August 18, 2013

2013: A Career

I was recently told that my work is directionally similar to what the NSA does ... we both mine user behavior, looking for patterns.  Here's my initial response:

  • "Oh yeah? Well, at least I'm not like these folks in London tracking your every physical movement via wi-fi and garbage cans! (click here)".

The reality, of course, is that maybe I'm not fundamentally different than folks who want to cookie you or and measure every step you take (literally) with your phone.

In other words, we're kind of the same. It's what we do with information that differentiates us, I suppose.

Too many marketing/analytics experts are heading toward "sensors". In other words, they're trying to measure (sense) every aspect of an individual's life. The trend is toward capturing everything, the theory being that if you know everything, you can give the right message at the right time to the right customer. This is big data. And it can be used to give you a 25% discount at Pottery Barn. Or it can be used in this manner (click here). But that's it. All of this data, calibrated around a coupon. My goodness.

Here's what I've learned, over the course of a 25 year career. We aren't all mining data. We make choices as to how we contribute.

There are at least four ways that somebody like me can contribute.
  1. 1 foot level. This is where you leverage big data via data mining / algorithms to understand 1 foot level customer behavior. The end result is a 25% discount at Pottery Barn, coupled with technology/software (hint - apps and what comes after apps) that enable delivery of the 25% discount. This is where 80% of the focus will be, and always has been.
  2. Translator. This is where I believe I fit. I can take 1 foot level data and roll it up to something that can be digested by business leaders. I believe that almost nobody operates at this level, it's the reason that, since taking Dale Carnegie training in 1994, I've tried hard to occupy this realm. Not surprisingly, my career took off when I decided to leave the 1 foot level and become a Translator. This is a huge hole that needs to be filled.
  3. Punditry. This is where 19% of the focus is. If you're not a true practitioner (at the 1 foot level), this is where you get to make a difference, writing articles like "Eight Ways That Google Maps Will Change Business Forever, And Why Your Business Is Dead Unless You Adapt Today". This is called "thought leadership". Unfortunately, our ecosystem is designed to reward this path with page views, and page views bring ad dollars, and ad dollars attach strings. This is the path that many take - you get paid taking this path.
  4. Visionary. This is where 1% of the focus is. One might compare this path to the one catalog legend Don Libey took ... recall that 10-20 years ago, he frequently predicted what might happen today (famously calling big box stores 'cities of the dead', remember?) ... never being specifically right but always being directionally accurate, far more accurate than any of the pundits ever were. This is the complete opposite of punditry - usually less financially rewarding than punditry, winning fewer awards and garnering less attention - but probably being the most needed function in marketing/commerce today. Go ahead, write down a list of folks who fill the "visionary" function today, you'll find it is a short list.
Each style serves a purpose in the ecosystem.
  • The visionary speaks of a physical retail world where all behavior is tracked, long before it happens (think 2000 - 2005).
  • The pundit is always behind the visionary, finally labeling the term "omnichannel" in 2011-2012, predicting (usually incorrectly) how omnichannel will change the world at a time when the visionary has already moved on. Think about the omnichannel chatter today ... Macy's is struggling, yet you keep reading how they are an omnichannel darling. Pundits spin messages, generating page views, generating ad dollars, regardless of the message.
  • The translator helps the business leader understand how omnichannel issues at the 1 foot level align with sales and profit, bridging the gap between the reality of 1-foot-level work and false punditry. The translator must be honest, must work with integrity, and must represent how customers behave, not how others want customers to behave.
  • The 1 foot level worker puts sensors in a retail store, collects the data, integrates the data, analyzes the data, and creates an app that offers a 25% discount the minute the sensor measures the fact that the customer walks into the store. The 1 foot level worker isn't stupid or evil, s/he is simply doing what the marketplace demands. The marketplace demands discounts and promotions that are offered via sensors. The marketplace, fueled by the pundit, love talking about discounts and promotions ... they get ad dollars when they talk about discounts and promotions (think Cyber Monday, a complete confection). Notice, by the way, that while pundits get paid top dollar, they're seldom discounting their own services, are they? They demand that you discount your goods and services, they demand that you pay top dollar for their goods and services. Something to think about, huh?
In the first six years of my career, I tried to be the best "1-foot-level" worker in the world. This was impossible, of course. There are too many excellent "1-foot-level" workers, and there will always be an incoming crop of "1-foot-level" workers with even better skills. This is a battle that is really, really hard to win. Darwinistic forces almost guarantee you'll be obsolete in no time.

In the second six years of my career, I went from Analyst to Vice President, by being a Translator. It turns out that business leaders don't have access to visionaries, and they don't understand the geeky world of "1-foot-level" workers, so they turn to pundits. By turning to pundits, business leaders are always one step behind the curve (while being told they are always one step ahead of the curve). The translator profitably bridges the gulf between the imaginary world of the pundit, and the physical, 1-foot-level world where the future is being hard-wired.

For catalog marketers, this means that I identify the half of the audience that requires far fewer mailings, generating huge increases in profit for catalogers. I fill the gap between the 1-foot-worker (co-op models) and the pundit (you must mail more catalogs, not fewer catalogs, Lands' End learned they had to mail more in 1999).

For retail marketers, this means that I measure the impact of search on comp store sales, illustrating how the merchandise preferences change and evolve among search buyers. I fill the gap between the 1-foot-worker (search vendor) and the pundit (be social or your business is dead). I show you how paid search impacts the five year trajectory of in-store sales. This is the essence of translation.

