Insight is “moving out of the shackles” of being the exclusive property of marketing, according to new research by Millward Brown Vermeer carried out in partnership with Marketing Week and the Market Research Society.
The Insights2020 study finds the most successful companies are the ones where research, data and analytics drive customer-centric decision-making across the entire business, and that is also creating a new model for insight professionals with less traditional backgrounds and careers experience.
A higher than average percentage of companies classified in the study as ‘over-performing’ have an insight and analytics function that either leads the business strategy or reports directly to the CEO. A high percentage of survey respondents at these companies also characterise their insight leaders as having ‘business sense’ (75%), ‘whole-brain thinking’ (71%) and ‘storytelling’ (61%) as skills, while no more than half see each of these attributes in action at companies classified as ‘under-performing’.
Combining ‘maths and magic’
Chris Clark, global head of marketing at HSBC, suggests that the skills insights and analytics leaders need are more complex than they used to be. “You’ve got to have someone who is analytical and can lay out all the facts and figures, but the real genius is someone who can do that and also say ‘here’s what we think is actually happening to human beings’,” he says.
“The ability for us to be able to find stories in our insight and data makes a difference to how effective we are [as brands], whether we’re campaigning, designing new products or anything like that.”
This dual approach to interpreting data means businesses may need to look beyond the traditional pool of insights specialists to find people who can “combine maths and magic”, says Amanda Phillips, sales and marketing director at Millward Brown. “They need to have a vision for what customer-centricity is.”
She adds that insight leaders from financial services companies in particular have been pulled in from other industries, judging by the sample of professionals interviewed for the qualitative part of the Insights2020 study. “Some come from agency planner roles so they have a vision for what they want to achieve, what they need the data to tell them and how that should be applied.” A purely operational mentality is no longer enough, Phillips argues.
This is certainly true at HSBC, says Clark. The company has hired people from digital businesses and the technology sector, such as global head of digital Josh Bottomley who joined from Google, as well as people from agencies and market research companies. “Less than 50% of people that join our marketing and insights functions come from financial services,” adds Clark. When interviewing candidates he always asks for examples of where informational data from customers has led to an insight that has made a difference to the business.
Christina Jenkins, director of global research at LinkedIn, says in order to leverage insight, problem solvers must have a creative mind. “You’re looking for folks who are comfortable with data and understand how they can leverage a specific methodology or data set to yield the insights they want, but at the end of the day they have got to think holistically about how this feeds into the wider business strategy,” she explains. “You have to think about the actions and outcomes and use that to tell a clear story.”
This skill does not necessarily have to be recruited from external organisations, however, as Jenkins believes researchers can be taught to think more like consultants. “There are fantastic training programmes that help you think about creative problem solving,” she says. “A lot of the younger people coming into insights and analytics have different skills from those who have been in the industry for longer so there is a lot that the generations can teach each other, both about business experience but also some of the specialist skills.”
She suggests the closeness of insights and analytics teams to senior leaders and decision makers in the organisation is critical as it means they “lead the business, not just support it”.
No longer marketing’s property
For the best-performing companies, insight is not a token effort and nor is it beholden only to the marketing department; instead it is an obsession that filters into every function, the importance of which is recognised at the most senior level.
At over-performing companies, 79% of the survey respondents say customer-centricity is fully embraced by all functions, compared to only 13% at under-performing businesses. It is a top strategic priority for leadership at over-performing companies, according to 91% of their employees, with 45% of them saying employee incentives are based on customer-related measures. At UK companies, 70% of staff say customer focus is a leadership priority, compared to a global average of 64%.
However, although UK businesses are putting the right building blocks in place to put them on a par with the best performing global operators, the fact that only 37% of UK respondents say their company has fully embraced customer-centricity across all functions suggests more needs to be done to join up all divisions behind the same objective, according to Millward Brown’s Phillips.
When it is most effective, insight and analytics have a “tentacle effect” across the organisation, linking up customer experience, product innovation, service and delivery, sales and marketing.
“That total 360-degree view, where customer data is at the centre of decision-making, is where the high performance comes from,” adds Phillips. “It defines the brand purpose, it ladders down into all of the areas that touch customers – both in terms of the internal operation and the external-facing parts of the business.”
She points out this trend comes mainly from China, where businesses such as Alibaba are taking the best of western companies like Facebook, WhatsApp, eBay, Spotify and Amazon, which she describes as an “ecosystem way of building businesses”. Phillips adds: “[Insight] can’t just sit in marketing if you want to have a holistic view of the business. Where it becomes powerful is when analytics and insights are pulled together, as opposed to insights being viewed as a marketing task and analytics classed as an IT task.”
When analytics is seen purely as a function of IT, she says “it is like putting an orchid in the wrong area of the house; it goes from a thing of tropical beauty to withering on the vine”.
In the UK, it is financial services businesses that are leading the way in their approach to data and insight. “Financial services can sometimes lag in creativity and innovation or differentiation, but they didn’t lag in this [study],” says Phillips. “Some were awe-inspiring in terms of the grip they have on data and how they’re using it to drive decision-making within the business. They felt to me like the ones that the ‘Unilevers’ would want to follow.”
Clark at HSBC believes financial services firms are further ahead as they rely so heavily on data in all aspects of the business already. “We run our business off quite complex data compared to other businesses,” he says. “We have daily data on our customers that is changing all the time as payments go out so we have an opportunity to use that data with the customer in mind.”
One way the bank is using this data is to inform customers when their account has gone overdrawn, giving them time to pay money in without incurring a fee. “We’re using a simple piece of customer data to trigger a response but it is a small example of making customers’ data work for them. Companies that understand that their customers’ data should be put to work for the benefit of their customers will be the companies that win out in the future,” he says.
The role of insight has become more integral to Digital Cinema Media (DCM) over the past year, following the appointment of Karen Stacey as CEO. She has been “fully committed to moving insight to the top of the agenda,” according to Zoe Jones, who was promoted to the new role of marketing and insight director as part of this shift. “The insight team, led by our head of insight Sarah Dack, is part of a wider marketing and insight team that works in partnership with the sales and operations teams,” she says. “We’re a sales company, so everything we do across the business is linked to driving revenues.”
The company’s research shows that 97% of cinemas in the UK are within one mile of a retail location, for example, so using its propriety insight tool Cinemapper, DCM is able to map its advertisers’ stores to cinema sites in terms of mileage, walking or driving time. “This has allowed us to clearly demonstrate our proximity to our brands’ retailers or stockists, leading to increased spend from existing clients such as car dealerships, but also bringing in a large number of new brands to cinema,” explains Jones.
Millward Brown Vermeer’s study shows that although insight tends to sit in and around the marketing function, for the higher-performing businesses the leaders of these teams report to the top end of the organisation.
Just under one fifth (19%) of UK respondents say their insight and analytics leaders report directly to the CEO, compared to 29% of those working for global over-performers. But one insight professional surveyed says that although they are technically five steps away from the CEO, they are effectively only two steps away because they are frequently called into meetings with the head of the business by the customer experience officer.
Millward Brown’s Phillips adds that the business contribution of data and insight is only as rich as the stories that are being fed back to internal stakeholders, so people in insight roles have to be able to speak the right language to the right people to enable it to permeate the entire organisation.
Although insight may not be the exclusive domain of marketing anymore, Phillips suggests marketers can use it as a platform to obtain greater influence in the business. “If marketing is a representation of customer-centricity, maybe marketers can become the overall bastions of change. Perhaps this gives them the impetus to do that and it could be why marketing doesn’t want insight reporting to someone else,” she adds.