An Analytic Mind – Q&A with Jim Davis, CMO of SAS

Jim Davis, vice president and CMO of SAS, discusses analytic culture within brands, the dearth of great mobile marketing work and why you should be blogging. This interview first appeared in the April 2012 issue of Marketing magazine – subscribe to print or digital.


Jim Davis, senior vice president and chief marketing officer (CMO) of SAS, is sitting at a conference table, twirling a pen distractedly. He’s just given a speech to an 800-plus strong group of senior Asia Pacific (APAC) executives at his brand’s Premier Business Leadership Series in Singapore. And he’ll be on a flight to meet with major consumer goods producing clients of his in Seoul very soon. And then somewhere else; maybe home to North Carolina? Davis tells me he spends 30% of his time on road – pauses to think and adjusts that, with a smile, to 50%.

As CMO of SAS, Davis has one of the more coveted roles in B2B tech marketing. The 36-year-old company is privately held and reported global revenues of US$2.43 billion in 2010 – on an unbroken 35-year run of profitability and growth. According to market intelligence firm IDC, in 2010 SAS held 35.2% of the global business analytics market (up 0.5% year-on-year), a 19% lead on its nearest competitor IBM.

Davis originally comes from a technical, rather than business, background. With a degree in computer science from North Carolina State University, he began his working life as a software developer working at large newspaper publishers. Following that role, he managed software development for another publishing organisation, later taking a role as general manager for a business magazine. “And then I went to work at a non-profit, process control engineers, and I was the head of IT for that organisation for five years. I then decided it was time for a career change, and I had heard about SAS. I didn’t know exactly what SAS did, even though they were just 10 miles down the road from me – but I heard they were a great place to work, and I wanted to be given a shot, do something different.” That was 1994… 1 April, he tells me with analytic precision, meaning Davis has seen just under two decades with the company. His first SAS role was as an enterprise computing strategist focusing on information technology. Later he worked as program manager for data warehousing, then director of product strategy and finally vice president of worldwide marketing, before taking his current role.

When he isn’t Jim Davis – jetsetting CMO, he is Jim Davis – skier, golfer, photographer and soccer coach. In fact, a soccer scholarship took him through university. (He’s glad to tell me that the number of kids playing soccer in the US now outstrips those playing basketball, football and baseball combined. And I’m inclined to trust him on figures.) Though Davis is one of a handful of C-level executives to maintain a blog, the other Jim Davis is too shy to share his photography in this manner.

“I need to. People keep telling me I need to do that. I need to start posting my stuff, because it’s really easy to do these days, and I haven’t done it. I think I’ve been shy, but I’ve got a pretty big personal investment, not necessarily meaning monetary. That’s there too, but I’ve spent a lot of time on it. I really enjoy it.”

Davis is cordial, cool and collected. He stops twirling his pen and his rumination melts away as we begin our interview.

Anecdotally, how has the C-level executives’ impression of analytics changed preand post-global financial crisis (GFC)?

I think a lot of C-level executives – I won’t say all of them, but the majority at that point (pre-financial crisis) – didn’t really know what it was. Analytics was something that somebody else did and didn’t really matter to their business. I think post-financial crisis, they began to very quickly hear and understand that it could be points on a margin in a positive direction and they took interest in it. And so you began to see analytic cultures emerge within companies across industries. There came an awareness in the boardroom at that point.

Interesting that you bring up getting into the boardroom. That’s a long-standing pain, getting a marketer at that table. Is analytics the route in for the marketer?

I think it’s one. I think… any time you can get somebody’s attention in terms of reducing expenses, increasing yield, that’s what analytics do for marketers; it helps you to be a lot more focused in your efforts. So, you should be able to do more with the budget that you’ve had and, at the same time, you should be able to open up new customer segments that you haven’t had before within the organisation.

I also think for marketers, particularly chief marketing officers, gone are the days where your responsibility is to put on a seminar and figure out what advertising you’re going to put out there and put up a new website. I don’t think chief marketing officers can survive long-term unless they are involved with the business, and they understand, have an intimate knowledge of the products that they represent. And I think in the past, a chief marketing officer in a marketing department didn’t necessarily have to be intimate with their product; they had to be intimate with the best way to manipulate their market, and I don’t think you can do that any longer.

I guess that’s also been a long-standing argument: that the focus group will disappear, that face-to-face qualitative research can be replaced by a digital focus group. Do you think that aphorism holds true?

No, I’ll tell you, what’s going to take the place of the focus group is social media, in a very big way. Think about what focus groups were used for in the past, and I’ll give a real-life example. Focus groups were used if you were going to come up with a new ad campaign or a new product; you would get a group of people together that you would pay and you would hope that the focus group represented the population, which is highly unlikely, quite honestly. And then, based on what that focus group did, you would go off and execute, and you wouldn’t really know what the results were going to be. Are you familiar with the retail store, Gap? Do you know what happened to them last year?

With the logo?

