This is a thought piece I wrote 4 years ago. It looks at how a fascination with data can get in the way of understanding real people. It explains how data has come to dominate marketing and why we need to become more human-centric again. I think it's as relevant now as it was when I wrote it - especially given the work we do here on Saturn.
I hope you enjoy it.
For the past 10 years digital technology has been driving marketing and while that's been great for those brands with propositions based on convenience and integration, it hasn’t been quite so good for brands that rely on an emotional connection (i.e. most brands).
So if marketers and the brands they manage want to get back to creating meaningful relationships that generate loyalty and goodwill, they need to start finding ways to blend real-world, ‘analog’ insights into the vast amounts of data their online activities produce.
I’m interested in working with brands and agencies who understand the distinction between the two and want to embrace the 'analog' world again.
Strategy under pressure
Over that 10 years, our ability to write powerful strategies has been brutally eroded. Firstly because digital agencies, with their access to vast amounts of data, have been the first port of call for clients looking for insights, but also because clients now expect the same quality of insights they get from traditional planning to be available at the same price you'd charge for looking at a spreadsheet.
I’ve discussed the problem with strategy heads at some of the best creative and digital agencies and with some of the UK's most influential brand managers and their feedback is the same. Genuine strategic planning is getting harder to do.
What's causing the pressure?
Traditional (analog / non-digital) planners are being muscled out of the decision-making process by less expensive, more compelling influencers.
There seem to be four main reasons behind this, which I'm calling:
'What Gets Measured Gets Managed'
'The Numbers Game'
'The Analog Alien'
'The Strategy Scrum'
1.’What gets measured gets managed’:
We tend to assume Peter Drucker came up with phrase What gets measured gets managed but the more likely source was Lord Kelvin back in 1887, who said:
“When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely…advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be.”
I think the Kelvin version is more accurate than the Drucker because he’s not just saying we only manage the stuff we measure, he also suggests that we tend to think the stuff we can't measure is somehow less important.
Kelvin was discussing Victorian-era electricity but he could just as easily be describing digital marketing in 2021.
Digital metrics have many merits; they’re tangible, cheap and good for tracking consumer activity. 'Analog' measures by comparison (such as qualitative research) seem vague, time-consuming and expensive. This has resulted in an over-reliance on numbers and less respect for ‘softer’ emotional values.
In some ways, that’s fine. Digital inputs mean brand managers get stuff they can feel certain about and, as a side benefit, it's a hell of a lot cheaper to produce. Unfortunately, what is often overlooked is that digital information tends to lead to insights that are based on observable behaviour (rather than beliefs and emotions) and, in the long run, this tends to leave the people you want to buy your products (i.e. your potential customers) feeling more like numbers than someone you genuinely care about.
In our rush to digital solutions, it’s easy to forget people remain, essentially, 'analog'. Digital metrics massively underestimate this, yet, as Lord Kelvin points out, non-rational motivations are so much harder to measure than clicks and eyeballs and, as such, it's easier to just discount them.
I’m not saying all digitally driven strategies are bad. Digital technology is obviously an important part of our daily lives, but I do argue that it’s vital to ensure digital metrics are always balanced with less tangible analog inputs if marketing is to remain human.
2. The Numbers Game:
My second issue points to how we are easily seduced by digital information because it is clean and binary. As such it can create a false assumption that people in the 'real' world are also easy to understand.
If you look at a cold, detached spreadsheet it's easy to forget that it doesn't really reflect the messy, confusing world people actually live in. Look at some tables and perhaps a nice pie chart that explains how people spend their time and you could be forgiven for assuming people just sit around all day looking at their phones. Feed these 'data points' (i.e. someone looking at their phone) with some arresting and engaging content (interspersed with a bit of advertising) at the right time (say, their bus ride home) and it stands to reason, before long, they'll be buying whatever it is you’re selling.
As an added bonus it would also seem that this 'passive consumer' can now be funnelled into buying your stuff through digital channels that costs a hell of a lot less than traditional retail. And what's more the ROI is easier to calculate per 'hit' or 'engagement' and the whole process is ‘tweak-able’ as you go. So what you seem to be getting is a fast, effective marketing process, that's measurable in real-time, that you can keep polishing until it perfectly reflects whatever it is you wanted to see in the first place.
Given all this, who can blame a client for assuming a digital strategy will give them all the insights and tools they need?
But, of course, it doesn't, and while online data provides incredibly detailed information about HOW people behave, it offers very little understanding of WHY they behave that way. And this is a big problem.
Access to digital inputs is part of any good planner’s toolkit, but all that information can actually prevent planners from conducting more traditional, analog research that’s far better at identifying opportunities.
In fact, a lack of genuine insight can leave planners exposed. They may have all the numbers they need to make the client feel comfortable, but lack an understanding of real world motivations that allows them to propose something truly new. It's the old 'driving a car while looking through the rear view mirror'. Too often planning is a process of flying by the seat of the pants; working off shaky decks that are strong on tactics, but weak on strategy.
3. The Analog Alien:
The third factor is something I call the Analog Alien.
As Lord Kelvin said, we pay more attention to the things we can measure, so brand managers will generally put more store in a graph with a million data-points than a few respondent quotes from a qualitative researcher.
This aversion to all things ‘analog’ can, to some degree, be put down to the simple fact that many clients these days grew up in the digital environment and are, themselves, part of the ‘digital generation’.
You might think ‘The Digital Generation’ describes 14-year-old kids playing Call of Duty in their bedroom. But let’s be clear, 'Digital Generation’ applies as much to latest generation of marketers who've emerged from the education system in the last 15 years.
Any 30 year old brand manager working today will have grown up in a virtual world, and would be more likely to have played an Xbox version of BMX than falling off a real bike. As such they may not have a great deal of the 'real world' experiences that would help them understand the problems faced by a hard-pressed mum on a budget or a dad working two jobs.
