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Q&A: Simon Lawrence, director, The Marketing Practice

Joel Harrison asks B2B data guru Simon Lawrence – newly-appointed director at The Marketing Practice – about his move to the agency, what's changed in B2B and the evolution of data

If data is the lifeblood of B2B marketers, then Simon Lawrence must have data running through his veins. As the founder of data solutions business Information Arts, which was snapped up by Harte Hanks in 2010, he's built a reputation as one of the most influential names in B2B marketing. Having left IA in 2012, he launched agency Uncommon Knowledge, and this month he joined The Marketing Practice (TMP) as a director. We spoke to him about his new role at the agency, what he learnt while he was away and his thoughts on the future of data in B2B marketing.

Joel: You’ve been away from running B2B agencies for around six years now, since selling IA. What’s changed in the business in that time, and how different is the challenge today to what it was previously?

My role here at TMP is to develop its data and insight proposition and contribute to strategy via the management board. The market has changed completely in the intervening years and I’ve been learning more about the digital space through some investment and angel roles. My observation is while most comms activity has gone online, and marketing technology has eaten up a great deal of the data management and campaign activity that IA used to provide, the basics still hold true and there remains a great need to refocus on those basics – to have access to skills and a vision of best practice the data that drives those platforms as well as expert support for the journey.

What did you learn while you were away? Apart from sailing, of course, and other activities favoured by the temporarily and prematurely retired.

Ha ha – I fully resemble that remark! I learned if I hadn’t got out of the house now and again my wife would have divorced me! I actually spent (some of) three years working with a small digital agency and the first thing I learned was that I should rip up the old direct marketing rule book. I was able to see the data industry from the outside and was quite shocked about the speed that digital had developed into the mainstream of marketing, and the relative maturity of each of the different strands. It’s also been disappointing to see the industry has gone backwards on the basics. I’ve also learned to see what technologies really represent a step forward in capability and what are likely to fall by the wayside.

How have you seen the role of data in marketing evolve since founding IA in 1999?

Data was, and still is, the lifeblood of sales and marketing. There are two main drivers of change, both relating to the growth of the internet, mobile and the rapid proliferation of marketing technology and channels. The first is the massive growth in volumes and velocity of digital micro data ‘transactions’ that companies now have access to. The second is the vast array of ways companies can use this data to give customers more relevant content.

What hasn’t changed is the marketing industry’s love of new technology, and tendency to lose sight of some of the basics while rushing to implement it. The potential ROI is much greater, but the potential for wasting money is greater too, and many companies are finding they're not getting the returns anticipated from those technology investments. All in all, the wider world of data is becoming more complex and moving quickly, but the basic (perhaps boring) issues around quality, latency and integration are still the same as they ever were.

How effective have B2B marketers been at tackling the challenges presented by data – do you see the same issues repeatedly cropping up?

The biggest challenge is still the latency, quality and completeness of data. Companies often expect a marketing automation platform (MAP) to solve their data quality problems during and after implementation. But most either use a standalone MAP, or integrate their MAP with a CRM system only, rather than with a true marketing single customer view (SCV). This isn’t going to work, and it’s only when they're disappointed by the results, does the focus change to understanding why.

What’s the biggest mistake you see B2B marketers make when it comes to data?

I think the problem is not so much mistakes, but lack of knowledge. Many marketers have only a vague sense of what good looks like in data and how to get it. As a result, they struggle to identify where they should direct their efforts, or to make the case for investment. They end up accepting a rather tactical and restricted business as usual.

How do you see the future of data use in B2B?

I’d like to see businesses establishing a clear vision, following a structured journey that optimises every aspect of integrated, omnichannel marketing – all within a platform of accurate, complete, compliant and marketing-ready data.

This would give marketers better commercial results immediately, while also providing the foundations for an environment that engages individual clients and prospect decision-makers with things that interest them, at the right time, in real time.

Do you think the concerns around the GDPR (and its potential impact) will dampen marketers’ enthusiasm for data?

We’re on an evolutionary path and who knows where it will take us. The direct marketing rule book from 10 years ago has been torn up and thrown away, and marketing and communications will continue to transform rapidly. While GDPR is certainly a factor that will cause some head scratching and refining operating models among clients, data will continue to be critically important in the same way it always has been – as a source of information for marketing and sales, and to bring products and services to the attention of customers.

With the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), do you think the relatively new role of data scientist is already becoming defunct?

Not quite yet! AI in marketing seems a new solution looking for a problem to fix. It's certainly sexy enough to capture the imagination of early adopters, but its reliability and effectiveness have yet to be proven. I also believe many analysts and decision-makers are suspicious of black boxes where the moving parts can’t be seen and levers can’t be pulled.

What was it about joining TMP that appealed to you?

Many of the ideas that I pioneered 10 years ago were too early into the market. It feels like now there's a greater recognition of some of the challenges and thus, an appreciation of the more creative solutions. Joining TMP – which manages campaigns and marketing automation for its clients – gives us both the chance to help companies improve their use of data and overall commercial outcomes, in a much more hands-on way.

What’s happening to the existing management structure at TMP, that have brought them to where they are now? How are they reorganising to accommodate you? Are Paul Everett et al all still on board?

It’s true to say that there has been some reorganisation of reporting lines – freeing up Clive (McNamara, TMP's chief executive) and the senior management team to focus effectively on their respective areas and strengths. Everyone is still on board and I actually sit next to Paul so I’m sure he is still here! I currently have a team of 14 in data – but my role is a net new one.

Information Arts was a data specialist, whereas TMP is a demand gen/creative shop. How will the management challenge differ? Will creatives be more difficult to manage than data geeks?

Luckily that won’t be my direct and sole responsibility. It's safe to say we had plenty of characters and personalities to manage at Information Arts! I found that managing the people actually is the challenge in business and one that I really enjoyed. The issues are often found at the places where teams and functions interface or handover to each other and with several more teams and functions here, it wouldn’t be totally surprising to find issues. I have to say that so far I’ve seen none and that’s a real tribute to Clive, his values and senior management team.

What will you be looking to change and/or develop at TMP, under your stewardship? Any new attributes, disciplines or specialisms? Should we expect to see to it become a lot more expert in data?

There’s a great data team here already, doing some excellent work with some real strengths. I’m going to be working closely with them focussing on providing a strategic context for what we deliver, setting a vision, developing the skills and scope of capabilities and helping our clients realise the value of what we do – turbocharging the outcomes of the great work TMP is particularly known for. This will definitely see some new faces and skills in the business in due course.

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Data now dominates the agenda of many B2B marketers. But do marketers really have the right skills to use data to its full potential? In this brand new research project we surveyed over 200 B2B marketers to find out.