With the logo. That’s a perfect example of how, if you did things the old way, there could have been a negative financial impact on the Gap, but the fact that they changed the logo and then social media screamed about it and then they had guts enough to say, ‘We’re going to go back to the old logo’, it’s fabulous. The fact that we’re talking about it right now [means] we’re supporting that the Gap was progressive in their approach to marketing and social media. So, I think social media is really the thing that marketers need to tap as an alternative and a replacement for the focus group.

There are a lot of products out there measuring social media, and I guess the biggest complaint is that they really don’t give much depth or cross-analysis with other metrics. What’s the difference with the SAS product?

You raise a really good point. There are a tremendous number of outlets out there that are doing measurement of sentiment in the marketplace – some good, some bad. A lot of it has to do with the taxonomies around the text analytics. So, you’ve got to have good, strong taxonomies based on industries and based on geographies to get the sentiment correct. We’ve done a lot of work in that effort. The other thing is it’s great to measure and look in the mirror and look at what people think of you, but eventually you’re going to say, ‘So what, what am I going to do about that?’

And then what happens is some traditional high-end analytic apps – like interactive marketing, marketing optimisation or marketing automation – can then be used to go after those people who own the sentiment that you want to change. So, if you look at all the people that have the measurement, that’s as far as they can take it, and that’s not good enough. You’ve got to say this is what they’re thinking. Now, that data becomes input into the already existing traditional data that I have within the organisation, and now I’m going to put campaigns together, marketing efforts together, to go after that segment in social media.

Mobile is obviously your catchword at the moment. What are you most excited about? What is the prospect out there that hasn’t been taken by a major brand?

I think there is obviously a lot more to be [done] – there’s a tricky balance. These devices represent a challenge, in that there is so much you can do with these things that you can be annoying. So, when you look at location-based services, location-aware services, do you really want to walk down the street and get pounded by offers? [Ed – No, so read our SoLoMo feature on page 66.] So, the challenge is going to become when and how often do you actually interact with a consumer with these things, so that you can maximise your interaction and not piss them off – if you will. That’s a challenge.

I think people don’t really know exactly what to do here and, in some parts of the world, you’re also dealing with some very difficult data privacy laws as well… If I’m dealing with somebody online here, I want to buy something, the same effort we’ve been going through and personalisation on websites has got to take place on these mobile devices as well, and I’m not seeing organisations do a really good job of that yet. I think organisations just want to get up and establish the commerce capability on the device, and haven’t looked at personalising it yet. The sooner you can personalise this, the more likely you are to attract new customers, because not everybody is doing it. So, I think the immediate opportunity is: how do you personalise on this device the way that we’ve done in the web browsers? It seems like it should be a natural, but it’s not happening. And location becomes a big part of that.

I think the other challenge becomes one of how do you integrate social media into the marketing of your products? And, again, we talked about listening and sentiment analysis, but what else can you do from a social network standpoint to begin to identify who the influencers are affecting the sale of your products… As opposed to marketing to all the people you want to sell to, market heavily to the influencers. There is big opportunity there, and I think some people are starting to take advantage of that, but the majority haven’t. It requires social network analysis capability within social media. So, analytics play a really big role there.

So, when you say social network analysis, is that taking into account the nuances of particular platforms?

No, when I talk about social network analysis, I’m talking about people networks. So, you’re a very vocal individual and you like this particular product. Who are your friends? I want your friends to buy my product. Do I market to them individually or do I market heavily to you?

Major manufacturers are watching YouTube and saying, ‘Who are these people? And how many viewers do they have? I’m going after them’. So, people need to be looking at that. And this morning, it’s like how many people are analysing unstructured data in addition to their structured data? Just think about that simple example of somebody that has their own YouTube channel and is influencing the sale of products. Are you even looking at that sort of thing? What are they saying? Is it positive? Is it negative? And if it’s really positive, keep the products going their way. If it’s slightly negative, give them a call, figure out what’s going on. And I think marketers, for the most part, are ignoring that.

Who do you think is doing it well? Can you count them on one hand?

Yeah, you can probably count them on one hand. I think people are still struggling with just, again, how to get into the mobile environment. You can’t look at it as ‘it’s just mobile’. You’ve got to look at it as it’s an additional touchpoint. So, it’s not that complicated, actually. I just view it as an additional touchpoint and understand the interaction with that particular device is just a touchpoint and it will come pretty easy.

You’re in a minority of C-level executives that maintain a blog. What’s the value for you?

The biggest value for me is to gain feedback on what we’re doing, and this is the value for anybody in maintaining a blog. Again, don’t view your blog as an opportunity to sell anything; use your blog as an opportunity to share an opinion on something, and then enjoy the responses you get as people validate your opinion, or offer you other angles to what you’re talking about, even if it means they’re disputing you. So, blogs are wonderful. You need to be very open to criticism, and if you can recognise the criticism as something that can help advance your thoughts, or find your thoughts, then it’s an absolutely wonderful thing. If you really don’t want to know what people think about your opinion, don’t bother with a blog, but if you’re open-minded about it, you can become that much better and that much sharper in those things that you believe.