Social Health//

The Madness of Math Men

A pre-eminent global strategist argues for improving digital marketing

The GDPR  (General Data Protection Regulation)  is a party pooper for marketers.  We were so excited about being able to speak to real people, in real time, on the social media they really enjoy.  We were able to track them as individuals and deliver messages tailor-made for them.  Then the dastardly EU stepped in with typically bureaucratic regulation.  Just because of one daft Cambridge Analytica mistake, the holy grail of “data-driven marketing” is dead and we’ll doubtless see a return to the bland, mass marketing of the 1980s.

This is an exaggerated version of the self-indulgent Madison Avenue/Shoreditch nonsense I sometimes come across, ie the hubris of the too-cool-for-school ad types obsessed by, driven by, big data.

Clutter-free brand marketing beckons

The GDPR is, in fact, a golden opportunity for us to regain social health.  It’s a wake-up call for  marketers  to remember what made us great in the first place: resonant storytelling which captures hearts and wallets.  We’re free again to create brands which people find exciting and meaningful, not polluting or cluttering; brands which people identify with, speak to, belong to.  We’re free again to build relationships, true networks, rather than ad hoc transactions.  We’re free to court customers, rather than stalk them through cookie pools and data lakes.

We’ve been losing our greatness of late, in our move from being Mad Men to Math  Men, as advertising legend Sir Martin Sorrell once put it.  Our use of social and digital media has eroded our capacity to make marketing meaningful.  Frankly, if our marketing were meaningful, why  would hordes of people (28% of the USA last year) be blocking our ads.

Similarly, if we’re  so good at digital marketing, why  would the golden success measure of click-through-rates (CTRs) be climbing more sluggishly than the FTSE 100?  CTRs still haven’t achieved the response rate of envelopes through our front doors.  And why would  the  GDPR  insistence that people  opt-in  to websites be so frightening if we created sites which people  actually  want  to opt into?

Social and search  media have made marketers strategically blinkered.  They’ve genuinely contributed to the deficit of social health, ie Marketing-with-a-capital-M- has been an active contributor to this Age of Overload.

Math Men Myth

We’ve fallen for the Math Men myth, assuming that the rules of marketing have completely changed.  From intuition to data, from creativity to algorithm, from people to cookies.  There’s nothing wrong with data-informed marketing or with algorithms.  The issue is that they tend to be controlled by people who don’t have a clue about people.  The Math Men (aka Data Scientists) see patterns in numbers and assume commonality, which is patent nonsense.  My identical twin and I might buy the same snack on the same day for entirely different reasons, but if our  behaviour’s the same, we’ll probably end up in the same cookie pool.  Correlation isn’t the same thing as causation.  But the Math Men don’t often look beyond  behaviour, because so-called Big Data doesn’t let them.  Big Data gives us the “what”,  but it rarely gives us the  “why”.

‘Old School’ is new cool

To identify the “why”, we need to get (back) to understanding people: dreams and fears, loves and hates.  This only happens by being in the world, not a tech lab in  Palo  Alto.  Talk to people, listen to what they mean, not just what they say; identify what makes them tick; see what makes their eyes light up.

The old school methods for doing this range from focus groups to surveys, but those have fallen out of vogue; they’re considered a bit  “80s”.  Data Science often tells us that surveys are flawed, because people claim behaviours which aren’t born out in reality.  That’s absolutely true, but the reason for the false claim can be rich with insight.  Why do people claim to buy lettuce when they really buy chocolate?  There’s something in the tension between the claim and the reality which offers a human vista that’s potentially a goldmine for marketing.

We can’t understand people through Big Data; we can merely observe them.  That’s probably why we’re not storytelling; we’re fuelling overload.  Desperate to regain social health, audiences are blocking us out.  

In this context, the GDPR isn’t a restriction, it’s a liberation.  We  don’t have permission to stalk any more.  Instead, we’ll need to re-learn what made us memorable: extraordinary storytelling that entices hearts, minds and – yes – wallets. 

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