The 2014 U.S. midterm elections illuminated for me a very clear and compelling vision of the world marketers seek to master. That vision looks like this:
Big Data is more important and useful than ever, but someday soon, Big Data will become a commodity, available cheaply to anyone. Real, lasting marketing value will lie in the power of the message.
David Brooks’ column in The New York Times articulates this in the world of politics, which has long been a proving ground for marketing innovation. Brooks warns politicians not to overly rely on increasingly granular voter targeting. After all, since being out-flanked in the use of data during the 2012 presidential campaign, Republicans have closed the data gap that once favored the Democrats.
More importantly, the risk for the candidates who depend too much on data is neglect of their vision – their message – as they focus instead on attempting to mirror countless voting blocs. The ability to obtain audience omniscience, including what voters want from their political leaders, can send politicians down a fruitless path. Candidates can easily become adept at parroting what these groups say, all the way down to the accents they use, but dedicate fewer and fewer resources to refining their own personal narrative and how their experience, passion, and skills make them right for the job. This neglect can result in internal rot: hollow, empty vessels that know what to say and to whom, but not why they should say it in the first place.
Greatness doesn’t come easily in the absence of authenticity. The office of the CMO rightly is getting cozier than ever with the office of the CTO/CIO. Facebook, Proctor & Gamble, and so many other companies with rich consumer data can credit their success in part on knowing who their customers are, where they live, how much they make, what they fear, their pain points, and their ambitions. Used well, that information can power innovative new products and services.
On the other hand, Big Data, like so much other innovation, will, over time, become Cheap, Ubiquitous Big Data. In baseball, the Oakland A’s first embraced the use of Sabremetrics, a statistical approach to assessing player value. It spawned the Moneyball book and film, and within a decade, every team employed the same, rigorous data-driven approach to talent evaluation and game planning. The same will happen to marketing, no matter if it’s mobile, social, digital, TV, or something we haven’t dreamed up yet.
As in sports and politics, marketing data is set to become table stakes, but memorable, inventive creative is and always will be much harder to replicate. That’s why marketing power will shift back to the creative class: the graphic artists, the writers, the designers, the creative directors, the standard setters, and the thought leaders. They will be uniquely equipped to use the information to invent the images, words, phrases, and forms that compel consumers. We’ll know it’s happening when viral, “must-see” mobile advertising campaigns become common occurrences, when digital, social and mobile ad engagement becomes so powerful as to rival the value (and costs) of television advertising, and when native advertising formats easily scale from one publisher to another.
The worlds of marketing, politics and sports never will retreat from data or seeking new ways to acquire and use it. Every marketer sill must learn to be comfortable understanding and using data, as well as how to work with those who produce and manage it. But as I wrote about a year ago, the real action will be with the creative teams that use that data to market more effectively.