Q&A with Harvard’s John Deighton

John Deighton, Harvard Business SchoolIn June, John Deighton, Harvard Business School, completed his two-year term as MSI’s Executive Director. He offers his perspective on MSI and the marketing field today.

Q: We’ve learned a lot from you during your tenure as executive director, but what have you learned over the past two years?

MSI is a great stimulant to thinking because it’s continually creating forums—conferences, workshops, roundtables—for audiences who are hungry for ideas, and because it’s doing so across a broad front. Our speakers, whether from member companies, from the marketing profession, from business schools, or from the wider university community, push the envelope of what marketing is and what marketers should be doing. The work of professors favors thinking about what we already know a lot about. Two years at MSI have showed me what I wasn’t thinking about.

Q: Which conferences stand out to you in this regard?

Our Trustees Meeting in April 2012 raised the issue of how organizations should design themselves to do the work of marketing. It’s a topic that I had not known how to think about with any clarity until I met the ideas of some of the speakers. Adam Kleinbaum, for example, talked of the tensions between silos and networks specific to marketing and sales. Well-designed silos give an organization focus and efficiency, of course, but his data showed that people with diverse career experiences are crucial to compensating for the downside of silos. Ranjay Gulati spelled out how GE elevated the work of marketing by isolating four roles—instigator, innovator, implementer, and integrator. That framework helped me to make sense of many organizational efforts to evade disruption: how advertising agencies evolve to compete with enterprise sellers of technology- and data-driven marketing strategies, or how large, rigid platform companies adapt when their customers’ tastes change.

Our speakers push the envelope of what marketing is and what marketers should be doing.

At an October 2011 conference in Berkeley, Ben Huh, founder of, talked about managing a collaborative network of content-creating customers. And David Aaker reminded us that when consumers are creating the stuff that becomes marketing content, it is vital to have a vivid sense of the “shared interests” of firm and consumer. Both of them described a marketplace in which people formerly known as “market segments” are liberated from their categories and emerge as individuals. Some indeed become de facto part of the marketing team, contributing content that helps shape the meaning of the brand. This puts the marketers’ task in an entirely new light. For example, we learned that organizations would have to meet these active consumers halfway, stimulating content by putting the brand’s ideas out on blogs and social media and other media that invited response. Then they would have to curate those responses, as Cheezburger did to great effect on its website. As a museum curator does, a firm must capture what’s insightful from beyond the corporation’s view of itself, and store and present it in an accessible form. This means finding ways to distribute, not simply the organization’s message or positioning, but the content of the conversation, the two-way flow of meaning and creation.

Q: This upends our traditional view of marketers as consumer insights leaders, doesn’t it?

At the Chicago meeting on customer insights (a month before the start of my term) David Ginsberg discussed the breathtaking challenge to conventional market research presented by the findings of neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and behavioral economics. What’s to be done if we can’t trust what consumers say in focus groups and surveys? One answer is to listen in on what they say on social media. Mining social media for insights is not like mining surveys. Insights executives have traditionally been seen as carrying the voice of the customer to the organization—as if they were samplings from strata of minerals, taken back to the lab to be analyzed and interpreted and their value to be calculated. That is not the way that a number of companies are seeing the insights process any longer.

People formerly known as “market segments” are liberated from their categories and emerge as individuals.

We see the new process most vividly in purely digital products and entertainment products. At the Big Data conference at MIT we heard from Deb Roy of Bluefin Labs and Dave Poltrack of CBS how social media is monitored to gather the voice of television audiences and feed it to program designers. The cycle from the voice of the customer to the firm and back to the customer is so short now as to be almost continuous in many firms. In a way all good marketing has been conversation; now these conversations are on a much shorter cycle. Statistical analysis is still part of the insights person’s skill set, but so is some familiarity with information technology and data science.

Q: You’ve often talked about the impact of big data on marketing. How would you describe the data revolution today?

The most striking feature of today’s marketing landscape, when viewed through the lens of MSI’s conferences, is how much data matters to marketing. Data-driven marketing was once the province of a smallish group of direct marketing firms, but today it feels as if we’re all doing some amount of direct marketing. And because of a lot of the data are gathered from consumers who are interacting on mobile devices, the notion of “touchpoints” has acquired a quaint, almost nostalgic flavor. Given that we are touching our mobile devices almost continuously day and night, there are few moments, for many industries, when a marketer and a consumer are not in touch. There’s a lot of exploration in MSI member companies as to just what this rich flow of data means.

When MSI ran a conference on managing the customer experience [February 2013], the rationale was that we knew a fair amount about customer experience in service encounters but we didn’t know much about it in product encounters. One reason was that services were normally delivered in public but product encounters tended to occur privately behind closed doors. Well, today very little occurs behind closed doors. Customer experience is often continuously monitored. Consumer products are being designed with instrumentation to feedback usage data and to some extent emotional data to marketers. It won’t be long before you can read the behavior of a driver through instrumentation in the car, and the manufacturer (or the insurer) can step in to advise, to instruct, or to coach.

At this moment in mid-2013, it seems pretty clear that Congress will write rules and laws that govern just where to draw the line between consumer privacy and the efficient operation of markets. How the line is drawn will influence how rapidly this world of data-intensive marketing arrives. As a society, our learning has just begun and will likely continue for decades. Data production is showing no signs of slowing down. Professionally we have a lot of learning to do and personally we have a very new world to live in.

Q: Final thoughts on MSI’s role in this new world?

Just as cities grew at the crossroads of trade in antiquity, where one culture mingled with others, so MSI is a crossroad in the ideas trade. Marketing, the source of so much business innovation, needs that trade. All ideas, all insight into human nature and culture, have implications for what goes on in a marketplace.

The greatest danger marketing could face would be to be too sure that we know the extent of our field.

The greatest danger marketing could face as an academic discipline or as a professional practice would be to be too sure that we know the extent of our field. It is unbounded. That doesn’t mean that anything goes. It means that a large part of our professional or academic lives should be spent interrogating unexpected areas of human inquiry, unexpected methods, unexpected theories, unexpected tools, to see if they can help make the marketplace a more efficient place and a more satisfying place. That’s why I’ve enjoyed my two years at MSI. It’s not narrowly focused on propagating a particular agenda as many trade associations and professional associations are. It’s a place where scholars and professionals cross paths, and, importantly, it’s a place to which outsiders are drawn. MSI’s reputation is intriguing to outsiders. They want to know what’s going on in a community that studies the marketplace.

Related links

Beyond the Product: Designing Customer Experiences
February 19-20, 2013 [Conference summary]

Big Data
December 4-5, 2012 [Conference summary]

Marketing Communication in a Digital World
October 4-5, 2011 [Conference summary]

Sources and Uses of Customer Insights
June 23-24, 2011 [Conference summary]



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