In full disclosure, this blog post is now in its third major revision. The first version scared the crap out of some people. Their reaction was that I was somehow throwing away 20 years of harping on and on about the importance of data in creating great marketing strategy. I reread the post, and I agree with them. But I won’t backtrack away too far.

You see, I often fear that much has been lost in marketing’s migration to becoming as much a science as an art. The more and more we rely upon data to inform decisions, the less we often trust our most basic of human instincts — our guts. I can’t tell you the number of times I have witnessed teams of people pour over piles of data, only to come to a conclusion that their findings were really no different than what their guts were telling them in the first place.

Why is this?

In my own defense, I have believed forever (as in internet-forever) that data alone never tells a story, never knows an emotion, and rarely knows what’s right and what’s wrong. Data can point you in certain directions, but eventually, you’ve gotta make a call. Making that call is usually a gut decision, now informed by data. We call these calculated risks. Or informed decisions.

What I find striking, however, is how often these decision cycles are increasingly void of creative or gut input from the beginning of the process. We digital marketers are most guilty. We’ve become so heavily dependent upon data that the creative process becomes hijacked from the outset. For example, there’s a big difference between “what does the data say about a consumer” and “what do we think the consumer needs or wants”. The problem is that the data will rarely answer the second question, even though that is our greatest challenge. That’s what I mean by hijacking. We’re allowing data to control an outcome it is often incapable of producing. Informing, yes. Producing, no.

I coach my staff all the time about doing whatever possible to humanize our work. To look for real human stories. To never pour over a spreadsheet to find a real story. It’s not there. The human existence is largely driven by our emotions — fear, lust, love, anger, compassion and so on. And those emotions are felt right in the middle of your guts.

Don’t get me wrong. I love data. Data is the gift that keeps on giving with regards to ongoing insights, measurement of performance, targeting and retargeting, campaign optimization, and a thousand other amazing things wrapped up in jargon we love and overuse. But data isn’t an idea. An idea comes from within your soul. A great agency or a great team is one that provides its people with the opportunity to dig deep within themselves and find an answer about their own human experience. I know I just went all Zen on you. But a group of people in tune with their own human conditions, who can empathize with the people around them (their peers) and those they are attempting to influence (their customers), who are then capable of using data to refine their world views and propel ideas into action, are teams that differentiate from those who wonk-out all day. To me, that’s just a fact.

As the advertising and marketing world scrambles towards hip new trends like programmatic buying and real-time bidding, be aware of who’s actually winning. You can take a creative turd and tweak it from a 0.01% click-through rate to a 0.1% click-through rate, and absolutely no one’s the better for it. Or you can create consumer experiences that hit people right in the gut because they’re 100% real, they reach into their soul, and are attached to their psyche. Simply put, they make their lives better. Then, take those experiences, those stories, those human connections, and real-time bid the crap out of them. Programmatically adjust the last dollar out of them. Target and retarget until you’ve gotten those experiences in front of every relevant person on Earth.

Let’s not let data strip us of our ability to invest our deepest understanding of what it means to be human into our work. Love, fear, hopes, dreams, all of these drive us forward. Don’t let data alone sap you of these most important human connections.

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