Losing our religion: How worshipping at the altar of data makes marketing worse.

by | May 21, 2018

8 minute read

Photo credit: That’s my dad, Donald Voiovich, in 1994.

As a data-driven CMO and agency leader, I’ve seen the amount of information available to marketing increase exponentially over the past 20 years of my career. Unfortunately, our capacity to interpret it and use it creatively has not kept pace. This deluge of raw facts has led to an exploitation of consumer attention and a steady decline in marketing’s power to inspire. We must find a better way.

Most marketing sucks.

Even if you haven’t been paying attention, this shouldn’t come as much of a shock. Frankly, this is nothing new. My father earned his chops in the Mad Men era of advertising in the 1960s. He used to explain it to me this way: About 10% of all of the marketing you’ll ever see is good. It’s well-targeted. Memorable. Different. The next 20% won’t get you fired, but it’s definitely not turning heads. Most store circulars, corporate brochures, and trade ads fall into this category. The rest of it is shit. A full 70% of all marketing and advertising would be better off not done at all. It actually destroys value.

What’s shocking is that this situation has not improved since the era of liquid lunches. In fact, it’s getting worse. In 2011 (well into the information revolution), my advisor in graduate school explained the same 10-20-70 rule my father used 20 years before, almost to the word. How can that be?

Despite the geometric rise in the amount of data available about all aspects of consumer behavior; despite the increase in the immediate accessibility of that data; and despite increasingly sophisticated tools to (supposedly) help make sense of it all, marketing remains the least improved of all the business disciplines.

Yes, we can all point to numerous examples of excellent work. But for every Netflix, which uses a sophisticated combination of creativity and statistics to delight customers with original content and spot-on recommendations, there are dozens of urinal advertisements, shouting at me to change insurance agents between beers at my local pub. There are hundreds of emails with humorously misguided attempts at personalization. There are endless floating ads that stalk me as I try to read the morning news.

In my father’s day, there simply weren’t as many opportunities for poorly conceived and executed marketing. The barriers to entry were too high and the media choices were slim. But fast forward half a century, and we are drowning in a cesspool of marketing manure so deep, that consumers are literally buying their way out. How else can you explain the rise of DVR, ad blockers, and spam filters?

Instead of delivering a better experience, much of modern marketing has become intrusive and creepy. It might be uncomfortable, but we will never truly improve until we take accountability for how we got here.

“Easy Data” is causing us to lose touch with our audience.

We need to start at the core of the issue: the way marketing has grown comfortable using data. Over the past 50 years – and especially in the last ten – it has become much easier to test and refine messaging in real-time. Market research that used to take days (or weeks) is now done with the aid of sophisticated software in hours (or minutes). The grand idea of modern marketing is that it no longer need rely on slick hair and smoky rooms. Modern marketing has become a science; predictable and knowable. Arithmetic, not alchemy.

Stop to think about the mechanics behind that assumption. To refine and improve our messages, we are running (literally) billions of concurrent live experiments on our target audiences. It’s become so cheap to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks, there is no downside. For every 1,000 tests, we’re happy to see a handful that work. We refine those few and create dozens of new variants. Rinse and repeat. Hundreds of times per day.

Take the perspective of your audience and reread that last paragraph. Much of the messaging you see on an average day (and an even larger portion of the messaging you see on digital media) is an active experiment. By definition, what you are seeing is flawed in some way. Some of it will be purposefully terrible to serve as the corner case in the data set. Do you think you would appreciate being on the receiving end of that? The more we exploit our audience, the more they pull away. The more they pull away, the more we need to exploit our audience. It’s a worsening vicious cycle. The desire to escape marketing makes a little more sense now, doesn’t it?

I wish this was the case only in promotional marketing and advertising, but it’s not. We’ve run headlong into an era of dynamic pricing, omnichannel and perpetual beta without really ever stopping to ask whether this is actually making our field meaningfully better for the cost it imposes on our audience.

How fun is it to walk outside on a cold night after a concert, frankly a bit scared of being out alone, and learning that your Uber ride will set you back a half a week’s pay? How convenient is it to walk down the snack aisle at your big box grocery store with your preschooler only to learn that his favorite snacks are only available online? How secure do feel when you learn that the baby monitor you connected to the internet has a security flaw—and that hackers have been watching your baby as she sleeps?

In each case, we justify our strategies “for the greater good”. Dynamic pricing helps ease peak demand and reduce inevitable shortages. Optimizing in-store versus online product mix allows us to offer the lowest possible prices. Speeding products to market with obvious flaws satisfies a demand that our competitors surely would exploit. But let’s be honest with ourselves, shall we? These strategies benefit us as marketers more than they benefit our audiences as consumers. We can rationalize our marketing mix strategies any way we like, but the fact remains: we have dehumanized our audiences to serve our ends.

