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Developing a Business Culture with a Holistic View toward Marketing and Business Management

This article was published/featured in the Direct Marketing Association’s annual Analytics Journal (2015).

Marketing — the process of communicating the value of a product or service to a customer base for the purpose of selling the product or service. It is an age-old process that has existed since man first started walking the Earth, and it has grown over many centuries into the multibillion-dollar industry that it is today. The inception of the digital age has seen this practice expand in ways never seen before, with new technologies and techniques that can build the most concise customer profiles and make highly informed predictions on future consumer behavior and market trends. The practice of marketing is truly always evolving. In line with this evolution, key players have emerged to facilitate data and business transactions in the marketing mix. Thousands of advertising agencies (some full service, others with niche specialties) fill up major metro areas like New York City, San Diego, San Francisco, Austin, London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Tokyo, and Johannesburg. Technology vendors and start-up companies all over the world scramble to get in the door and pitch their latest offerings to advertising agencies and, in some cases, to potential clients. On the client side, marketing teams work hard to optimize their internal skill sets, some with the overall objective of bringing as much work as possible in-house and others simply trying to maximize their return on potential partnerships. It’s an ever-evolving world of transactions, pitches, implementation, resource management, data warehousing, and data processing.

The marketing machine described above exists to answer five fundamental questions:

1. What are the best ways we can differentiate ourselves to the customer base to generate a favorable return on investment (ROI)?

2. How can we minimize risk to the business from our business initiatives?

3. How can we accurately determine what the return is for our investment?

4. What does the future hold (predictive analytics)?

5. What is the optimal marketing mix to achieve the best ROI possible?

Every single advertising agency, media platform, technology vendor, marketing start-up and company is in business to answer one of these five questions. And within every business system exists a network of internal teams and external service providers that all work to bring added value to each segment of the marketing mix. For example, a consumer goods company may have an agency that handles its search marketing, another that handles its display media, another that executes its traditional TV buys, another that handles its social media marketing, another that handles its email marketing and CRM management, and yet another still that handles its web development (I’m sure you get the picture!). Check out the matrix below for a view of the marketing operations ecosystem for a fully functional company:

Figure 1.1

Examining the above matrix, I see a vast world of differing practices, team cultures, data warehousing approaches, potentially differing opinions on success metrics, and even differing team personality types! Good chief marketing officers (CMOs), and CEOs, for that matter, take all of the above into serious consideration, with #5 in my list of fundamental questions (What is the optimal marketing mix to achieve the best ROI possible?) being their main objective. All the moving pieces in this matrix have to move in cohesion to support the overall goal of delivering the best possible value messaging to the customer while driving optimal return on marketing investment. To accomplish this feat, holistic thinking on all levels is required.

So, before we get into why having a holistic-minded business culture is required to maximize a company’s bottom line, let’s take a moment to understand what holistic-minded thinking means:

Holistic (Merriam-Webster definition): relating to or concerned with wholes or with complete systems rather than with the analysis of, treatment of, or dissection into parts

From this definition, every part of a system plays a role in holistic, 360-degree analysis and process management — everything matters:

  • Every channel has an impact on the overall mix and bottom line.
  • Every action within channels has an impact on the overall mix and bottom line.
  • Every resources’ efforts (good or bad) play a role in final output.
  • Inclusion, diversity of thought, and cross-channel thinking open the door for innovation.
  • Missed opportunities for innovation are actually incurred costs and should be credited on the balance sheet.

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Why having a holistic culture and business view is important on a process levelprocess level

I cannot stress enough how important it is that every team member, no matter their level, understands the impact their actions have on the overall business model.

Scenario 1: I worked on the digital media business for a major luxury car manufacturer, and part of my role involved monitoring the setups made by media planners and ad-ops specialists. On a few occasions, certain parts of the car manufacturer’s site were not tagged with appropriate JavaScript tags (JavaScript tags track digital behavior) in certain key areas. On other occasions, certain publishers were not included from the start in the plans for the media quality control vendors with whom we worked. While from the perspectives of the media planners and ad-ops specialists these JavaScript tags were not necessary, the reality is that not tagging or setting platforms up correctly from the start meant vital data was lost (online data tracking is not retroactive), and this loss of information affected the quality of data needed to feed various marketing mixes and ROI models created further down the funnel.

