Why marketers need to stop chasing data like it’s ‘crack cocaine’

Marketers express their fears about the future of marketing if the next generation become too obsessed with data.

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Empathy, storytelling and creativity could become a lost art in marketing if the industry continues to be obsessed by data.

Speaking at Marketing Week Live (6 March), Cheryl Calverley, CMO of direct-to-consumer mattress brand Eve, expressed fears for the next generation of marketers who she believes are having the intuition and instinct “beaten out of them”.

“Last year, Gavin Patterson, the former CEO of BT, said marketers are trained all their lives for instinct. All their lives they are trained to listen to their guts and then 20 years later you just know it works,” she recalled.

“A finance or a data person is trained all their lives to not listen to their instinct, to trust the data and 20 years later you know how to do a brilliant test. Put those two people together and you get a great business. When you train marketers to only market by testing, unfortunately you lose that ability to [see beyond what the data is saying] and you will never do brave and creative things.”

Gav Thompson, chief customer officer at fashion brand Boden, agreed that it can be easy for marketers to be scared of doing anything without having the data to endorse their decision, when actually intuition, emotion, empathy and storytelling are still really important to most brands.

“It worries me that is going to be a lost art if you come back in 10 years’ time,” he stated. “Data is fantastic and you have to understand it, learn it and love it, but not at the expense of being able to empathise with your customers and tell a good story.”

By appointing Thompson as CCO rather than CMO in September last year, Boden made a “deliberate shift away” from marketing being simply the function you hand the “beautiful dresses” over to when you want to reach the customer. Now marketing works further upstream in the process, getting involved in the original insight, the trend work, the design and continually offering a view of what the customer wants.

Thompson believes this great customer insight comes from intuition, which is then backed up by data, modelling and testing.

“I’ve never stumbled across a great customer insight in the data. I’ve found greater customer insights in talking to customers and learning about their behaviour and then I’ve checked that against the data and used the data to build on that,” he explained.

“The future marketer has to do both. You have to understand the data, you have to know how to get the data, you have to know how to commission a test. You need to know what data looks like, but I think customer insight, intuition and creativity will always win.”

Despite being a self-confessed data lover, fellow panellist Pete Markey, CMO of TSB, agrees that data must be fused with amazing creative work.

“I’ve worked in businesses that chase [data] like it’s crack cocaine and then what you start seeing happen is your marketing budget also erodes because it’s all about advertising in one or two digital channels and suddenly you find the rest of your brand funnel has dried up and you’ve stopped advertising on TV and you’re quite literally on the road to hell,” Markey warned.

He advises young marketers starting out in their career to gain experience in both data and creativity, because to be able to strike the right balance you need to have a strong appreciation of both. That and develop a “bloody good relationship with finance”.

READ MORE: How marketing is working with finance to shake off the ‘us versus them’ attitude

Taking the ‘walls off’ marketing

Another important lesson for marketers at all stages in their career is to find better ways to cope with the pace of change. Calverley likens it to being at school and looking down a microscope with one eye and drawing a picture of what you see with the other.

“With change you have to be able to look down the microscope and see the change and react to it, but also you have to be able to see the big picture and say ‘is this really going to make it onto my drawing or are these changes actually quite small?’ With change it’s about seeing the really big picture things and being prepared,” she says.

With the pace of change being as fierce as it is, Markey believes it is more important than ever for marketers to be curious about what’s going on across the wider business, so they don’t get stuck in a “bubble”.

He argues that marketing needs to have a greater influence within the ecosystem of the entire organisation and take an interest in decisions regardless of whether “officially marketing should be involved”.

“What products are we launching? What’s the service, design and experience? What’s the user experience? We can’t passively receive that from the rest of the business, we’ve got to be intrinsically involved with it day-to-day,” he argued.

“I describe it as completely taking the walls off marketing, so marketing is still there to lead and drive growth in the business, but all the walls have come off the way we work and operate.”

Becoming more wired into the rest of the business should help marketing take the lead on innovation. Thompson believes this innovation is often driven by a customer need that marketers might not even be aware of yet. The key to understanding this need is to really listen to and observe your customers, but then trust your “hunch”, advised Thompson.

All three panellists agreed that focus, simplicity and choice will be the three key elements marketers need to implement if they want to meet their customers’ expectations going forward. However, layered on top of providing a seamless, friction-free experience are “higher order” emotional reasons which must also be taken into account, said Calverley.

“I was reflecting on this growth of ‘brand purpose’ and where it has come from. I think it’s because it’s so easy for me to make a choice. Take my market, as soon as you show a flicker of an interest in a mattress there are 4,000 mattress companies all over your Facebook feed,” she noted.

“So, the decision making can’t be on which one has more layers of memory foam, you’re looking for a slightly higher order reason to help you make your decisions. I think that’s why we’re seeing brand purpose really grow, because the proliferation of choice is so much greater there has to be something more important to hook on to.”

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