Marketing Technology Conference: MarTech SF 2017 In Review

I had the opportunity and privilege to speak at this year’s MarTech SF, the marketing technology conference, and wanted to share some of the highlights and takeaways from the show. MarTech is the marketing technology industry’s premier conference, where our industry goes to talk shop about what’s next.

The Mega Landscape

The conference kicked off with Scott Brinkner’s supergraphic, updated for 2017:

What’s new? Instead of 3,500 companies in the 2016 edition, the 2017 edition has ballooned to 5,381 marketing technology companies in dozens of categories from adtech to video marketing, and everything in between.

Which raised the question…

Are We In a MarTech Bubble?

During both the opening keynote and the venture capital keynote panel, Ashu Garg of Foundation Capital, Roger Lee of Battery Ventures, and Doug Pepper of Shasta Ventures all addressed the bubble issue.

Pepper suggested that unlike adtech, the investment in the marketing technology space has been much more steady. Lee and Garg both said that what consolidation there is in marketing technology occurs because the behemoths need to fix or fill a specific gap in their roadmaps, but otherwise don’t need lots of similar point solutions.

One point all investors agreed upon was that marketing technology continues to see new point solutions proliferating because the technology landscape itself continues to evolve so quickly. As consumers change and adapt new technologies, companies must change. In turn, companies seek out vendors to fill those changes, and thus new marketing technology companies are born.

Whither ABM?

One of the most interesting absences this year was the absence of conversation about account-based marketing (ABM). At previous MarTech conferences, especially in 2016, ABM was the belle of the ball, the topic everyone wanted to talk about. This year, there was near radio silence on it; many of the largest ABM vendors had withdrawn from showing, and few session topics covered ABM.

When I asked a few fellow attendees about the glaring absence, they noted that many companies had tried ABM over the past couple of years and were unable to realize many of the promised benefits. Costs ran higher than projected, while lead flow and revenue didn’t increase proportionally.

It’s All About Work

Instead, this year’s show topics and sponsors focused on marketing operations. Companies like Workfront (disclosure: a SHIFT client) invested heavily in the event and appeared to do well. Marketing operations sessions focused heavily on reducing inefficiencies, increasing the pace of production, and helping people keep up with the rapid pace of change in marketing.

The rapid pace of change brings us to…

The Elephant in the Room: AI

While AI and machine learning were name-dropped frequently by vendors and in many talks, AI remains a black box of mysteries for many marketing technologists. For some, AI represents a sort of holy grail, a magical solution to marketing problems, For others, AI represents a frightening specter of potential unemployment and replacement by machines.

The truth is that neither extreme is likely to happen any time soon. Today’s AI and machine learning solutions are very focused point solutions aimed at solving one particular problem, such as natural language processing or image recognition. The vision of simply dumping all our data into a black box and having magic emerge is a distant future at best; humans will still have a central role in marketing for years to come, if not decades.

That said, if we want to seize advantage in the marketplace, start testing AI and machine learning solutions today. The barriers to entry are low, but the first mover advantage is significant. At the pace AI and machine learning are accelerating, waiting for the case study instead of being the case study could mean being locked out of the customer’s mindshare entirely.

GDPR: The Marketing Data Shockwave Coming in 2018

The last major takeaway from MarTech was the exploration of GDPR, the General Data Protection Regulation passed by the European Union and taking effective in May 2018. Jake Dimare did a fantastic overview of GDPR and its implications for marketers. In short, GDPR:

  • Asserts that consumers own their data like private property
  • Affects all companies globally, as GDPR is extraterritorial and applies to EU citizens wherever they reside
  • Prohibits companies from creating long, illegible terms and conditions as well as other privacy-compromising tactics
  • Prohibits many forms of data-sharing, including key advertising technologies
  • Applies serious fines to companies in violation, up to 4% of annual revenues and criminal charges for company executives

For a summary of changes, read the official GDPR key changes document, as well as the frequently asked questions.

Marketers must work with vendors and systems to achieve compliance now, before enforcement penalties begin in 2018. Expect that many of our advertising solutions online will break badly, and expect to deal with new audits of personally identifying information (PII) in our own first-party systems in the years to come.


MarTech was an amazing marketing technology conference, filled with lots of learning, sharing, and exploring the state of marketing technology. If you have the chance to attend an event near you and you’re interested in learning more about marketing technology, be at the next one!

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology


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