Comms Guy to Data Dude: My Personal Journey in the Evolution of Marketing

As you can probably tell from my profile photo, I’ve been working in and around the B2B Marketing function for a long time. More than three decades, in fact.

During that time my career and interests have been shaped by the same forces that have transformed marketing, and business in general — including digital, globalization, and customer centricity.

My story arc is a journey: from words to numbers, from communications to data. The journey’s destination – which I have not yet reached – is a powerful synthesis of both.

I started in marketing as a communications guy. With a recent English degree and a little journalism experience, my job was to translate technical information into plain language for newsletters. Or, as my boss at the time used to say, “dumb it down”. (Which of course made me feel really valued and motivated.)

Eventually I moved into proposal writing – and found I enjoyed it a lot more. I think it was because my writing talent had found a purpose: persuading people to buy. I learned some simple but important lessons about persuasion, including “show, don’t tell”; “use pyramid structure”; “above all, understand your audience”.

I also learned about the power of data. I discovered the rudiments of presenting numbers to reinforce a sales message. I learned about cross-tabs. I experimented with the early charting features of Excel. For a basically non-numerate person, this was a revelation. Data worked really well to build and support stories, and using it was, to my surprise, kind of fun.

Then, in the mid 1990s, I met the Internet. My brother, an academic, showed me how his department was hooking its computers up to research databases in Europe and Australia. I saw a few companies experiment with the earliest version of the World Wide Web. I tried to persuade my employer to invest in a website, but couldn’t make the case.

So I decided to go underground. Working nights and weekends with a few like-minded IT and marketing colleagues, I wrote and hand coded a 100-page site for my company, and got permission to take it live. Before we finished I was dreaming in HTML – true story.

The site wasn’t much, but it worked. We ran a newspaper ad to launch the site, and got over 50,000 hits the first day. By today’s standards, this is not a very meaningful metric, but the fact that we could attribute a hard number to a marketing program got the decision makers’ attention.

Next I moved into management, leading a corporate communications team. For the first time I had to prepare and defend a departmental budget in front of a steely-eyed executive. Frankly it was a humiliating experience – because I did not have my head around, or hands on, the data to support my budget request. I was flying blind, and it showed.

I was forgiven but resolved never to be in that position again. So I dug in. I politely asked the Finance people to “dumb it down” and help me understand the mysterious monthly numbers about departmental headcount and costs. I started actively thinking about ways to spend the money more effectively. I learned how to create business cases that showed ROI for the whole business, rather than just making things easier for my team.

At the same time, I was asked to serve as business lead on a few big projects – the first for a new CRM system. This gave me exposure to business analysis and a disciplined, structured project management methodology. I found that I really enjoyed working with the left-brainers in the IT department, and discovered that my creative and communication abilities complemented their technical skills. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The pieces really started to fall into place when we started to marry up the new CRM with our nascent digital marketing program. Suddenly I could see the potential – a complete marketing ecosystem, with customer and prospect data at the foundation, that would allow us to see how marketing plans and activities connected with revenue. Gradually we assembled the puzzle parts and started to produce insights that could inform business decisions.

I learned lots of other things along the way – including how to dissect a business process, how to visualize data to make it more understandable and insightful, and the importance of disciplined workflow management.

The big lesson for me: at the centre of everything I learned was data. Today, I am more convinced than ever that every marketer, in every discipline, needs to be curious about data, comfortable poking around with it, and confident in using it to support strategies, tactics and decisions. The businesses we serve expect and demand that.

I believe we’re all on a journey to be Data Dudes and Dudettes. In my experience anyway, getting there is half the fun!