Data Rich, Insights Poor – Why Metrics Alone Aren’t Enough with Adam Clarke of Reload Digital

Adam Clarke of Reload Digital
Adam Clarke, Reload Digital

Dan: Welcome to today’s podcast, which is part of a series we’re running with agency directors on the big challenges facing our industry. Today, we’re joined by Adam Clarke of Reload Digital, a leading digital agency specialising in e-commerce, to talk about the growing role of data and performance metrics and some of the challenges this abundance of information can present.

Adam, thanks for joining us.

Adam: Thanks for having me. At Reload, I am the general manager for our EMEA region. We have offices across the world, and we help grow e-commerce and retail brands. So, my role is effectively heading up the team over this side, and working across a range of brands and our leadership team over here.

Dan: Now, of course, you work with lots of big e-commerce brands and one of the big advantages must be the financial measurability of the work that you do. Does that ever risk encouraging something of a short-term mentality in favour of perhaps building longer-term strategies for those brands?

There’s almost too much data, too much information”

Adam: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s almost too much data, too much information, that I guess e-commerce brands can have – particularly compared to other businesses. As a bit of a data geek myself, I do have to say, I love it. I think having that visibility is a blessing. 

I think you’re right though. At times, you know, if we look at how we report, on the brands that we work with and the businesses we work with, it is now becoming a daily focus. It’s almost like how the news cycle has changed. You know, it used to be, just newspapers that people would read in the morning, but now it’s a 24/7 news cycle, and it’s kind of like that with the data and the reporting on the e-commerce side, I’d say. So at times, I think there’s a worry that people are making decisions that maybe aren’t too smart just because the data is coming in thick and fast. So, I think brands do need to be aware of that and make sure that they’ve got a good decision-making process in place when trying to look at the financial data and performance data. 

Dan: Does that obsession with data – and as you say there’s a good reason for it – does that fixation on data ever undermine the creative process? I mean after all, it can tell us how successful we were with the things that we did in the past, but it can’t tell us how successful we could have been with other ideas, or indeed what we should be doing in 12 or 24 months from now.

Is there ever a danger that this access to data narrows our vision too much? 

“data is never a bad thing, but I think it’s how you actually review it and how you make decisions from it. Too often people can get tripped up by interpreting data in the wrong way or by looking at things that aren’t as important.”

Adam: Yeah, I think so. The creative one is interesting, because so often, yeah, they’re poles apart when it comes to creating a unique idea, maybe for a new campaign or a new marketing message, you know, often that is done with some data at the start. You know, you look at audiences, you do some market research and you really try to hone in on who you’re talking to, but then that process of actually creating that message is a very different type of process. So, when it comes to reporting on that, I think it is hard often to know how successful that was compared to other ideas that you could have come up with in the ideation process. 

I think what I’d say is, I guess, data is never a bad thing, but I think it’s how you actually review it and how you make decisions from it. Too often people can get tripped up by interpreting data in the wrong way or by looking at things that aren’t as important. So yeah, I think also looking ahead, if we look at even just the US election as an example; people were trying to use data to forecast what’s going to happen in the future and just look at how tricky that was and how incorrect that polling data was. To look ahead to the next couple of weeks and years using the data that you’ve got is a very hard thing to do. I think everything needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. 

Dan: Are there any performance metrics that you think can help strike this balance? You know, metrics that may sit somewhere between, you know, along that spectrum on the one end of the spectrum, you know, short-term tactical sales efforts and the other end, the more kind of strategic, brand objectives. Are there any metrics that you think can help strike that balance? 

“More and more it’s looking up the funnel at ways to use metrics that are more accountable and impactful, because I think a lot of businesses or brands you work with get a bit fed up with the fluff.”

Adam: Yeah. I think if I look at this in terms of the metrics that we deal with daily, you know, at the bottom of the funnel we’re talking about ROAS, we’re looking at new acquisition customer rate and repeat customer rate, that kind of thing. More and more it’s looking up the funnel at ways to use metrics that are more accountable and impactful, because I think a lot of businesses or brands you work with get a bit fed up with the fluff. They don’t like it if we do a big sort of programmatic or big media campaign, and all we’re talking about is impressions or the number of people that engage with the app. They want to see how many people actually visited the site. What was the potential of new business and customer acquisition on the back of it? And so, what we try to do is look at what we expect of somebody who has seen, you know, it might be an out-of-home billboard, it might be an Instagram story, but what is the expectation of that person at that point? We’re not expecting them to purchase or make an inquiry if it’s maybe a B2B customer journey, but what are we expecting of them? And that’s where we use things like leading indicators, we call them success metrics, and it could be things like visiting the website and consuming three or four pages of information. Potentially, if it’s an e-commerce store, visiting a product page, adding something to their cart, there are lots of indicators that we can use to determine if yes, somebody, didn’t check out or didn’t enquire, but do they have all the hallmarks of somebody that is likely to over time?

