There’s a mind-boggling array of software available to marketers today. Shiny, new, advanced systems designed to make your life easier. But do they? Or are they actually just lurching around, threatening to destroy your business? Ian Truscott explores the perils and pitfalls of the Frankenstack.
Darkness falls across the land
The midnight hour is close at hand
Systems crawl in search of funding
To terrorize y’all’s marke-ting
And whosoever shall be found
Without their integrations sound
Must stand and face the hounds of hell
The viral story that social media tell
The foulest stench is in the air
The funk of the eight thousand here
grizzly silos from every vendor
are closing in to seal your doom
And though you fight to stay alive
Your body starts to shiver
For no mere IT mortal can resist
the evil of the Frankenstack.
Perhaps you’ve never heard of the Frankenstack, but it’s become popular shorthand amongst marketing technologists for the often poorly integrated systems that make up today’s marketing IT infrastructure. And if there is one thing we are not short of in marketing, it’s tech.
Scott Brinker, self-styled Chief Martech and VP Platform at Hubspot has identified over 6,000 vendors in his often-quoted research, and for every act of consolidation, when one of the big boys snaps up one of these companies, it seems another three, four or maybe 10 startups bounce into your inbox with the promise of some level of amazing for 100 bucks a month and in each category there are literally hundreds vendors to choose from – which for any buyer is bewildering.
This is of course amazing, we work in an industry that refuses to grow up, there is change, innovation and investment that is driving this software market. Many other business disciplines have calcified, if you need ERP you buy SAP, if you need a CRM you sign up for Salesforce. Marketing is different as we look to disrupt at every opportunity.
However exciting this is, giving your company credit card details for another shiny bauble niche service to do a specific thing is a risk, as you are creating a Frankenstack - with each new service or solution requiring data or content that is probably already managed within another system.
I’ll use the classic example of images.When I started in content management in 2003 (roughly a thousand digital years ago), I was brought up on a story about Nestlé, who discovered that they had a thousand different versions of the same image of pouring chocolate. They had paid for each of these to be designed and when they implemented a content management system and they gave their global marketing team visibility of all the digital assets they had (and therefore all the different variants of pouring chocolate), they stopped creating yet more images of pouring chocolate and the system paid for itself, just on this one image.
Now I don’t know if the Nestléstory is entirely true. I like it, but can’t verify it. However, I was at a conference this week and a global publisher said pretty much the same thing, although in this case it was a picture of strawberry cake.
Yep. Scary rock star shit… Strawberry cake.
Sign up for services like Hubspot or Marketo, and you need to store images to support your email campaigns. You also need images in the Squarespace blog you just signed up for or the Sprinklr-driven social campaign you are running (to name just a few systems that might sit in your Frankenstack).
In each of these systems you can manage images (well sorta), but none of these systems is the place you would want to for your business; none can manage digital rights, attribution or any of that dull grown up governance stuff. Leaving with you with the potential to create chaos as this Frankenstack beast lurches into the village, crashing around and upsetting the neighbors, just because you accidently published something you weren’t supposed to.
Like the Nestlé story, each has the potential to leach away at the cost and governance of getting your shit done. Governance and cost may not seem very rock star-like, but if we apply this to customer data, another asset that is used to drive a bunch of these niche services, having this in little pockets around the business ungoverned, a loosely stitched Frankenstack on the loose and then you risk suddenly going from being that cool, rock star brand, like Under Armour, to those lamewankers who just lost my data, like Under Armour, and the village folk with the torches and pitchforks have a better victim in mind, rather than the undead.
It’s tempting to think there is a perfect undead marketing monster that will politely do our bidding, that there is a slightly better qualified doctor than your Dr Frankenstein that can do the work, you know from one of those big guys that claim to have a “marketing cloud” and “end-to-end marketing solutions”. Well, our Rockstar CMOs have been there.
Darren Guarnaccia, now Chief Product Office at Crownpeak, rails against these tech stacks, with many of these “end-to-end marketing solutions” Frankenstacks themselves, a loosely stitched bucket of body parts fished out of the bloody tin bath labelled ‘acquisition’.
There is therefore no doubt every business has to stitch something together, we have to don our leather aprons, go out, hacksaw in hand, into Scott Brinker’s land of a thousand solutions, find the body parts ourselves, stitch together what we can, to the bits we already have, cross our fingers, hook it to the mains and declare, “It’s ALIVE.”
But consider the experience of the fictional Victor Frankenstein, there is a lesson here, here is a man who had to compromise on design from the start and what looked fabulous on paper (or maybe PowerPoint) became anything but…
“…due to the difficulty in replicating the minute parts of the human body, Victor makes the Creature tall, about 8 feet (2.4 m) in height and proportionally large. Despite Victor selecting its features as beautiful, upon animation the creature is instead hideous, with watery white eyes and yellow skin that barely conceals the muscles and blood vessels underneath.”
Returning to our Rockstars, Tom Wentworth, CMO RapidMiner likes to keep it simple, undistracted by shiny things, he knows which bits make up his Frankenstack and he sticks to them, keeping the stitching easy.
“Technology. I’m done obsessing over my marketing tech stack and the endless vendor pitches I receive about how some random product I’ve never heard of is going to reinvent or transform something,” he says. “I’ve got a simple tech stack and plan on keeping it that way.”
Here is a man that clearly feels that his marketing monster doesn’t need to be eight-foot-tall, it just needs the two arms and two legs, he’s done the stitching and you get the impression no villagers are getting spooked.
Technology is rarely the silver bullet that will solve the problem on its own and only too often the actual Frankenstein’s monster are our organizations, these loosely integrated, silo-ridden technology stacks, really just reflect our flawed businesses. Often, it’s a fallacy to believe there is one evil doctor creating this abomination. The 8-foot monster, with two left feet and a bolt through his neck, was actually crowd sourced.
Like the best horror stories, a chilling conclusion - this monster is amongst us, for no mere IT mortal can resist the evil of the Frankenstack!