Fear and loathing in the planning suite

What are the monsters holding you back? There are good excuses and bad excuses for holding back on data-driven transformation, and effective strategies for dealing with both.

Fear and loathing in the planning suite

What are the monsters holding you back? Finding effective ways to tackle the personal and political hindrances to change goes back thousands of years – far longer time than marketing management.

There are good excuses and bad excuses for holding back on data-driven transformation steps. Priorities are subject to change and resources vary: sometimes it just isn't the right solution for the right problem. However, an analytical project or organizational development initiative can often run into walls that have little to do with its content or merits.

As an analysis project or transformation process gets underway, your greatest ally is a curious organization, receptive to new ideas, with top-level support for systematic change. However, in any business operating beyond nuclear scale, many number of obstacles may come your way that have little to do with the technical aspects of data, analytics, or algorithms. There will be people to convince and get onboard, whether you’re aiming to pitch transformation work from the outside, or precipitate change from within.

Familiar obstacles to progress

The degree to which you’re able to spell out and communicate the business value of your proposal matters most. Modern collaborative development practices (like agile methods) are a great help for building shared ownership of projects and change in general.

However in practice, your audience’s widely heterogeneous interests, capabilities, and motivations still mean that the results of your efforts depend heavily on maneuvering a nuanced set of obstacles – at times a minefield of distorted motives, misplaced priorities, gaping information silos, and uninformed buffoons.

“A minefield of distorted motives, misplaced priorities, gaping information silos, and uninformed buffoons.”

As I perused my notes from over the years on different obstacles I'd come across, I couldn’t help but notice a parallel to how Buddhist tradition sees “managing growth”.

A person striving towards enlightenment faces five hindrances: sensual desire, ill will, dullness, worry, and doubt.

To counteract these obstacles, the person ought to cultivate specific antidotes. Concentration is the antidote for sensual desire, well-being for ill will, attention for dullness, happiness for worry, and knowledge for doubt.

As it happens, very similar themes can be identified among hindrances to data-driven marketing transformation. Let’s look at what some of the obstacles you might encounter are, and what strategies can be useful antidotes for overcoming them in the wild.

Pay attention to effective data collection

The foundational issue for any type of analysis is data collection. If the essential data do not exist, no amount of willingness to transform will make them appear. This is in the realm of “good excuses” for not carrying out performance analysis.

While some gaps in data and knowledge can be solved by throwing money at them, internal first-party data can be impossible to regenerate after the fact. If you can't dig out how much you sold, or recall what you poured into advertising, it's nigh on impossible to start.

As more tolerable excuses come, sometimes there just aren’t enough past activities or variability for analysis. If a company follows a nearly identical formula week after week, or jumps form one-off experiment to another, there will be scant help from statistics as there is nothing to compare against.

Naturally, a marketer operating on a smaller budget and scale of activities will be at a disadvantage when it comes to leveraging statistical tools. That does not preclude planning for future growth, as some extremely common, yet easily alleviated issues revolve around poor record-keeping.

“Ensure that the basics are in order”

The first starting point for data-driven marketing is leveraging the data that you do have. Without the necessary inputs to an analytical process, those tools will get you nowhere. To ensure that more tools and increasingly powerful approaches will be available for you in the future, you’ll need to ensure that the basics are in order. Sustained, forward-looking attention is needed to counteract the problem.

Marketers often follow an annual communications plan and media laydown. These are often central pieces of evidence to look back on for explaining marketing performance – when they exist. Lack of detail, incomplete information on other possible activities, or how the different marketing actions materialized in the end will frustrate analysis.

It is not uncommon, or even avoidable, that some investments and their results are not recorded reliably. However, a data ownership review of what’s being recorded and how that information is structured for later use will not only enable a new level of analysis, but also act as insurance against changes in personnel and partners.

Anticipate data needs to spare yourself pain

“…but do not fall for the “big data black hole” of collecting anything you can get your hands on”

The first step to direct attention to is implementing quick fixes to data collection. Ensure that nothing relevant that is easily collected no longer slips through the cracks, but do not fall for the “big data black hole” of collecting anything you can get your hands on. A data audit of input requirements will usually suffice as guidance for finding an appropriate balance. Use this to plan for the next iterations of specific analytics on your development roadmap.

