How Data is Changing the Fundamentals of Marketing
Dominic Grounsell, Global Marketing Director for Travelex, discusses three areas where marketing is changing most fundamentally: decision making, accountability and team composition.
One of my favourite quotes is "change the way you look at things and the things you look at change". Like all great quotes, it beautifully distils a really big concept into a pithy phrase that helps to guide both thought and action.
In recent years, this quote has been often in my thoughts, as we have been living through an unprecedented period of change. In every country and every category, the explosion of digital is driving a sea of change. It’s changing our strategies, the way we understand and engage with customers, how we sell products and how we measure successes.
One of the central features of this change has been the massive growth in the availability and accessibility of data. The digital era brought with it a huge proliferation of data sources and in turn a proliferation of technologies that help businesses collate, analyse and operationalise data.
Marketers are very much at the sharp end of this evolving trend, due to the leading role we play across data-centric agendas like e-commerce, digital marketing and measurement. Data is now central to how marketing operates and, as a result, we are experiencing quite material changes to the fundaments of our discipline.
Three areas where it feels the shift is most palpable are: decision making, accountability and team composition.
Decision making in the pre-digital world generally involved either relying on third party insight or on experience based judgement (aka ‘gut feel’). Neither of these approaches was particularly optimal. Third party insight was often a snap shot, prone to challenges around methodology and hard to link directly to actual business performance. ‘Gut feel’, whilst being a useful guide, obviously lacked any scientific basis and so was a questionable way to make investment decisions.
In the data age, we now have both the data and the capabilities we need to analyse in real time and make decisions with a greater degree of certainty. Gut feel remains a useful guide, but it is more about using experience to identify hypothesis to test rather than to bet the farm.
Marketers in this new environment have to be great consumers and interpreters of data to enable them to make the right calls. We need to learn the language of data and analytics from the ground up. For many, this means going 'back to school' and using formal training interventions to shorten the learning curve. Otherwise, it's a case of finding coaches or a support network of analytical companies from whom you can learn either directly or by osmosis.
With great data, comes great responsibility. The transparency of performance analysis means we have never been more accountable within our organisations. Gone are the days when marketers could hide behind jargon and intangible metrics. Granular tracking is now the norm and it is table stakes to be able to link marketing campaigns to commercial outcomes. Even beyond direct response, new analytical techniques are closing historical knowledge gaps and we can now commercially evaluate parts of the marketing mix that previously defied measurement e.g. TV.
All of this increases marketing accountability. Marketers today are required to continually monitor and assess performance and to be able to effectively explain complex results to audiences who might not be data or digitally literate. This presents significant challenges to our story telling skills, particularly when managing upwards.
The new reality is influencing marketing skill sets and team composition. Historically, marketers were recruited for qualitative and conceptual skills, which were critical when marketing was primarily focused on areas like branding and creative development. Whilst these traditional skills remain important, it is increasingly important to inject new skills that are more relevant for a data-driven world.
This increasingly means hiring people who are highly numerate and technically minded. In some cases, it also means reorganising the marketing department to build out new marketing analytics functions. These analyst teams are staffed by people with backgrounds in maths, engineering and sciences and are very different in look and feel to the marketing teams of old.
The challenge for marketing leaders in this new context is how we attract new types of talent who might not have considered marketing as a desirable career path. With so many new and exciting options available for data literate, technical people, tempting them to work in a corporate business or a traditional marketing team is hard. It requires us to be able to effectively sell a vision of how data is going to transform marketing and the critical contribution they can make on that journey. It's a tough sell, but it can be done.
The seismic shifts we’re experiencing across marketing driven by digital and data are challenging many of our traditional modes of operation. This process of change brings challenges, but it is ultimately of benefit to our discipline, as it is inevitably making us a more potent and effective force in our businesses.
Reflecting back on the quote at the top of this article, the key thing for marketers to bear in mind is that they need to recognise and adapt to the changes they are experiencing. By evolving the frame we use and looking at things differently, the benefits of the new world are clear to see and so we should embrace our new reality. Such is the over-whelming nature of the change we’re experiencing; standing Canute-like trying to hold back the rising tide of data is futile, it will only lead to us being left behind.