Key takeaway: Educate resources on all levels to understand the impacts of their actions within their groups/practices and across the whole business so they make better decisions to support the whole. Education on the big picture will help resources think holistically and make better decisions.

Scenario 2: A few years ago I worked at a major financial services company reviewing data linkages, fixing data breaks, preparing process documents, and walking the relevant stakeholders through my proposals to ensure data breaks were fixed on an ongoing basis. At the beginning of every week, our supervisor sat our team down in a room, made us discuss the status of our projects, and on a whiteboard we visually drew out any potential threats or impacts our work would have against other projects and against the whole organization. Those weekly sessions (labeled “Big Picture Meetings” at the time) helped us work more efficiently and oriented our minds to work toward the overall team/company goals and not think on a “swim lane” (more on swim lanes later) basis.

Figure 1.2

While the above matrix is a very simple illustration describing the flow of those weekly meetings, it drives home the necessity to think in holistic terms on a process level, as every single action (or inaction) taken has an alternate effect in another area. The above model can be used for any level of decision making (e.g., resource management, SWOT analysis).

Why having a holistic culture and business view is necessary to drive better insights and recommendations

Scenario 3: While working on the digital media business for a major entertainment network, I was reviewing monthly performance for our digital banner creative types and sizes, and I realized that no attention was given to how our creative types performed across sections of the site not related to the specific campaigns they supported — recommendations were made strictly on how each creative performed within its “silo” (e.g., banner for Campaign A logged CTR of X and Conversion Rate of Y solely related to the portions of the site tagged for that campaign). Based on their training and the agency’s business model, the channel leads focused solely on media spend/media assets relative to each campaign that they managed. But ignoring how each campaign’s creative consumed the entire website’s content increased our opportunity cost, as we missed opportunities to make some great proposals to the client for more business. For example, we could have proposed additional services for creative testing, proposed leveraging strong-performing creative formats in different ways for different campaigns, utilized specific creative executions to target additional product lines across the site, etc.

Holistic thinking is required on all levels to generate better insights and make more informed decisions for business. Increased knowledge equips stakeholders with the ability to see the big picture and positively impact their bottom line.

Why having a holistic culture and business view is important on a measurement level

For a quick second, refer to Figure 1.1 and digest all the various individual channels feeding the marketing matrix. Each has its own individual set of teams, ideologies, success metrics, and so on. I have worked in a few advertising agencies and client-side businesses, and all too often I have seen the same approach to gauging ROI. ROI measurements tend to be made on an individual channel basis (measuring how each channel performs independently) rather than looking at how each channel works in cohesion toward a favorable (or unfavorable) ROI. This sort of thinking, which marketing analytics companies like MarketShare call “swim lane measurement,” is a fundamentally flawed approach to business and presents one of the major challenges facing advertising agencies and businesses today. All too often you find individual teams calculating ROI based on their individual efforts without taking into consideration the different types of inputs that can affect a consumer’s path to conversion.

Below is a simple example illustrating the need to apply holistic thinking when measuring marketing performance. It is a visual illustration of the purchase path journey I took to purchase a Honda Accord Sport in 2013:

Figure 1.3

In Figure 1.3, you can clearly see that the path to my purchase decision was in no way linear. Externally, there were native/content marketing influences (A), print influences (B), display influences (C, F), traditional TV influences (D), paid-search influences (E), radio influences (G), and in-person sales influences (H). Internally, I also had to deal with market forces and my own personal preferences that ultimately shaped my exploratory phase (my selection KPIs). I even had to consider peer pressure from my brother. In fact, from the above, it was my brother’s influence (I) that actually prompted me to make the final purchase (conversion). For an agency or marketing team to base any ROI calculations on just one touch point or stream is incorrect — and ineffective. Marketers have to think holistically and figure out how all the moving parts, including offline quantitative and qualitative factors, drive the final conversion. How much weight do we assign to each touch point? How does this change by consumer type? How do we maintain statistically significant match rates within our data pool? How do we connect all these individual channels? Yes, even the current measurement standards such as media mix modeling and digital attribution analysis can directionally assess what the marketing mix should be to achieve optimal marketing ROI from online and offline perspectives (“directionally” being the key word). But the effectiveness of these techniques is limited by the availability and quality of data, possible limitations with offline partnerships; there are even limitations with the highly regarded HTTP cookie, which many marketers blindly believe to be the holy grail when it comes to tracking and understanding user behavior (cookie-based tracking has many limitations; for example, in my car purchase journey above, notice how, in step F, I deleted my cookies from my device, a habit I personally maintain on a regular basis). Yes, many websites use backdoor techniques like Flash cookies (LSOs) as more persistent options for tracking, but even those are subject to consumer consent and increasing public scrutiny. Recent solutions like Atlas’s “people-based measurement” methodology attempt to address these pitfalls, but even they are limited to their source pool (Facebook) and the demographic direction that universe skews toward.