Many types of performance analytics, especially modelling approaches require back data from a longer time period to ensure that consistent and reliable explanations are being produced. For example, ROI modelling will typically require at least two to three years of historical information (on a weekly level of analysis). Many digital analytics sources only store two years of old data, so you might have to consider storing those in your own systems for record-keeping.

Other data collection considerations include reviewing media investment recording practices. Are all channels and campaigns easily identified and slid into an appropriate hierarchy? Are investments splittable on a weekly or daily level, and tagged with ad units, audience targeting, and message content? If not, can a procedure be agreed on with your media agency and trading desk/buyers as soon as possible? Correcting historical data (though painful) can sometimes be feasible and economically justified, especially if the planners in question haven't left the organization.

Do you understand, trust, or neither?

Sometimes, an obstinate manager will scuttle even the most earnest effort. Not everyone is comfortable with change is the first place, and not everyone possesses skills to confidently and successfully manage data and analytics projects. Increasing demands for numerical literacy and analytical understanding are perhaps the foremost driver for turnover in marketing leadership positions.

“I don’t really understand this completely, so it can’t be true”

Low confidence in these areas is usually due to lack of exposure and education.  It can often lead to mistrust for analysts and partners – “I don’t really understand this completely, so it can’t be true” – and a focusing on areas of the job that are less demanding or just more interesting for the manager in question. Alternatively, a person in charge can become the most lucrative client the consultants ever saw, for lack of judgement and love of “AI”.

“Our business is so special that your solutions are moot”

Unjustified over-confidence in one’s capabilities can be equally problematic, whether due to excessive luck in the past or even overt disdain for analysis – “I don’t need science people to come and tell me how to do my job, look at how much money we’re making”. Another manifestation of this is exceptionalism – “our business is so special that your solutions are moot.” This is rarely the case.

Mistrust is present when a person lacks confidence in either your motives or reliability. A healthy dose of due diligence and contractual agreement is always recommended when dealing with external partners or development teams, but there are times when good business sense gives way to “trade secret” paranoia and predilection to build everything in-house.

Marketing is a unique, contextual phenomenon for every brand and its customers, meaning that individual elements and activities will often perform completely differently for a competitor, not to mention unrelated business. Understanding the complete configuration of sales and brand drivers matters more.

Build confidence and provide transparency

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Trust and confidence issues can be some of the most wearisome for a project champion. Playing the long game of trust-building and education is an option, if there is time and willingness to learn. Sometimes the only option is just to move on, or move up a level or two in the decision-making hierarchy for better resonance.

Trust in agency networks, in particular, has degraded in the past years. Around the world, an ongoing commodification of media services has coincided with widespread evidence of shady practices and a general lack of transparency in pricing and data. Operating models and margins of agencies have eroded as contracts with major advertiser become increasingly tight. Agencies have extended their service portfolios into analytics and blended in creative, production, and other areas.

While many of these are essential components to pull closer to media from an overall performance perspective, desperation has backfired in accusations of bias in recommendations. This concern is justified. The only real remedy is daylight, even if it means giving up a part of the potential efficiencies of marketing integration in the short term.

Hidden motives are real

Not everyone is really after what’s best for the business. Poorly designed reward systems and compensation schemes famously divert peoples’ motives from what was intended and internal jockeying for influence and prestige can easily deflect form the greater purpose.

Of all the functions of a company, marketing has always been closest to show business. This tends to attract lovers of glamour and cool. Managed well, this can certainly be an asset for a brand, understanding that the skill sets and interests required can be parallel opposites to data-driven capability. Some people can also be fixated on the fun – “The highlight of her year is the fashion show they sponsor – you’re free to suggest any media strategy that includes it.”

“Will it make look like an idiot when analysis reveals how much money I wasted last year?”

The self-aggrandizing tendencies of marketing directors can many times be used to advantage. Better performance means better internal standing. However, the same psychological drivers can, when combined with lack of confidence produce a very real fear of results or exposure of incompetence – “Will it make look like an idiot when analysis reveals how much money I wasted last year?”

It is not all that uncommon, either, that managers just seek comfort and ease. If something appears to work decently well, why rip it open? Especially if it might cost the nice holiday hamper from an old media partner.

