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As the CMO title morphs, agency strategists rise

Technology & Data

As the CMO title morphs, agency strategists rise


Data is the fuel in the tank, says Sérgio Brodsky, but is it strategists who have their hands on the wheel?

Providing advice about collection, processing, interpretation and meaningful deployment of data has become a usual discussion between clients and agencies. However, more than a real necessity aiming at addressing a specific challenge or embracing an opportunity, gathering too much data will often turn an asset into a liability.

First things first. Information (or data) is not power, knowledge is. As counterintuitive as it may seem, the more information a company or person possess the harder it is to create, manage and use knowledge for your competitive advantage. This begins with the fact that our brains were made to think, not compute.

We are explanation-seeking creatures who tend to think that everything has an identifiable cause and grab the most apparent one as the explanation. From overstretched correlations to imagined causations, many of us will think it is smarter to say ‘because…’ than to accept randomness and sceptically run experiments that may provide richer insights. 

Take the example of Aristotle Onassis, the original media tycoon. Onassis never portrayed the image of the super-efficient, well-informed media executive. On the contrary, as a bon-vivant he did not even bother to have a desk, let alone an office. All his data was contained in a notebook. His method can be summarised as a rigorous examination by looking at empirical evidence on the link between information and understanding. This is fundamentally opposed to the theories data-scientists and analysts can generate from their huge data swathes. 

The problem with storifying data is that our ideas are sticky and once we form a theory (i.e. a story) from a herculean data-mining effort, it is very hard to change our minds – even when new evidence is better or more accurate. This can be verified by the mechanisms of belief perseverance (the tendency to not reverse opinions once they are formed) and confirmation bias (the tendency to search for, interpret, favour and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting ideas). 

Of course, data scientists and analysts will know a lot more about the processing of data and the point is not to challenge their methods but their confidence. Especially when it comes to marketing and advertising – where lateral thinking can give a real edge – the more data-led the more restrained we are to the box. Information can be beautiful but also toxic. For instance, it is better to read the weekly magazine than listen to the news on the radio by the hour because longer intervals allow information to be filtered and shift our minds from processing to thinking. 

Chasing the promises of big data and enabled by cheap storage, CIOs have gotten into the habit of holding onto consumer data for unknown future purposes, says Gerald Ferguson, a data privacy attorney at the law firm BakerHostetler in an interview for the Wall Street Journal. This customer data may lay dormant across dozens of systems, like payment and marketing platforms. To lower big data risks, Ferguson says, companies should maintain an inventory of what personal data is stored and why, and if there isn’t a compelling reason to hold onto the information it should be deleted. “Data that you’re storing and not making money off is a liability”, Ferguson says. 

There is more. Consumers want brands to forget them, to the point that the European Parliament has already recognised the right to be forgotten. Also, security breaches may help hackers find data you should not have and expose your business even more, such as the case when Target (the American brand, not the Australian one) got sued after its analytics efforts predicted a teenage girl was pregnant before she even told her parents

With all that said, the fundamental issue here is how the ownership of the customer has moved away from marketing to IT departments. For starters, big brands like McDonald’s, Vodafone, Johnson & Johnson, Uber and others recently decapitated the CMO position from their organisational charts. Others like Kimberly-Clark, Mondelez, Coca-Cola and Mars rebranded the CMO into chief growth officer. And AEG Europe (which owns the O2 Arena and runs festivals such as Coachella) VP of marketing Kimberly Kriss even suggested marketing bosses should be repositioned as chief cognitive officers. WTF?! 

Marketing is about money. CMOs are, therefore, the business leaders mobilising resources to ensure their respective companies deliver customer value in exchange for healthy revenue and profitability. Brand, data, campaigns, CRM and the entire martech arsenal are just means to this end. What is interesting is that, despite some recent infatuations with coding, data and technology, agency strategists – who are often paired with their client CMOs, with the privilege of acting as their trusted advisors have not necessarily ventured down these rabbit holes. 

This is interesting because agencies are often expected to be at the cutting-edge of pretty much everything and whenever I meet with my inner circles of creative planners, brand consultants and media strategy peers, it feels we are a cult of fundamentalists, discussing the fundamentals of marketing… not the fuel (data) that always feeds the strategies we write. Agency strategists (whatever the denomination) are so valuable because they know they exist to drive, not fill the tank. Providing direction, thinking about positioning, segmentation, targeting and nerding over the literary canons from Field and Binet, Sharp, Galloway and another few is what agency strategists do best. 

According to all-rounded strategist-planner-consultant Eaon Pritchard: “The idea of big data causes marketers to sometimes engage in a kind of magical thinking, where the mere possession of data bestows special knowledge. Yet, magical thinking is really about anxiety reduction. And, turning the complex, simple and the simple, compelling is the agency strategist hat trick.”

An agency strategist can be to a CMO what a Consigliere is to a Capo. A trusted advisor and spokesperson to the boss. We genuinely want to be your best friends by learning from and feeling your challenges. Just as much as CMOs are often cornered by CFOs, COOs and CEOs, agency strategists must be able to demonstrate to the entire agency that their thought-processes will nail the brief. The ones that succeed most often are also the ones to be challenged the most. They are not data-led but rather data-inspired. They use the available information to push the envelope, not minimise potential risks. And they carve out head space not to strengthen their ‘because’ but to find ways to change their minds before settling on an insight. 

Marketing is strategy (and money) when it goes downstream, understanding and responding to customers often unarticulated needs and desires. The computation of the many variables involved in the marketing function is of extreme value, but it becomes meaningless without reasoning, experimentation and a healthy degree of skepticism. CMOs, join your agency strategists for a walk on the wild side. You may not hear that much about attributions and inferences, but your strategists will actively listen and be your thinking partners. The only thing required is an open mind and perhaps a notebook.

Further reading

Sérgio Brodsky

Sérgio Brodsky (L.LM, MBA) is an internationally experienced brand strategist, a marketing lecturer at RMIT and chairman at The Marketing Academy Alumni. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society, an intersection from where he drew inspiration to conceive a radically innovative approach to brand communications, he coined Urban Brand-Utility. Connect with Sérgio on www.sergio-brodsky.com or through his Twitter handle @brandKzarglobal brand strategy and innovation. Follow him on Twitter: brandKzar.

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