For e-commerce marketers, this means that I measure the impact of new merchandise on the future health of your business. I fill the gap between the 1-foot-worker (optimizing conversion rate at a product level or optimizing large green buttons against small orange buttons) and the pundit (get on Amazon now or you are dead). I show you how new merchandise is the lifeblood of your business.

I think you have to have amazing gifts to be a Visionary, or to be a truly effective 1-Foot-Worker.

The pundit is skilled at convincing others to do what allows the pundit to get paid.

You only need to be able to communicate to be a Translator. You need to be able to see where trends are heading, then fill the gaps with products/services/communication that enable Executives to generate profit in directions opposite of where most in the market are headed.

Since taking this approach in 1994, I have had a successful career. Since starting my own business in 2007, I've worked with more than 100 clients. Translation skills eventually "scale", as the pundits say (oh oh), allowing me (as a translator) to be able to connect more dots than the average person, allowing you to generate more profit. I've been able to identify between $20,000,000 and $40,000,000 in profit opportunity for my clients in the past three years alone, by simply filing the hole between Pundit and 1-Foot-Level worker.

Anybody can be successful - yes, even the Pundit - when the Pundit works with honesty and integrity, the Pundit becomes a Brand, and as we know, many Brands can be trusted.

I've learned, over the course of twenty-five years, that you have to be excellent at something. I've worked hard to be an excellent Translator.  You might choose to be an excellent 1-Foot-Level employee. You might be a Visionary. 

Please pick a path.

Looking ahead to 2014 and beyond, we have a ton of choices to make.

As business leaders, we're going to have to decide just how far into the big data rabbit hole we want to go.

I think we're headed in three different directions.
  1. Creators. These folks will create merchandise or content. What we create gets sucked into the big data ecosystem, it's the fuel that keeps the big data ecosystem moving (it keeps the pundits talking, too, allowing them to make a living). This is what Apple did in the prior decade - they created the merchandise (iPod, iPhone, iPad) that fueled the social/mobile ecosystem. Creators get paid.
  2. Miners. These folks will capture merchandise/content, repackage it, then sell it. This is what Google did, a decade ago. This is ultimately what Amazon does. The best 1-foot-level workers are outstanding Miners. Miners get paid.
  3. Users. That's the rest of us. Our information gets harvested by creators/miners, is repackaged, and is sold back to us. This is a crazy world - we create information that we are forced to purchase - we purchase what we create - we purchase access to our own customers, for crying out loud, purchasing the data that our own customers generated on our (and their) behalf.
My catalog clients became Users almost twenty years ago - Co-ops were the Miners. Think about this crazy relationship. Catalogers create merchandise, customers buy merchandise, catalogers freely give customer information to co-ops, co-ops repackage/mine the information, then resell it back to catalogers. This is a terrible deal for catalogers. But this is how things evolved. Catalogers willingly chose to become Users - it is so much easier to be a User. Long-term, Users lose - Users are constantly giving money to Creators and Miners. Name one cataloger over the past five years that created something so interesting and compelling that customers had no choice but to buy what was offered? When you have a great merchandising strategy, you have less of a need to purchase access to customers from competitors who have a great merchandising strategy. When you have a great merchandising strategy, you don't have to pay much to acquire customers.

Mobile/Social are the future tools that Miners are using to get businesses to become Users. In mobile/social, everything can be tracked/sensed, and if it can be tracked/sensed, it can be mined, repackaged, and sold back to those who created the information in the first place.

Business leaders will be in a constant fight to stay out of the User category. Business leaders must Create. Creators generate profit. Miners generate profit. Users spend money for access to the very information they helped Miners create.

My job (over the next five years) is likely to evolve. I'm going to have to spend time translating how Miners are trying to turn businesses into Users (via mobile, social, and big data). I'm going to have to spend considerable time showing you new merchandise means everything to you - it's how you align with Creators - it's how you keep from becoming a User.

I think that's where my career is headed - it is going to be my job to keep you Creating, to keep you from becoming a User. It's the way I'll be different from the big data practitioner that the guest at dinner suggested I had become.

Time for your thoughts - I just spent five weeks covering the first twenty-five years of my career. What questions do you have?


  1. Merchandise is always going to be key (whatever the channel) - is one of the key messages I'm getting. Tell us more about tracking merchandise performance - what are the top 3 reports we need to key an eye on this?

    1. I would try to go beyond reports. Make merchandise analysis part of your ethos. In other words, when somebody tells you that conversion rates are down 11% and traffic is flat, think first about merchandise ... it is entirely possible that large blue buttons vs. small orange buttons is not the issue, but instead, the issue is that customers don't like the merchandise you're selling.

      Try to prove that your company failed to introduce enough new products the past three years, causing customers to become bored with existing products.

      Try to prove that your company slowly increased prices over the past three years, causing customers to get to the point where they won't buy items without 20% off plus free shipping.

      Try to prove that a certain merchandise category causes customers to buy from it today, and then not return and buy something six months from now.

      There's an awful lot of analysis that defaults to creative/operational issues that, in reality, should be focused on merchandising issues. Merchandise is the biggest reason a customer purchases, or chooses to not purchase.

  2. Re: marketing and privacy, great article:


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