My dad said it better: “Our audiences aren’t humans anymore, they’re statistics. We don’t really know them, but we can precisely measure what we’ve tricked them into doing.”

Through the valley of the shadow of death: The journey to rediscovering our craft.

I am certainly not against data. That would be foolish. It is precisely because I understand data so well that I know its limitations. Data is just a tool, one of many in our arsenal, and often not even the best one. The allure of data is that its apparent precision gives us an easy way out of complex, emotional, and human decision-making. But it is exactly that complexity that is at the core of what makes marketing special. We may have learned to walk, talk and act like other corporate executives, but we are not like them. We draw our strength from our diversity of perspectives. Yes, data is one of those perspectives, but it is only one way to continually improve. Data is no more important than artistic expression—the power of beauty and elegance to change minds and inspire action. Data is no more important than the cold logic of rhetorical criticism, helping to point us in the right direction and tear down faulty assumptions. Data is no more important than real collaboration and partnership with our audience, treating them with the respect due to all human beings so that we can create something better together.

Our audiences deserve better. Our organizations deserve better. We deserve better.

I love marketing. I’ve loved it since I was a boy helping my father do paste-up in a spare room in our home. I’ve counseled some of the world’s leading organizations in my agency days. I’ve built high-performing marketing teams in executive roles. I believe in marketing’s unique ability to bring positive change to the world by connecting people and transformative ideas.

But there is a big difference between belief and action. Here’s the hard truth: Over 50 years later, my father is still right. Most marketing sucks. As a profession, we need to face it, own it, and deal with it. And right now, we’re not.

While well-intentioned, most of the marketing advice we get (and give) to address this issue also sucks. In that, I am as guilty as everyone else. Remember the Netflix example at the beginning of this piece? Using those exemplars is part of the problem. Focusing on the exceptional efforts and results—the 10% in my father’s language—results in one of two undesirable outcomes.

The first is the tendency to learn the wrong lesson. Will following the Netflix example make you successful? Without unpacking the unique circumstances of their audience, their organizational culture, their competitive environment, and their unique point in time, applying the lessons of Netflix to your efforts is like me buying Air Jordan shoes and expecting to play like Michael Jordan.

But even worse is the second tendency: Focusing on the giants in the field lets us off the hook. Deep down, we know we can never be Steve Jobs. We will never have Nike’s budget. We will never capture Netflix’s audience. That realization allows us to settle for something much less than excellence. It is defeatist and demoralizing.

We need a find a better way.

The change will start with the man in the mirror.

I wrote the first draft of this piece in June of 2016, nearly two years ago. If you can believe it, the original 2,500 words were even more of an unfocused screed than it is today. I was frustrated and angry. I knew something was desperately wrong with the field I chose, but I could not articulate what it was. Writing this piece helped me put into words what I knew to be true. Several people read it, tolerating my anger to help me focus my thoughts. To each of them, I owe a debt I cannot repay.

But without fail, each of them asked: What do we do now?

I didn’t know.

I had to go figure it out. Looking back on it today, this article was the genesis of my forthcoming book, Rehumanizing Marketing. I knew that our issues in marketing were so pervasive and so risky, that only someone without a corporate or agency career to protect could explore them. And even then, I didn’t share much with my marketing colleagues. Admitting that an over-focus on data is leading us into a bad place is a good way to get yourself laughed out (or kicked out) of a strategy meeting, lose a client, or end a promising career.

In a sentence, Rehumanizing Marketing adapts strategies from other human disciplines (critical care nursing, restorative justice, and standup comedy to name just three) to address the thorniest human problems in marketing today. My journey of discovery into their worlds was one part exhilarating and one part humbling. The book invites you along with me as I learn what makes them so successful, in many cases, with no “data” at all. I promise you that what I learned will not only make you a better marketer, it will make you a better person.

I will share more on the status of the book as it becomes available, but in the meantime, if you want to sign up for notifications (you can do so in the sidebar on this site), I’d love that. Like it or not, the size of my email database correlates directly with the seriousness publishers take my message. But whether you accept that invitation or not, what I really want is for you to stop for a moment today and consider a few questions:

1. If all of my data were gone tomorrow, would my marketing strategy still work?
2. If I am being honest with myself, do I treat my audiences more as people, or more as data points?
3. When was the last time I talked with a real person? Not a persona, not a segment, but a real person?

Your answers to those questions might make you feel uncomfortable. I know that feeling. Trust me. But if you don’t ask them, you cannot improve, and we must improve as a discipline. If we do it together, it won’t be as scary. You can trust me on that, too. To paraphrase Tolkien: we may wander, but we are not lost.

Come with me.