Hidden motives can be structural, petty, or entirely superficial. Once you have an idea about what’s holding a project back, you will surreptitiously need to deliver something of considerably greater value.

Use the position you're given

As with trust and level of competence, there is no universal answer to getting over the problem. The motivators and personal backgrounds for people’s being in marketing can be diverse and in flux. It is a fundamental phenomenon and inescapable reality in any industry undergoing digital transformation that there will be churn. Not all people are equipped with the learning mindset or capability to succeed in a changed environment. Some adapt, others will move on, and some will remain, perhaps to the detriment of their organizations or business.

This set of motivational issues is foremost characterized by their opaqueness. Whereas organizational wrangling can sometimes be obvious and even be brought up explicitly by whomever you’re speaking with, these hidden agendas will be obscured with secondary issues. Deducing them will allow you to develop a tactic to breach opposition – the go-to classic is building a hero narrative for the manager, lined with verifiable performance gains, personal credit, and tempting financial upsides.

The above is equally true for organizational structures, even if the troubles are less easily pin-pointed or resolved. Bringing down silos with shared, objective and comprehensive performance evaluation, and incorporating contextually suitable long-term metrics is the go-to solution. Establishing these can be particularly insidious if the organization at-large is struggling with survival, and the business-generating role of marketing is yet to manifest itself in top-level strategizing. This outlines the next set of issues: acknowledging the bigger picture.

When the big picture goes missing

Marketing as a function is often limited in the scope of decision-making power by budgets as well as perspectives. Much has been written both in academia and managerial literature about the stature of marketing in organizations. Besides it generally being lower than people would wish to see, the agreement is that without verifiable financial accountability, marketing has little business in the board room. The premium marketers know and practice this; some companies and industries still have longer to go.

As much as there is a case for adopting a market orientation on a wider scale, the room for movement is typically restricted in the short and medium term. Issues stemming from lack of customer-oriented strategic thinking and weak leadership also manifest on a function-level scale, where much of the practical work for accountability lies.

Due to external and internal financial expectations, management practices, and accustomed ways of doing things, natural outcomes of short-termism are a focus on immediate sales results quick brand wins over systematically growing long-term potential.

“What’s easiest to measure too often becomes the most important.”

The all-too-easy availability of data and metrics on digital channels is a trap that encourages myopia. More data does not necessarily mean that you are better informed or better equipped to make bigger decisions. Throwing your entire analytical power at digital easily leads down a rabbit hole, if it's at the expense of a solid overall understanding of sales drivers. What’s easiest to measure too often becomes the most important.

Develop overall understanding and investment perspective

If you’re in charge of a marketing budget that is more than a handful of figures, you can’t really get around the need to model your ROI drivers to establish what the revenue contributions of various activities are. This is en essential and necessary step for justifying your existence. Without it, you should not be taken seriously.

“The majority of marketing directors are not able to put a finger on where they are.”

The revenue contribution of paid media, for example, commonly ranges all the way from 5 % to 80 % of turnover in different industries – before accounting for actual ROI differences between marketing activities. The majority of marketing directors are not able to put a finger on where they are, and as a result the discussion about the level of baseline sales is usually the most interesting, insightful, and important outcome of an ROI modelling exercise.

Possessing the hard facts about the contributions of different sales and branding activities radically changes the nature of resource allocation conversations. Before you get there, there will be practical hurdles to cross. Justifying the initial investment for a modelling project, whether in analyst time or outsourcing costs, can be a challenge, even if convincing evidence exists for financial upsides already in the same accounting period.

Often, research budgets and media budgets are fixed and allocated, and organizations struggle to resolving who might pay it. This sometimes means waiting a year, getting creative with second/third party project financing, or the need to escalate the issue. Generally, a well-formulated investment calculation resonates with top management, for both a stronger mandate for analysis, and resource slack to carry it out.

Marketing accountability is always a financial case. If the function can justify its decisions and role based on quantitative evidence, it will see increasing overall influence – and a rightful say in how long-term business goals can be met with a marketing approach.

Hopefully you’ll never encounter the whole army of monsters – at least all at once. But should you do so, relish the contribution to your soft skills, your stockpile of anecdotes, and your patience.

Edited images: Kyōsai’s Pictures of One Hundred Demons (Kawanabe Kyōsai, Japan, 1890). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.