Hang the data, get the basics right!

abcI’ve lost count of the number of times over the years that I’ve come across businesses that have allowed data and analysis to get in the way of their business development, but in the last few weeks I’ve come across two. 

Don’t get me wrong, data is my friend, but I have a great deal of experience too, which, if the data should tell me to jump of a high building, will warn me that it will hurt!  Way back when I started in this business a wise old advertising sage introduced me to the principles of research with the words “This is a light to guide your way, not a lamppost to lean on”.  He was right and the same applies to any form of data, yet I’m increasingly finding people who won’t take a pee unless the data tells them to.

There are simple reasons for this of course.  The stakes are often high and there’s big money and jobs on the line, so its easy to see why we have become risk-averse.  Its made worse though, by inexperienced managers, both in SMEs and in the large corporates.  Its a fact that today’s managers are younger and less experienced than they were twenty years ago, and experience is the key to success.  To make things worse, there’s even more to know now.  Its no wonder managers look for data to support their decisions.  But supporting decisions is fine, its when it makes the decisions you are in trouble!

I liken it to the debate over teaching schoolkids basic skills like how to do sums and write.  The purists argue that they’ll need this stuff when … wait for it … we don’t have computers anymore!  Now there’s thought!

Its important to recognise that the law of diminishing returns applies to any investment in data and analysis.  The more you do, the greater the investment required and the fewer point-gains you’ll get from it.  If you are Proctor and Gamble or Unilever the optimal point is much higher up the investment scale than it would be for your local corner shop.  That’s simply because 0.001% improvement on a gazillion dollars turnover will pay for the investment (probably a few times over) while if your turnover is that of the vast majority of businesses, that kind of improvement wouldn’t buy you a decent lunch, so there’s no point.

While large and unwieldy organisations tend to lose the advantage that data (potentially) gives them when the time comes to turn insights into action, at the small and medium enterprise (SME) end of the scale, there is no shortage of modest, easily implementable initiatives you can introduce to great effect without data and analysis, if you have experience.  But that’s a problem too, because, by definition, SMEs have less experience and a narrower skills base.   While someone like me will help a larger concern to interpret data and plan appropriate responses, when I am consulting for SMEs is more likely to involve filling in the gaps in their basic skills and experience.

When I first started my business, as an introductory offer, I promised any prospect a bottle of champagne if I couldn’t find ten ways to increase their ROI, but I never had to make that trip to the off-license.  Every business makes mistakes and its too easy for someone with broad enough experience to spot them and come up with a remedy.  I guarantee I can make significant improvements to the performance of any enterprise, large or small, and in the case of SMEs, usually without spending months wading through data and setting up programmes and analysis processes.  All that comes later and will undoubtedly help magnify the results, but the gearing is such that if you are running on three cylinders, getting the fourth to fire makes a hell of a lot of difference.  The introduction of simple sound practice, based on experience and observation, can bring a significant improvement in the bottom line for most SMEs in no time at all.  The expense is in the fine-tuning that’ll have you humming like a Ferrari. 

I have developed Full Effect Marketing to the point where any business, of any size, in any sector, anywhere in the world can plug in and play it.  I purposely stripped away the mystique that some of the big consultancies seem to like, so that it makes perfect sense to anybody and before somebody from a big organisation says, if its designed for SMEs (which it isn’t) its too basic for them – bollocks!  Marketing is basic, Full Effect Marketing just strips away the frills that have been added over the years by insecure marketing people who have thought that by dressing it up, it’ll appear that they are extra smart!

The two examples I encountered recently were both businesses sitting on the recession time bomb.  As I have said before, the game now is all about survival of the fittest – Business Darwinism – and if you aren’t fit you won’t survive.  Neither of these businesses had the basics right, yet they were fixated on data and research and locked into a kind of commercial catalepsy, waiting for the data to tell them what to do.  The answer was obvious to anybody with the right experience.  I don’t blame them for not knowing, it wasn’t their area of expertise, but what was frustrating was when they had the answers they still couldn’t bring themselves to take action, because they were stuck in the data-habit and didn’t have any to support the actions.  As a result, the one has sadly and quite avoidably, bitten the dust already, simply because it didn’t move quickly enough and other is teetering.

Maybe the fact that I have seen two such cases so close together is a symptom of the current business climate.  As I said, things right now, happen fast to businesses that aren’t in shape and there are a lot of them around.  Why is this?  Well apart from the experience quotient (which if you read the research is lower these days than twenty years ago because managers are younger) its because increased entrepreneurship and a boom market have resulted in a lot of businesses getting this far even though they were half-cocked.  Its just a build-up of failures waiting to happen.

I can’t pretend to be sorry to see a few businesses disappear – recession is cathartic, but I still think that there are tremendous opportunities in this recession for smaller businesses and challenger brands and I’m really excited at the prospect of seeing new names and ideas emerge.  Most of all, I’m looking forward to working with businesses that are made of the right stuff, getting the basics right, making things happen and then adding the data analysis that will scale those things.

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