May 30, 2013

Marketing Is A Mystery, Not A Puzzle

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.

I wrote...
...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.

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.”
Instead, they always want more info.

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.


Shanghai61 said...

Absolutely right, Bob.

They know a metric shit-ton about 'what'. And they're acquiring more of that with every click. But they generally have no idea about 'why'. That's what they need us for.

A key related issue here is staff churn; corporate amnesia now kicks in at about the twenty month mark. No new CMO ever reads the research library before issuing instructions for more to be conducted.

Rumsfeld missed out an important category here: the "unknown knowns."

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Jason Hartley said...

Smart agencies (and the CMOs who torture them) are already doing this. The complaint here is timeless: people don't like to do hard stuff and won't do it unless someone makes them do it. You can be very successful without knowing Why because often it is just common sense. Deeper analysis will sometimes yield insights that generate more sales, but when a CMO is deciding where to direct resources, the boring analysis that might give her brand a lift will frequently look less promising than something new.

Rory said...

Wait, do you any data points to back this up?

Carl Zetie said...

Sometimes you have a theory about what the answer to the mystery is, but you need one more piece of the puzzle to prove or disprove your theory. And that's when you do a market test. But solving the puzzle should always be driven by solving the mystery.

Jon P said...

The solution to most marketing problems can only be found within the irrational fears, and colorful impulses of your ideal customers. Because those are the things that drive purchases.

But data collectors and data analysts aren't comfortable with messy stuff like that. So they go on pretending that the mysteries of the universe will be revealed if they can just collect enough data. It's a good way to detect patterns, but a lousy way to figure out how to create them.

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