The Perversity of Analytics: Finding Balance Between Data and Strategy

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INFLUENCER: Analytics can keep you ahead of the curve, but playing the long game requires deep thinking, writes Barkley's David Gutting
The Perversity of Analytics: Finding Balance Between Data and Strategy

Baseball is back and presidential politics are heating up. That has me thinking about analytics and its implications for strategy.

Before the headline of this article biases you, let me state that I love analytics. An analytics practice is essential in every business, from ad agencies and restaurant chains to Major League Baseball teams and presidential campaigns.

But the world of strategy is struggling to put analytics in context.

Baseball gave us Moneyball. You remember Moneyball, right? The book by Michael Lewis became code for finding value in unexpected places, both for baseball and for business.

I’m sad to report that Moneyball is passé in the MLB. Data has flooded baseball to the point of the ridiculous. In the Moneyball movie, Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, explained that the Oakland A’s needed to sign players with a high on-base percentage. Those scenes, while compelling, are now comically over-simplified.

Baseball insiders, for example, no longer pay attention to a pitcher’s ERA, once the most revered data point for pitching performance. Now they look at a pitcher’s spin velocity - how fast his pitches rotate on their way to the plate. Really. 

But wait, there’s more.

Moneyball promised a more thoughtful game - until everyone adopted it. Now that data touches EVERYTHING, it’s as if it teaches NOTHING. The game is a brute power match. Home runs and strikeouts are at record levels.

This hasn’t quite happened in marketing and advertising, but I find myself fearing the worst.

Let’s start with the obvious - the dominance of Facebook and Google. When you think of digital strategy, stop right there. The two behemoths are 60 percent of digital advertising, more powerful than the three big broadcast TV networks in their golden age. Data is not just a flood, it’s a concentrated deluge.

Part of the excitement around 5G networks is that marketers will be able to collect data so precise they will know your mood when you walk into Banana Republic. Then, they’ll assault you. Shop til you drop.

Finally, we have presidential politics. In the last three elections, data has been decisive. Data alone may have re-elected Obama in 2012. Data - with an assist from anti-democratic forces in the Kremlin - drove higher turnout in a few demographics in three key states, giving the White House to a widely disliked candidate who lost the popular vote by almost three million votes.

That widely disliked candidate is now hinging his re-election on a doubled-down data strategy aimed at one thing: stirring up an angry base of anti-elitist voters to repeat the same Electoral College magic of 2016.

Will it work? Or could the Democrats stir up their own troops to win back the White House?

Recently, the renowned Democratic strategists, James Carvile and Jim Messina, addressed that question in a pithy Wall Street Journal article about the coming Battle of 2020. It gave me insight into how to think about things well beyond the next election.

They had a simple message: It’s not an either/or matter in 2020. It’s not a question of whether you stir up your base or to try to bring back Obama voters who went with that other guy last time. You do both. But, they added, 'the way to do it is to win the economic narrative'.

How refreshing to hear experienced professionals remind us that you win by building coalitions, by thinking broadly, by taking a clear message to everyone who might be on your side. This is sound brand strategy advice, as well.

My struggle with analytics in the world of brand strategy is like my struggle with excessive dependence on segmentation. Too often, strategists use these tools to constrict their reach rather than to expand it.

Our field is far too enamoured with a brand’s base. The secret to success is a well-formed strategic agenda dedicated to widening a brand’s reach. It requires a higher order of planning, but it’s essential. So, too, are analytics. When Obama won in 2012, his data teams had found virtually every possible Democratic voter in America - and they touched most of them.

Should my beloved St. Louis Cardinals return to World Series glory, it will probably have to do with discovering some hidden tendency that other teams miss.

Analytics can keep you ahead of the curve. But playing the long game requires deep thinking. Keep an eye on Mayor Pete. He brushed up his piano so he could play Rhapsody in Blue with the South Bend Symphony. Take that data point and run with it.

Go Cardinals.

David Gutting is SVP/director of intelligence at Barkley

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Barkley, 1 year ago