Talavera: What Makes for an Email Marketing Unicorn or Dream Team – and Do They Exist?


Now that email has been a legitimate marketing channel for two decades there’s an entire generation of professionals who have grown up with it and in it. In fact, they’ve never known marketing without email which has made for an interesting evolution – or is it merely urban legend?  The illusory “email marketing unicorn”, that mythical creature every brand dependent on email for revenue and business growth wants to lure and capture.

This miracle worker doesn’t just strategically understand the power of the channel, but knows how to apply it too. S/he comes complete with the ability to create campaigns (from concept to design to coding) plus the tactical knowledge to get them out the door and analyze the mounds of data they generate afterwards. Let me not forget our email unicorn is also fluent in such technical aspects as deliverability, systems integrations, complex queries and API calls.

Sound too good to be true? These days it usually is, because the reality at most organizations is that email marketing is a team effort rather than the work of a lone practitioner, and for good reason. But, as I learned when I put my title question out to the interwebs, email unicorns (and their less precious cousins the “lone wolves”) do indeed exist, and are out there today. 

A far more realistic find, however, is the “email dream team” - that blend of people, personalities, experience, leadership, art and science working together in perfect unison. Just as sports franchises carefully curate “dream teams” that dominate year after year (if you just watched the Super Bowl you know what I mean), I wanted to know what makes for the ideal email marketing team. 

After twenty years in the biz working with organizations ranging from small businesses to start-ups to multinational global brands, I feel like I’ve seen every possible way email marketing can be resourced, and the range of options is broad. Responses to my questions both in online forums and via the experienced email pros I interviewed often validated my own observations and were insightful and worthy of sharing, so here goes.

How would you define an email marketing “unicorn” and do they exist?

The most succinct answer I received was “ . . . an email unicorn is someone who knows enough to understand the solution from all angles (marketing strategy, code, automation, martech environment, design, analytics, deliverability, etc.) with a specialty in at least one.”

Nancy Rust Weaver, Sr. Manager of Digital Experience for AAA agrees, adding “So many email folks are great at a niche inside email (deliverability, development, design, etc.), but there aren't many of us ‘generalists' out there that manage the customer email lifecycle from the first point of contact (in store, online, wherever) to purchase and beyond. Each of these experts are essential to a dream team and they know more than I will ever know on their specialty.”

Samantha Iodice, Director Omnichannel Communications for agency Brierley+ Partners and email veteran from both the brand and vendor side shares this perspective, “Individual unicorn status goes to us for seeing the big picture, being able to affect and strategize the entire multi-channel customer experience from a technology, experience, and marketing perspective, coupled with the ability to sell it in to clients or up the exec chain because we understand and can speak to every facet - we're a rare find

The consensus was that email unicorns do exist and many email pros I spoke with considered themselves to be or have been unicorns, or were told they qualify as such, because they embody all the skills often unbundled into different roles – coding, design, copywriting, analytics, and operational analytics – in one person. However, the unique ability to be both email specialist and generalist also factored into unicorn status; there is high perceived value in someone with the dual capabilities of understanding email in its entirely while still being able to deep-dive into its devilish details.

I’ve personally seen plenty of “one wo/man email marketing bands” over the years, often driven by necessity rather than choice, and can attest to the fact that lean resources do not a unicorn make. However I’ve also seen many brand-side practitioners who had “all things email marketing” thrust upon them or inherited by them absolutely rise to unicorn-worthy status. “Sink or swim” situations tend to quickly create either stars or employee resignations.

This begged an obvious question: how sustainable is it for an organization to put all its email marketing eggs into a single basket (one person/one position) even if they find that illusive unicorn to fill it? After all, don’t unicorns demand rainbows? Meaning, if they’re not treated like the rare and precious creatures they are, aren’t they a flight risk likely to gallop off to greener pastures at the first sign of a better offer?

