In this era of digital transformation, there has been a lot of discussion about the role of traditional brand marketing in today’s organizations. Lists of “most important skills for marketers” routinely rank skills like big data, data analytics, data visualization, predictive targeting, mobile technology, coding, and UI expertise at or near the top for both new college graduates and CMOs.
If the channels for purchasing are not rapidly migrating to digital, the research, evaluation, and comparison-shopping certainly are for both consumer and business marketers. It is estimated that 70 to more than 80 percent of all major purchases are initially researched online. The digitization of commerce places increasing pressure on marketing organizations to evolve.
An article in Harvard Business Review co-authored by McKinsey and Russell Reynolds, highlights that the top skill valued in today’s CMO is the ability to discover data-driven insights that drive growth. Quoted in the article, Tariq Shaukat, CMO of Caesar’s Entertainment notes:
“When it comes to who asks the provocative questions [and] who agitates for customer-led change, it is the group closest to the customer and the group with the data. And that really is on the backs of marketing.”
Does this mean that the days of amazing content development, TV commercials, focus groups, and lunchtime martinis are over? Let’s hope not. It’s ultimately the balance of analytic prowess and creativity that forms the success in marketing effectiveness.
It wasn’t so long ago that the data analytics skills and quantification of marketing impact were minimally part of the conversation. A survey of recruiters of business graduates from 1996 ranked oral communication skills, energy and enthusiasm, and self-confidence as the top three graduate traits. Appearance came in ninth—well ahead of computer skills at 14.
In an HBR interview with Nike’s Phil Knight in 1992, Mr. Knight traces the evolution of Nike from a product and technology innovator to a master of consumer marketing. When the initial growth tied to innovation and connection to the first wave of track and field athletes began to fade, combined with several poor strategic decisions in the late ‘80s that led to sagging sales and layoffs, Nike was forced to reinvent their brand through marketing skills that redefined the field for two decades. Unabashed focus on the brand, disruption of traditional sports paradigms, and emotion-first TV defined the next decades of success. “Our advertising tries to link consumers to the Nike brand through the emotions of sports and fitness. We show competition, determination, achievement, fun, and even the spiritual rewards of participating in those activities.”
But even 25 years ago, Mr. Knight anticipated the coming wave of analytics even if Nike was reticent to pre-test ads before airing.
Today, marketers are in the enviable position to lead business transformation through the combined skills of creativity and analytics. The skill set and mentality that combines those seemingly divergent skills is test and learn.
Brian Fetherstonhaugh, Worldwide Chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne, links the success of great ideas to a three-pronged approach: creativity + data analytics + courage; the willingness push yourself creatively, allow the market to evaluate the impact quantitatively, and to fail fast if the idea or the execution don’t work.
In an article in the Economist, Julian Aldridge, VP of Brand Evangelism at Charles Schwab encourages marketers to follow the Silicon Valley model of portfolio theory and risk management.
“The adoption of a strategic portfolio approach to marketing initiatives, in the way the Venture Capital firms do with start-ups. It assumes that many initiatives will fail, or underperform, but that a few will show the potential for massive, disproportionate, and game-changing success. Marketers have to think like Venture Capitalists. They have to use data, creativity (intuition, perhaps?) and then spread their bets. Test and learn, test and learn.”
Test and learn allows marketers to be both agnostic about their intuition “Will it work? I don’t know, but I have the means of testing everything I do,” and even more passionate about their craft. Test and learn promotes more creativity because it depends on volume of tests and larger quantities of experiments to identify the insights that allow marketers to migrate from what happened to why it happened, and ultimately how to leverage that insight to place bigger, more confident bets on what to do next. And while strong demands on data analytics seemingly have made organizations more risk-averse because everything is under quantitative scrutiny, test and learn allows creative marketers to embrace risk because a larger number of smaller and controlled bets allows them to manage exposure (both financial and consumer-reaction) in a calculated way.
Test and learn also mitigates the risk of powering into untested territories, despite the known benefits of first mover advantage. As articulated by Nathan Ansell of Marks & Spencer:
“Moving fast is really important, there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. One of the things we’ve discovered over the years is that you only get credit from the customer if you’re first—if you’re second in, the customer doesn’t credit you, they think you’re doing it for yourself rather than them.”