It's not often you get to peek inside a venture capitalist's brain. But I had that opportunity with Ajay Agarwal, managing director of Bain Capital Ventures which has funded companies such as LinkedIn, 1-800-Dentist, and SurveyMonkey. Agarwal is always looking for the next big thing to fund, and he believes the next hugely successful start-up will be a big data company providing marketing analytics and/or services to enterprise customers.

Why It's Hot

Why does he think so? "If you look at the last 20 years of enterprise technology, every major function has given rise to at least one, if not two, companies worth $10 billion or more." The sales function has, currently valued at about $17 billion, he notes. Finance has Intuit, also worth about $17 billion. HR has PeopleSoft, which Oracle acquired for $10 billion. Marketing has... who? Only Omniture, which Adobe acquired for a comparatively paltry $2 billion. "Marketing at most companies is a much larger cost structure than these other areas, and we haven't seen any big winners," Agarwal says. "There have been no $10 billion-or-more companies."

He has a theory as to why not: Historically, marketing has been a touchy-feely, low-tech area. "It was very difficult to truly measure and monitor the efficacy of marketing because that data didn't exist," he says. But this has changed in recent times, as more and more shoppers turn to the Internet not only for purchases, but also to research and connect with brands. "That data can be mined," he says. "Salesforce turned sales into a data-rich function and there will be a similar opportunity in marketing, with the ability to leverage big data. So much big data already exists, and it can be done in a way that doesn't affect privacy. To me, that represents massive opportunity."

Room for Several Players

Put those factors together, he says. "You're going to see the emergence of multiple large multi-billion companies in this space." In fact, he notes, Bain has already funded two possible players, BloomReach and  TellApart, both founded by former Google employees.

There's room for more, especially as the marketing function becomes increasingly technology-driven. In a recent blog post on this topic, Agarwal quotes a Gartner prediction: By 2017 CMOs will be spending more on IT than CIOs. "The area is ripe for innovation," he says.

Start Now

So what should you do if you want to jump into this field? "If I were starting a company in this space, I'd begin by picking  a vertical to research," Agarwal says. "I'd go talk to insurance companies, or travel companies, or pharmaceutical companies and find out how they understand the marketing function, what are their biggest problems, and how I could use big data to streamline that." If you do, you're likely to get an earful, he says. "I talk to three or four CMOs every week, and every conversation I hear about unsolved problems."

Any other advice? "Get started!" Agarwal says. "There's so much to do."