The brave new world of marketing is pi-shaped

Senior Content Marketing Manager, Communications Sector, IBM Analytics

If you’re a marketer, then you’re facing brave new world.

Much like the Greek mathematician Archimedes, who, around 250 BCE, is credited with the first recorded algorithm for rigorously calculating the value of π, marketers find themselves applying the mathematics of analytics in exciting, transformational applications.

One such marketer is the pi-shaped marketer. This term, coined by Ashley Friedlein, CEO and co-founder of Econsultancy, speaks to the evolution of the T-shaped marketer (broad skills across disciplines with a deep expertise in one area) to a more two-pronged approach which balances traditional creativity with a more data-driven focus.         

I spoke with Ashley today and he explained to me that the two prongs represent the “left brained and right brained” aspects where the brand-experiential-emotional side of marketing meets the analytical-quantitative-technology side. This “modern marketer,” as Ashley puts it, is a blend of the traditional and the digital.

We dug into this concept a little deeper and we tied it back to Pi Day itself. Here’s what we discussed:

Graeme: Seeing as today is Pi Day, what do you think these new pi-shaped marketers should be thinking about as we celebrate this famous mathematical constant?

Ashley: I don’t expect marketers to be thinking about it so much as it holds a general attraction or curiosity. But, I’m keen to encourage marketers to think about this two-pronged approach and the importance of data, analytics and the technology side of marketing where they are, perhaps, least skilled. This is most evidenced in the past decade with the rise of the internet, digital media and ecommerce. We’d like to see marketers associate the hard numbers, if you will, with the skills they need to develop.

Pi, being an irrational number, cannot easily be expressed. Do you think that data is making the marketers’ world increasingly more irrational and complex, or is it helping them to transcend traditional challenges and improve the customer experience?

Part of the fascination of pi is that, on one hand, it’s very pure and mathematical and on the other it’s completely irrational. I think we can draw some parallels with big data, analytics and marketing that there is a lot more complexity, data and information overload out there. So while there are more of the ones and zeros around ("the rational side"), the challenge for marketers and business analysts is to try and convert that into insights and meaning, driving real business change off the back of it.

So, if you think back to pi, we have to think through what actual insights and meaning it give us and determine how it can be used in powerful ways. For marketers who have been given all this data, technology and analytical power, it’s the same challenge: What insights do they draw from it and how do they apply it to the best of both worlds to understand cause and effect better? Clearly, there’s a lot of opportunity here, but we there is still a long way to go to turn data into value. 

Where does storytelling figure into the skillset of the pi-shaped marketer and how should they be marrying that skill to the data-driven side of the marketing personality?

Ultimately, it’s about having an appreciation that both sides of the “pi” are important but with the increasing importance placed on data you might think that the math men have won out over the mad men and that everything can be reduced to a mathematical equation within performance driven marketing. But, ironically, I think that the more that you’re exposed to big data and analytics, the more you realize there are irrational things which drive human behavior. Things like brands, weather, emotions, feelings, recommendations and stories are all still extremely powerful things in motivating and changing human behavior.

Today’s pi-shaped marketer needs to be good at both, and that’s asking quite a lot, but I think it is possible. Apple, for example, understands the importance of the technical capability and the importance of design and beauty. Furthermore, we’re starting to see these two sides combined in both organizational structures and titles (CMO becomes CTO and the other way around) and also in the creation of in hybrid roles such as the chief digital officer.

How should a pi-shaped marketer combine big data and analytics with human intuition and creativity?

The most common example is still seen in generating the creative and then measuring it to see how well it’s performing and start to optimize it. Data is very good at telling you what has happened even though it’s not always that good at telling you why something has happened, nor is it very good at coming up with hypothesis or ideas about what you might do in the future. Clearly predicative analytics is being talked about a lot but I think that’s still not an everyday thing, especially when it comes to world events and remaining agile in real time. You still to come up with creative ideas and then use analytics to test, measure and do your best to predict. 

Does the pi-shaped marketer need to engage specialists such as data scientists in their campaigns? If so, to what extent?

The pi-shaped marketer absolutely needs to have an understanding and appreciation for those different types of specialized skill sets, roles and responsibilities.

Data visualization, for example, is one skill set that is different from designing algorithms and doing deep-diving data analysis. There’s a whole load of special skills that are entirely data-related that the Pi-shaped marketer needs to embrace and collaborate with. Some forms of data visualization are arguably less technical and is almost a form of art or communication. There are people who make data beautiful or meaningful! That’s significantly different from crunching massive data sets and being on the “big data rocket scientist” end of the spectrum.

For marketers, these skills can almost be seen as a source of content which can be used to tell stories, create applications or, on the other side, drive real change and action.

Is there a steep learning curve for those marketing professionals who want to reboot their careers in pi-shape?

I think it depends a bit on the individual. For the people who are curious and want to learn about the tools, the technologies and the available information that marketers now have access to, there’s plenty out there in terms of sites and e-learning for you to educate yourself and have a go at it. There are basic ways to start with simple analytic tools and tutorials that help marketers to get their hands dirty and then start to work with people who are more specialized and can share knowledge. You don’t need to be a great mathematical genius, but you’ve got to have the appetite to do it to the necessary level that the pi-shaped marketer needs.

When we consider other hot topics like personalization in digital marketing, you need to have the right data infrastructure and you need to understand metadata, for example, and how to architect at least at a high level to drive these new abilities within your campaigns.

Conceptually, technically and intellectually it’s not that hard, so I don’t think there are really any excuses for marketers to say “well, you know, that’s techie stuff. I don’t need to know about it.” That’s not viable anymore. You need to know it.

Is there anything else you think we should share with our audience of budding pi-shaped marketers who are working to create smarter customer experiences?

Everything—from books to billboards and beyond—is increasingly becoming digital.

To drive the future customer experience, marketing will be based on personalization: the smart combination of digital assets that are in turn essentially just forms of data. There are whole suites of technology that can make this stuff happen, but understanding data and the technology enablers are the building blocks you have to have in order to drive the kind of experience that pi-shaped marketers want to drive.

To be a really good marketer in the future, you need to understand not only the art of the possible but how creativity and analytics combined apply to increase marketing performance.

Are you a pi-shaped marketer? Let us know in the comments and share what you’re doing to evolve in the midst of this pi-shaped world.

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