These 'analog aliens' are also, by nature, predisposed to the digital solutions they can understand and relate to (and grew up with) rather than the subtle charms of ‘soft’, analog information they may feel less comfortable with. A lot of them simply don't trust qualitative inputs.
Again, I’m not saying a knowledge of the digital landscape is a bad thing; it obviously helps to know how the technology works and how it affects behaviour. But it does mean younger brand managers tend to be less familiar or interested in traditional brand values and emotional triggers.
As such, they’ll be less keen on building ‘soft metrics’ into the marketing plan and tend to play down or overlook it when drawing up the brand strategy.
4. The Strategy Scrum:
The fourth reason I think traditional planning is being squeezed is something I call the Strategy Scrum.
In the digital landscape who owns the strategy?
The marketing strategy used to be managed by the 'lead' agency, which, for whatever reason, was generally the communication or advertising agency. But that seems to have changed.
In the modern world, it's understood that the digital strategy is a cornerstone of the marketing plan and just as important as the brand message. In this scenario, the digital agency is going to be just as involved in developing the strategy as any of the other team members.
Furthermore, with the definition of ‘brand’ expanding, you can throw into this scrum the views of the design agency, the PR agency, the social media agency and even the UX guys. All of whom have a legitimate say in influencing the direction of the brand.
From the brand managers POV this makes sense, yet what often emerges fromt he back of this scrum is a strategy by committee which, in reality, is just a list of tactics.
To deal with this lack of clear leadership, consultancies are increasingly brought in to oversee the chaos. But that's the subject of a different essay.
What’s the Answer?
Technology is changing the way people behave and this must be reflected in the way we market to them. But we mustn’t let the process we use to 'measure' people, lead us to place too much emphasis on the digital inputs we can easily measure to the detriment of less tangible sources of information.
Just because someone connects with your brand via a phone, doesn’t mean they’ve connected with you emotionally and all the ‘impressions’ and ‘engagement’ metrics in the world won’t tell you how to do that.
So it’s important to build ‘analog’ into the strategy process from the start. Of course, that kind of ‘data' may be harder to find and more difficult to measure, but understanding it will drive sales far more effectively than simple digital engagement.
Understand the problem before you try to solve it
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on it, I’d use the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask” Einstein
The first job of the planner is to frame the problem so that the strategy addresses the right issues. Only after that can the appropriate metrics (both analog and digital) be blended to shape the direction of travel.
Building a strategic position always starts with ‘why’, rather than ‘how’, but if you look at the numbers first, all you’re going to see is where your customers have been - but not where they’re going.
Conversely, if you begin the process by exploring the pictures a person's head you’ll find a completely different way of interpreting the numbers thrown up by your digital interactions.
Starting with the person you'd like to buy your product gives the brand a narrative and an emotional handle from which to hang the data.
As marketing heavyweight Mark Ritson suggested during the Festival of Marketing event on 5 Oct 2017:
“5 or 10 years ago we were better at strategy than we are now. Most companies don’t have any strategy. The advice (I’d give) now that wasn’t necessary 10 years ago is to stop messing around with the tactical stuff, pull back, think about strategy. If you talk to agencies, especially after a few beers, about the pitches they’re getting in the UK now, they’re terrible. There’s no strategy in them, just a bunch of tactical requests… My advice would be – try and get strategy first before you start talking about TV, Facebook or anything.” http://bit.ly/2xKq1gC
Planners need to do a couple of things in order to fend off creeping digital reductionism.
First, they need to win the argument that ‘analog’ inputs are just as valuable as digital when shaping strategy.
Second, they need to offer the client the chance to see the value of an analog perspective without making it an expensive, time-consuming exercise.
Finally, planners need to be able to do this at the start of the project, so that all subsequent metrics are built into the narrative from the beginning.
But this approach requires more time for the planner to do their work and for a budget to be put aside for initial exploratory qualitative research.
5-2-1 — What is it?
5-2-1 is stripped-back qualitative research designed to give planners a short-cut to insights.
It consists of:
5 x 60 minute face-to-face interviews with handpicked respondents — conducted in-home — with video. 5 hours of intimate, deep and personal interviews that explore the emotional landscape of a person's life.
2 x weeks’ turn-around — from brief to debrief. It needs to be quick so the findings can be built into your thinking before the metrics kick in.
1 x on-site debrief with your team including key video quotes. A fast, open, workshop-type feedback session, that enables planners to build their argument on the most powerful and relevant insights.
Here are a few examples where the first 5 interviews shaped great strategy:
TRUTH is one of the most successful pieces of marketing communication in US history, winning more than 400 awards, including Emmys, Addy’s, Clios and a Grand Effie.
Originally, this teen anti-smoking campaign was called Rage. Based on a handful of interviews, I argued that the name and approach wrong and that kids need to make up their own minds. From this, Truth was born. http://bit.ly/2zmiQYS
ROLAND PIANOS The Japanese instrument maker needed a fresh plan that would differentiate it from Yamaha. As with many tech businesses, they had all the metrics but few real insights. 5 x face-to-face interviews convinced them they needed a new approach, which to a global repositioning.
CHRISTOPHER WARD WATCHES Luxury watch owners walk a thin line between vanity, status and a genuine love of mechanics. Being an online brand, there were plenty of metrics, but not a lot of understanding ‘why?’ We started with 5 x face-to-face interviews, carefully peeling away the layers of meaning until we got to the true drivers of choice that lay underneath.
From there we developed a new campaign that defines Christopher Ward’s ethos for both new and loyal supporters.
" Knowledge is power, but not if it is isn't focussed. The kind of work Graham does and the knowledge he has is hard to find anywhere else”. Sir John Hegarty