ANA Masters of Marketing Recap: Getting Back To Basics In An Era Of Big Data

joannaoconnelrevised“Marketer’s Note” is a regular column informing marketers about the rapidly evolving, digital marketing technology ecosystem. This week it is written by Joanna O’Connell, Director of Research, AdExchanger Research.  

I spent several days last week enjoying the inside of a giant hotel in sunny Orlando, Florida, for the ANA’s annual Masters of Marketing conference, the second I’ve attended. As I did last year, I thought I’d share my thoughts on the key themes, not just what I heard explicitly, but what I read between the lines.

I had high hopes for a conference that opened with ANA President Bob Liodice stating, “Terrific marketing isn’t great unless it’s validated by great business results – revenue, influence, social responsibility and more. All the stories you hear will be about growth – mastering brands and driving results.”

Certainly compared with my experience the previous year – where the talk was all about creating individualized relationships to meet the needs of demanding millennials but the bulk of presentations showcased pretty TV commercials – I saw progress. (Bob Liodice explicitly noted in his opening keynote, “Fantastic marketing is about more than terrific TV advertising.”) But, in what felt at times like movement and other times like entrenchment, it struck me as a year of getting back to basics. A sampling of such messages:


  • The idea is king. While the proliferation of channels and devices can mean opportunity, it can also lead to loss of clarity and fragmentation in message. Said Roel de Vries, global head of marketing, communication and brand strategy for Nissan, “Over the last 10 years we started communicating so many messages via so many channels via so many agencies that I would argue the impact of what we did was minimized. We need to get back to the basics – focusing on the message and getting it across in an integrated, engaging and simple way.” Or, as Kirk Perry, president for global client and agency solutions at Google, put it, “The screen isn’t the new king. The idea is king.”
  • Find and celebrate your brand champions. I heard many examples of major brands finding and heralding their brand champions this year, which strikes me as a classic, but effective, marketing strategy. Said Mark Addicks, SVP and CMO at General Mills, “Every time we look at a great case of putting consumers at the center of what we do, putting our brand champions first that guide us and inspire us, it starts with a leader [inside the org] who sets the example, who pushes for insight for why the passion is there. Start next week in being that kind of brand leader.”
  • We’re marketing to human beings. For all the talk of big data (and what struck me as just as many reactionary jokes about getting “little data” right), I loved the reminder that we’re just trying to reach and connect with human beings. As Blair Christie, SVP and CMO of Cisco, noted, “My [B2B] buyer is not a logo. It’s a human being. In a world where we’re selling to companies, how do we improve the customized experience? How do we create an opportunity for customers to feel like we’re talking to them?” Or this, from the brilliant and forthright Deanie Elsner, EVP and CMO of Kraft Foods, “You have to know the who. Stop hiding behind the veil of data. Data is consumers. But you need a lot of data to understand how to get to this new consumer.”

Talent, the value of human capital inside an organization, was a big theme this year, and rightly so. When the great people are in high demand, and can find employment with Google, Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest, it’s tough, but critical, to find them and hang on to them by giving them room to grow, discover, ideate and innovate. As Starcom’s Lisa Donohue noted, her most valuable tool is “the team I have at Starcom. We have a ton of data, we have the right data structure, etc., but you still have to have people to extract meaning out of it. I have to have the people who have the right mindset, the right approach.” Or as Visa’s Kevin Burke explained, “We try to help fuel the fire of curiosity in all the marketers we have at Visa.”

I also heard loud and clear that agencies are not the bad guys. It’s been a tough couple of years for agencies, at least in the court of public opinion. Certainly in the world of media buying, holding company behavior has created, dare I say, outright hostility between some agencies and their clients (something I explore in my new research). But I found that this group of marketing leaders went out of their way to praise their agencies – whether in the development of amazing ideas, in their approach to besting bigger competitors (said Marty St. George of JetBlue, “We are very fortunate to have Mullen as a partner – it’s a small integrated agency, not like the big conglomerates. They have the same scrappy mentality we do. They [like us] are a challenger brand too,”) or simply as being amazing partners, willing to evolve with their clients, as in the case of Kraft and Starcom.

But what about data? With as many mentions of “big data” and “little data” as I heard, in-depth evidence of data as a foundational layer underlying marketing strategy and decision-making was still hard to find – with notable exceptions including Kraft, Microsoft and Walmart. (Walmart EVP and CMO Stephen Quinn, a memorable speaker last year, noted during a panel discussion, “We have a customer knowledge platform that didn’t exist two years ago – our customer data. We’re just learning how to activate that.”) I was left wondering: How much of what’s happening behind this year’s marketing efforts is in fact supported by a strong, centralized data strategy? Since I didn’t hear much about these things it’s very hard to know. Kraft’s Deanie Elsner gave the greatest and most pointed advice on this subject: “On Monday, find out who’s driving the data strategy in your org and make sure you are putting your fingerprint on it.” Yes!

And then there was this, from moderator Jeffrey Hayzlett, in the CMO roundtable discussion on Friday afternoon: “Everybody was talking about ‘programmic’ at AdWeek last week. What is this? Are we sick of talking about it?” No, reader, that’s not a typo – he really said, “programmic.” Sigh. OK then.

Thoughts? Comments? Send them my way.


*Incidentally, Bob Liodice also mentioned programmatic, fraud, viewability and other issues we care about in his opening talk – things I heard very little about from that point onward.

Follow Joanna O’Connell (@joannaoconnell ) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter. 

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