’s pretty neat to see how he’s focusing all of that energy in a really cool way.”

He has done it by creating a sense of community as editor of the popular chiefmartec.com blog, which began as a labor of love with “maybe 10 readers,” and the program chair of the MarTech Conference series. He also just published the book “Hacking Marketing,” which spells out what he describes as the “invasion” of marketing by software. There has been, he believes, a blurring of the lines.

“Marketing and software have become very entangled,” said Brinker, who also is co-founder and chief technical officer of ion interactive, a marketing software company. “Disciplines that used to be siloed are merging into this really interesting and different world. I have a lot of empathy for that marketer who doesn’t have a technical background. You don’t have to become a technologist. But you are now managing a department that is dramatically affected by software developments. My point is that it doesn’t have to be a scary thing.”

Brinker is endlessly fascinated by the ever-changing MarTech terrain. And he would much rather talk about new technology developments than himself.

“I’m not sure how interesting it would be for people to read about me,” he said.

But this is one of those rare occasions where Brinker is wrong. His meandering career path helps to explain how he arrived at a prominent place in MarTech. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., his parents ran what he calls a “Mad Men-style” marketing and advertising agency. He caught the entrepreneurial bug from watching them manage the scrappy small business. Meanwhile, his father encouraged a young Brinker to focus on technology. As a teenager he already was writing multiplayer games for online bulletin boards.

An obviously bright kid, he was an indifferent high school student. A guidance counselor suggested he consider leaving school a year early for the University of Miami. The application process consisted of Brinker meeting with a dean who simply told him: “You’re in.” (At first his skeptical parents didn’t believe their son really had been accepted.)

But he quickly got bored with college and stuck around only two years. By age 21, Brinker was the CEO of Galacticomm, which then was the world’s largest dial-up bulletin-board system. Within two years, though, the birth of the modern Internet had made that obsolete.

“That was my earliest experience with the concept of disruptive innovation,” Brinker said. “I had a front-row view. It was not fun to live through that. But in retrospect, it was the single best learning experience I could have had.”

For a number of years, he ran the technology group for a marketing agency that built company websites. Hired by marketers, Brinker then would have to go down the hall to talk with the IT team about implementation. That was when Brinker saw the melding of marketing and technology beginning to take shape.

Meanwhile, he went back to college at age 30, getting in quick succession an undergraduate degree from Columbia, an MBA from MIT and master’s in computer science from Harvard.

“I kind of had a chip on my shoulder about dropping out of college when I was a teenager, and I over-compensated,” Brinker explained.

In 2008, he launched the chiefmartec.com blog. The audience was tiny. It consisted of tech-savvy marketers and marketing-savvy IT people. In essence, he was carving out the idea of a new role: the marketing technologist. He also was careful not to promote his own ion interactive company with the blog or the subsequent MarTech Conference series, which began in 2014.

That’s why Brinker is so respected, Hansford said. He notes that big vendors like Salesforce, Marketo and Adobe might have great conferences, but there’s always a self-serving agenda. Brinker’s goal is knowledge.

“Scott understands that people want to learn and figure this thing out,” Hansford added. “People really appreciate that. It also helps that he’s very approachable. When some people become thought-leaders and industry analysts, it goes straight to their heads. That’s definitely not Scott. He is just a humble and genuinely nice guy who likes to geek out and learn about the interesting things that people are doing.”

The supergraphic, of course, has become his calling card. Brinker agonizes over it each year. He takes it hard when companies inadvertently get left out or grumble about being put in the wrong category. But the diagram, he said, is merely one man’s attempt to get his arms around a volatile sector where if you blink, you’ll miss something.

Brinker also makes clear that he sees technology as “additive” to marketing. He believes digital tools will never replace marketing’s core mission: creating empathy and relationships with audiences.

“It has been really interesting to watch the evolution of the marketing team,” Brinker said. “You still have all of the classic roles with creative people who are great designers and writers. That hasn’t gone away. But now you also have data-driven people who are very technical in putting pieces together and operating these complex systems. It’s a remarkable mix of backgrounds, talent and skills.”

Just don’t ask Brinker to make any predictions about what’s coming next. He thinks we’re nearing “peak MarTech.” But consolidation sure hasn’t happened yet. Even he is surprised that the supergraphic keeps growing.

But whatever occurs, Brinker will continue to be the industry’s leading voice — even if he doesn’t see it that way.

“There are a lot of voices,” he said. “It’s such a complex space and there are so many things happening. It would be impossible for any one person to wrap their head around all of it. So it’s just an honor to be a piece of the puzzle.”

About the Author

Mark Emmons

Mark Emmons is the staff writer at LeanData. He previously was a reporter at the San Jose Mercury News, Orange County Register and Detroit Free Press. He can be reached at mark@leandatainc.com.

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