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January 17, 2007
Marketing through the Rear View Mirror

The story goes that when Henry Ford was seeking financing to build the Model T, his banker asked him, “Mr. Ford, have you researched your market to see if they want this contraption?” Ford’s immediate reply was, “No! If I asked them what they want, I’d be asking you for money to raise faster horses.”

Faster Horses, Indeed

Today, technology is delivering an exploding array of data about consumers — including b-to-b. That data contains all kinds of information. Demographics. Psychographics. Customer relationship management info. Almost anything your heart could wish for.

And this data isn’t just about big groups anymore. Or even small clusters. It is about each and every American consumer. All 300 million of them. One at a time.

When you think about it this way, there are probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of pages of data with marketing value about each of us. Take out your BlackBerry and run a calculation on how many pieces of information that might be. Then figure the permutations and combinations.

Marketers are swimming in data. No, more accurately, they are drowning in it.

The Curse of Excel

To cope with all these numbers, business schools are churning out MBAs who can make Excel spreadsheets sing. They can create multi-page, multi-dimensional documents in glorious color. With big boxes. And little boxes. And all sorts of dramatic charts and graphs. They are wondrous things. Works of art.

And they are circulated to colleagues by email, intranets, and extranets. Our inboxes overflow. And every meeting is filled with pages upon pages of data. We stare at small details on big screens. We know so much. But to what end?

Could it be that the nirvana of completely quantifiable marketing is here? And we can now put marketing decisions on auto pilot? Or is it just a fact-filled illusion?

The Problem with Facts

Facts, by definition, are historic. No fact, nor any piece of data, can accurately predict the future. Facts are a view of the world through the rear view mirror. Yet we, and our businesses, will spend the rest of our lives in the future.

Think about that for a minute. All this data is about what was, not what will be. And our individual and corporate success depends on future outcomes.

“Whoa,” you say. “What about predictive modeling?”

You’re right. There are big advances there. But it’s still primitive. Just ask yourself how much faith you have in next week’s weather forecast. Then apply that same level of reliability to most consumer behavior forecasts.

Kind of scary, isn’t it?

The Human Mind

Each of us is equipped with a tool that is infinitely more valuable than any computer or system or data set that has ever been built. Or probably ever will be built. It is our brain. Yours. Mine. And billions of others around the world.

Each contains a magical capability. It is called intuition. The dictionary defines it as “the direct knowing of something without the conscious use of reasoning.”

Intuition in Action

Columbus used intuition in finding America. Henry Ford used intuition in putting the world on wheels. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs used intuition in shaping the information age. And the list goes on and on and on.

The simple fact is that all great advancements come from intuition. They do not come from incremental extensions of what already exists. And all great marketing ideas spring from intuition, too. It is the wellspring of our craft.

Data is the Foundation, Not the Solution

Don’t misunderstand me. Data about past consumer behavior is the foundation. So are carefully constructed forecasts. But they are only the beginning. We cannot quit there and go home for the day.

Intuition applied courageously on top of that data is where all marketing breakthroughs come from.

And the world needs more marketing breakthroughs.

Trust Your Gut

So study the data. But don’t stop there. There is a time to set the spreadsheets aside. And to stop looking in the rear view mirror.

That’s the time to listen to what your intuition is telling you. And trust it.

Even if it tells you the market needs something other than faster horses.

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President and founder of Carlton Associates, Mike Carlton has spent most of his life in and around advertising agencies. Mike has held offices in the AAAA, and is a frequent writer and speaker on agency issues. Mike provides consultation on agency business models and serves on the corporate or advisory boards of a number of notable firms.
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