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March Madness: A marketing metaphor


As tens of millions of us fill out our NCAA Men’s Basketball Tourney brackets this week, it occurred to me that “bracketology” is a lot like marketing:

Both require a creative blend of data and intuition.

The marketing business is becoming more data-driven every day. Previously unknown levels of real-time tracking and predictive analytics enable marketers to precisely target their messages. The old adage, “Half my advertising is working…I just don’t know which half,” now sounds as dated and irrelevant as the Macarena.

Even entertainment delivery channels like Netflix are basing their choices in movies and original content, not on broad categories of viewership, but precise formulas that defy age groups, nationality and gender. Using 76,897 unique ways to describe types of movies and then correlating with the actual viewing habits of tens of millions of customers, they can predict with a great deal of certainty, which movies will be hits, even if the viewership can’t be grouped by traditional categories.

It’s the end of demographics as we know it.

Some would argue that there is too much “big data” to grapple with. Drowning in a sea of information, many marketing executives find themselves paralyzed by indecision, fearing that some crucial bit of information is being overlooked. They suffer from Data Overload Paralysis Entanglement syndrome (or D.O.P.E. for short).

Enter Intuition.

There is still room for wisdom, good judgment and intuition. Just like successful entrepreneurs who somehow seem to keep backing the right horses, savvy marketers know that playing a hunch is often the path to success.

And this is where the March Madness analogy comes in. There is no shortage of data resources for the committed bracketologist to study: BPI—the Basketball Power Index; RPI—the Ratings Percentage Index, and many others.

Yet last year, a few savvy bracketologists somehow “sensed” that #15 seed Florida Gulf Coast, appearing for the first time ever in the Tourney, would have a real shot at beating #2 seed and perennial powerhouse Georgetown, despite being 14 point underdogs. Call it intuition. Call it a hunch. But they got it right.

Unless you are planning on winning Warren Buffet’s Quicken Loan Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge (odds of winning 1:9,223,372,036,854,775,808), it’s safe to say that you’ll be keeping your day job. That means your marketing decisions are probably more important than your Tourney bracket. And thus success will depend on finding the perfect balance of data and intuition.

There are a couple ways to go about this:

Start with intuition and validate with data.
Start with data and make an intuitive decision.

In reality, it may be more of a chicken and egg thing, where intuition is verified or corrected by data, which then demands further intuitive insights to improve results. This rinse and repeat cycle may have to happen several times until you hit the perfect balance of audience targeting, creative execution, and the best delivery media.

The good news is that the cost of testing—and even the cost of failing—are lower than ever. It’s easy to see where you went wrong and then reboot an entire marketing effort. Don Draper didn’t have that option. He had to bet the entire Lucky Strike ad budget on his own booze-infused intuition.

The one thing that hasn’t changed in the data-driven marketing ecosystem is the need for creativity. Here at our shop, we often refer to creativity as the last great non-commodity. It’s what infuses a communications effort with greatness. It’s what separates the memorable from the forgettable.

And it’s why advertising, when it’s good, is still an art, not an algorithm

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David Heitman

David Heitman is the president of The Creative Alliance, an award-winning branding and public relations in Lafayette, Colorado. He can be contacted at david@thecreativealliance.com

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