Be wary of labeling anyone a unicorn, because just as in dating even if you do find one they can be impossible to capture or keep. Nancy Rust Weaver aptly warns, “Unicorns can exist, but they can be fleeting. You might get a unicorn or dream team created, but something’s going to change. Either on the tech side – new algorithm, new tool in Outlook – or on the staffing side - people are going to get promoted, leave etc.,”

There was universal agreement on this point: it’s much more realistic, sustainable and productive to build an email dream team than find a unicorn.

So what makes for a dream team? What’s needed in terms of roles, responsibilities, mindset, or anything else?

When it came to the idea of “dream teams” two universal themes came up: 1) Leadership and 2) A Culture of Collaboration & Creativity

An inspiring, motivating leader was considered critical to building an email dream team. Not surprising, since in pro sports it’s often not the star players (“unicorns” in this analogy) but the coaches who are credited with making or breaking the team. Without a great coach, would a group be a “dream team” on their own? And can a team of star players come together into dream team status without an inspiring and motivating leader?

Aysha Marie Zouain thinks both star players and great coaches are needed. 

Aysha has been part of large teams at big brands like Carnival Cruise Lines (CCL) and Zumba, worked agency-side, and been a self-described “one person email show”.  When it comes to getting email marketing done, she’s a great example of someone who has been in the trenches alone as well as with an entire battalion.

“If I didn’t have such inspiring managers and leaders, I don’t think the teams would be as effective, because you have to keep morale up. People might love their professions, but if their leadership isn’t strong, they have no motivation to be their best,” she says. 

Aysha also agrees with former team leader Tammi Miller, Sr. Email Marketing Manager at Zumba Fitness (where she manages an email marketing program across 14 different business units globally) that giving every team member a voice is pivotal to sparking creativity and innovation. Even if you’re not a creative, everyone has the capacity to be creative, and in email marketing creativity is needed from all sources.

Nancy Weaver validates this, “I need people on the team who are willing to speak up about something they are passionate about, to inject an infusion of creative thinking, and it needs to not just come from the creatives – it needs to come from the data people, programmers, ops and deployment. This willingness to speak up, collaborate and share is important to have on a team and for all team members to understand.”

As for who those star players should be, when it comes to enterprise level-marketers like Carnival Aysha thinks “A strong team lead is needed, plus a specialist in each realm of email production such as:

  • Dedicated data resources
  • Dedicated designers, it’s great if they can also code but it’s not necessary that the skills go hand in hand.
  • A dedicated developer – i.e., customizing a template or design or adding in additional code (dynamic rendering) and often involved in web and landing page design related to email or in general.
  • A dedicated copywriter
  • And - very important - a deployment specialist especially for really large lists/senders. This person usually sets up the marketing automation and gets the email campaigns out the door.”

At Carnival Aysha worked on a dedicated email team of about 15 people, not including agencies. But, that paled in comparison to the company’s total e-commerce team of 75 people.

Samantha Iodice encourages us to think of unicorns not as individuals, but as teams. 

“I have no interest in the niche expertise of building the "thing"; rather, that's where team unicorn comes into play. Being smart enough to hire on culture/personality and growing capabilities that may have a current experience level from new-expert, then working as a unit to continually up your game - that's a unicorn team,” she says, adding, “I'm five months into a new gig and have been questioned on some of my choices as to who rates high on my unicorn list and who does not.

Unicorn status or not comes down to aptitude for creative thinking, proactive behavior/thought, taking initiative, and being self-driven. Anyone can be a robot and check boxes. I want someone to tell the boxes to f-off and re-create a better methodology that is efficient, simple and straightforward, and improves the overall team dynamic.”

What do you think?

What comes to mind when you think about the ideal skill set(s) needed for an email marketing expert or team? What is both optimal and realistic when staffing for email marketing today? And where do agencies, freelances and consultants fit into the mix or directly into teams?

Join the discussion to weigh in, and if you’ve been (or still are) an email unicorn or member of an email marketing dream team, please share the view from the inside!