New graduates are a vital resource for the data industry if it is to carry on growing. At the first IDM Data Discovery Workshop, both sides had a chance to learn about what the other had to offer. David Reed went along to find out more.
“I’ve spent four years studying fluid dynamics and vectors. Please let me look at something else...” It was that comment, overhead during a teabreak during the IDM Data Discovery Workshop in March, that underlines the opportunity now open to the data industry. Critically short of data and analytics skills, the industry needs to attract new recruits in growing numbers, preferably as soon as they graduate from courses that equip them with the hard mathematical and statistics knowledge required.
On the other side of that situation, students on courses ranging from pure maths to physics, engineering and psychology do not automatically want to pursue their careers in academia or the public sector, where many have historically found a berth. “I want my work to have an impact in the real world,” as one of the students at the workshop noted.
There is yet another reason why the 30 available places were eagerly snapped up. One psychology student confided that his cohort had been told not to bother applying for research psychology positions as there are none available. By contrast, the data industry is urgently looking for recruits - every one of the companies presenting had open vacancies and many were offering internships as a way for students to get a better feel for what their future might look like.
It could prove to be an ideal match-up. Marketing and the data which supports it has a constantly-changing set of objectives to achieve - few in the industry get bored as a result. And meeting those objectives involves influencing human behaviour - one of the most complex systems imaginable and certainly a real world output from analytics.
Many of the students looked to be virtually “oven-ready”. When Ross Simpson, analytics director at Capita, set the group the task of guessing which out of three segments would be the right target for a campaign, one psychology student got it right across four different rounds.
Insights into motivations gained from studying that subject could prove invaluable in some scenarios. One example used by Simpson involved trying to increase recycling rates for Birmingham City Council, which risked paying fines for sending too much waste to landfill.
“One thing we identified was low levels of recycling in Asian areas. We discovered it was because they don’t want their neighbours to see if they have been drinking, so they put their bottles into the waste bin,” he said. A new campaign, including rerouting collection vehicles and changing collection times to make them more discreet, saw a 10 per cent rise in recycling in these areas.
For Simpson, this demonstrates why new graduates should consider the industry. “We need to educate people and get the message out that a career in data is now possible. We need to attract the right, bright people and show them how interesting data is,” he says. It took Capita six months to recruit a senior data analyst, trawling through 50 CVs and running 20 interviews.
As the first industry-oriented presentation of the workshop, it fell to Simpson to explain the breadth and depth of data which marketers have to work with. For most of the students, this came as a genuine surprise with few having much comprehension of the degree of information deployed in both the public and private sector. BBC TV Licencing, which Capita operates, has just transformed its database down from 1.5 billion rows to 850 million - all with the aim of identifying the 0.21 per cent of people who will not pay their TV licence and have it revoked as a result.
Attending the workshop was a first step into this new world for most of the students. Simpson noted that they should put it on their CV - “it will help”. Janice Pickard, director of student services at the IDM and architect of the Data Discovery Workshop, agreed: “Some of the students see being here as learning a skill in itself, networking and meeting people.”
For many of the students this hardly seemed necessary - their personal skills and even media abilities appeared already well-formed, with many running their own blogs and having developed networks. In an exercise carried out by Dr Tim Drye, students were asked to line up according to how many friends they have on Facebook - the highest was 1,460.
But the skills required for a career in the industry certainly involve more than just a way with numbers. Influencing people - colleagues and clients - is now a major part of what data analysts have to be able to do.
Terry Hunt, partner, The Future Customer, kicked off the event with a presentation on how the new marketing industry combines the requirements of “Mad Men and Maths Men”. “When chief marketing officers learn to love data, they will be VIPs in the C-suite, according to Advertising Age. If they don’t, they will be relegated to overseeing promotions as somebody else takes over the role of chief customer officer,” he said.
Data is redefining what it means to be a CMO, although some of the core skills need to be learned in the other direction. “What data needs is a story - there is a need to know where data fits into the narrative of the business and it needs to tell it in plain English. That is something data specialists have not been good at,” he told students.
Hunt identified four skills which would typify the new generation of analyst - empathy, disruption, courage and optimism. “Too many specialists believe that because they are so smart, they can just do clever things to customers, rather than for them. They think consumers will respond to marketing like Pavlov’s dogs,” he warned.
Without empathy, marketing becomes mechanical and unable to make sense of patterns which can be found in data. As an example of when this quality is necessary, he recalled a discover made in Tesco’s Clubcard data that a group of female shoppers were buying value products as well as organic produce. After digging into the data, it emerged that these were post-divorce women whose incomes had crashed, but were trying to maintain their children’s diets and having to scrimp on their own in order to do so. “That led to a small change in the nature of communications to those customers,” he said.
Disruption happens when a finding challenges marketers’ perceptions or reveals an opportunity to shake up the marketplace. Courage may be necessary to sell-in these findings to a sceptical business user. But equally, analysts need to remain optimistic. “The business needs data people to cheer it up, but often getting the data planner in is a really miserable experience! A lot of data people feel obliged to make other people feel depressed,” Hunt warned.
Possessing those soft skills alongside the hard ones will improve any practitioner’s career opportunities. And it does not necessarily require becoming a conformist or losing the edge which often makes talented mathematicians brilliant analysts. “It is about time we saw more mental instability among data practitioners - we need more mad ideas and seeing things from different angles,” said Hunt.
One of the most valuable elements of the day’s presentation was hearing how different practitioners had made their own way into the industy. Rarely was it a straight line from their original subject. Matt Jarman, associate director, data and insight at CACI, outlined how three of his team, all in their 20s, had reached their present positions.
One started with a masters in physics, became a SAS consultant, then a data analyst and finally a digital consultant. Another did Management Science and IS, before starting a career in process improvements and then migrating into data analytics. “It is not just how good you are as an analyst, it is also how good you are at presenting your ideas,” he said.
Anna Foster, data director at TMW, had her own unusual path into her current job. “I loved maths at school, then I went to study it at university and hit a brick wall. So I side stepped into philosophy and then psychology, before applying to the Arcadia Group, because I liked Top Shop. I then applied to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra because I like classical music,” she recalled.
It was not until an ad for account management at TBWA/GGT that she first fell into marketing. Asked to give a ten minute presentation on anything, she chose language and gender - and didn’t get either of the jobs on offer. “But I did get offered a job as a data planner. I had no idea what that was, but I have never been more grateful to the person who made that decision. I have had a great time since,” said Foster.
It can only be hoped that examples such as hers inspired the students at the workshop to consider marketing as their future, or to tell their social networks about just how interesting this industry could be. After all, they don’t have to be mad to work here...