The above drives home the necessity for channel leads within agencies and business to understand the big picture and all its moving parts and how their day-to-day activities influence the marketing mix as a whole. Are solutions being recommended to clients that drive little to no value? Do we recommend one partner or a combination of partners? Is ROI being measured on a channel-by-channel basis? Do channel leads and their subordinates truly understand how the tracking universe works? What techniques are used to drive creative executions beyond personal opinions and qualitative vetting?

Addressing such themes drives home the necessity to embrace and promote a holistically minded business culture:

To truly stand apart, agencies and businesses must demand accountability on all levels and from every resource. From the CEO and directors all the way down to even the assistants and analysts, all must have a clear understanding of the big picture, how each moving part affects the other, and how their individual efforts contribute toward ROI performance.

Analysts, media teams, and the like must understand how to set up efficient tracking from the start so they do not lose critical data that can help inform and build better models. Creative teams must incorporate testing into their processes, look at trends, and, most importantly, consider how their designs drive the bottom line from a holistic perspective (e.g., how does this creative design on my website help boost conversions on the site, and also how does it work with our incoming traffic from search and display? etc.). Decision makers at the executive level must consider all aspects of the marketing mix and continue to challenge external vendors and analytic service providers to find better ways to track not easily measurable parts of the marketing mix (e.g., peer pressure, mobile cross-device viewability (browsers), radio, auditing suspicious activity (BOT traffic), capitalizing on new media formats like Addressable TV, and so on).

Action items: How do we move forward?

I am a firm believer in a company’s business culture being the determining factor regarding how much innovation is accomplished, how freely information flows, and how risk is managed. And a company culture that embraces holistic thinking and inclusion has to start from the top. Below are a few ways I believe businesses and agencies can begin working toward building holistically minded cultures:

  • Include all channels in decision making. With regards to marketing, all efforts must be looked at holistically (search, direct mail, TV, display media, email, web, eCRM, survey groups, offline, etc.). This must be a key priority, not something to work toward with time. Thing big, and then drill down to the details.
  • Continual cross-functional education is needed. Companies should invest in their employees. Department heads should be required to train various groups on their methodologies and processes. Valid contributions can come from a variety of sources, so keep the communication lines open!
  • Process-oriented leadership should be demanded within and between departments. (Refer to Figure 1.2 and Scenario 2.) Every new process should be documented, and planning should be a focus before execution.
  • On a holistic level, businesses should focus on research and development and creating proprietary technology that continuously improves the measurement process. Having such goals helps set the tone of the company’s culture.
  • Celebrate thought leadership. This is an important one that ties into morale boosting. Reward innovation and great ideas in tangible ways.
  • Seat resources together by their specialist groups, not by the accounts they serve. Specialists can only reach their full potential when they are within the proximity of other specialists in their field. New ideas spread faster in real time, and ongoing training happens by simply being in such an environment. Do not have employees working in “silos.”
  • Accountability should be demanded. This point is a qualitative one but can have serious implications on a company’s bottom line if not adopted from the start. Written summaries should be taken after every meeting. Respect and zero tolerance for office bullying, information hoarding, and negative cliquish behavior should be a top priority. Good holistic ideas can come from any source, no matter the rank, so no room should be given for employees with potential to move on to new organizations. The next big idea may come from a colleague sitting right next to you.

Summary

Holistic thinking and accountability is required at all levels of business to optimize risk management, accurately measure ROI, and ultimately improve the bottom line. Employing holistic thinking on all levels ensures that better business decisions are made (Scenario 3), resources perform at a higher level (Scenario 1), risk is minimized (Figure 1.2), and all aspects of the marketing mix are taken into consideration (Figure 1.3).

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