I was listening to the BeanCast the other day. The BeanCast is a podcast (yes, they still have them) produced by my friend Bob Knorpp that intelligently examines issues related to marketing, particularly of the digital variety.
The show had some very smart people on it and they were discussing the effect that "big data" might have on the job of the CMO.
All the experts seemed to agree that most CMOs have no idea what to do with the "small data" they already have, and that adding to this pile of crap would just confuse them more and distract them from their primary job, which is...who the hell knows?...torturing agencies? (Okay, they didn't say that.)
The discussion got me thinking about something I wrote 6 years ago. It was written for my first book, The Ad Contrarian and then, ahem, re-purposed for this blog. Today I'm going to re-re-purpose it. I think that's called leveraging your assets.
Although it was written long before anyone heard of big data, it anticipated some of the issues that big data is going to present.
The piece was about Gregory Treverton. Treverton was a national security expert who distinguished between two kinds of problems: puzzles and mysteries.
Puzzles, he said, are problems for which we do not have enough information. Like a crossword puzzle.
Mysteries are problems for which we have plenty of information, but no proper analysis. Like a murder mystery.
The advertising and marketing industries always treat their problems as puzzles and never treat them as mysteries. They always think they if they have just a little more information they can solve the problem. This is the delusion that the "big data" frenzy is built on.
...most companies have stacks of research and reams of data about their customers and about their industry. This mountain of existing information is almost never consulted.Instead, they always want more info.
In my entire career, I have never seen a marketing problem treated as a mystery. I have never once heard a marketing officer say, “You know, we have all this research we’ve done over the years and all this data... Before we do more... I want someone to go through this stuff and tell me what it means.”
Treating a marketing problem as a mystery has huge potential, but we never do it because synthesizing worthwhile insights is too hard. Treating it as a puzzle has much less upside, but we do it all the time because gathering data is easy.
There are going to be a few companies that will get this right. But the sad truth is that an overwhelming number of companies already have more data than they can make sense of.
Which is just another way of saying that the hard part of solving marketing problems is not collecting data. The hard part is figuring out what the hell it means.