So, more and more trying to understand it’s not just black and white, we need to be trying to look at those grey areas in between. 

Dan: Something that I’ve found – I don’t know if you’d relate to this or maybe challenge this thesis – is because we, as you said, we have access to so much data all the time and we’re reporting it on it on an increasingly frequent basis, sometimes it’s almost tempting to hide behind that data. If it’s favourable, we take credit, if it’s not so encouraging then we, you know, sort of panic and try and find some excuses. I think, very often this needs to be perhaps balanced with a focus on inputs, as well as outputs. 

What are the big strategic milestones, the big tangible things we’re going to achieve – whether that be over the next quarter, six months, whatever – that will then, in turn, lead to those favourable KPIs, further down the road? I wonder what your perspective is on that? So, balancing out a focus on metrics with actually a focus on getting big strategic stuff done in the first place.

“I think your point is so valid in terms of people framing data in a way that makes what they want it to look good, look good, and maybe ignoring what the data is actually telling them.”

Adam: Yes. I think your point is so valid in terms of people framing data in a way that makes what they want it to look good, look good, and maybe ignoring what the data is actually telling them. I think that is a big part of how smart businesses and smart brands approach data. They’re going in with their eyes open to what they may find. 

I think what we try to do for the clients we work with is just use it to spot opportunities and try and go in, and we do something called ‘second pair of eyes’, so where even if we have worked with the client for a long time, we have somebody in the team that maybe isn’t as familiar to jump on and have a look with fresh eyes at what they’re seeing to try and spot those opportunities.

In terms of how you make sure that you’re looking at the things that you can do along the way to get you to that end goal, I think that’s such a good point. This is why things like OKRs I’ve become so popular, and that more long-term planning has become very popular with those KPIs along the way, because it’s so easy – particularly with the brands and the clients that we work with – to get caught up in the weekly reports and what we really need to be doing is thinking about, okay, so what do we need to do in terms of growing the business in the short term? What are the immediate priorities? Here’s where we work to allowable customer acquisition costs or allowable lead costs, but it’s also thinking, okay, in a year’s time, what are the things that the brand of the business we work with needs to achieve? That could be growing its social offerings, it could be bringing more people to the informational parts of the website – so they’re not just pushing products and inquiries – so, it’s trying to balance those short term and long term metrics

Dan: Do you find that the job title of the primary point of contact makes a difference here? So, if you’re dealing with somebody who, perhaps in a really big organisation, might be several tiers down from the top and they’re probably under quite a lot of pressure to hit certain short-term metrics and in turn, they, therefore, need to pass that pressure on to you. Whereas, if you’re dealing with somebody more senior who might be at liberty to take more of a strategic, longer-term view on things, do you find that that affects where the focus is placed at all? 

“I’d actually say though, it’s less about job title and role, and more about their outlook.”

Adam: It’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because I think there’s a couple of things to that. There’s definitely the job role itself, different roles naturally have different responsibilities and different things that need to be reported on. So, I think you are right in saying that, you know, a day-to-day contact that we may have, it could be a marketing executive or marketing manager, or it could be kind of a more specialist position, such as an internal SEO manager, something like that, they’ll have a completely different set of things that they’re interested in looking at compared to a CEO or an MD or an e-commerce director who is not as obsessed, maybe at the detail, but can look a bit further ahead. 

I’d actually say though, it’s less about job title and role, and more about their outlook. So, what’s that person’s experience? You can see it a lot by, you know, the difference between people that maybe have had agency experience versus in-house, or you know, a particularly different vertical or industry. We often see very big differences in the fashion brands that we work with, you know, particularly if it’s a fast-fashion brand, versus something like travel, where it’s a completely different seasonal cycle. So I’d actually say it’s more their expertise to that point, the experience they’ve had, that informs what they almost go looking for, and the data that they seek versus the data they don’t seek.

Dan: I wonder if you feel any of this has changed at all in recent years? I mean, do you see a certain trend? Has your attitude itself perhaps evolved somewhat? You know, five years ago, are there certain things that you don’t do now that you did do back then? Do you feel like there’s a certain journey that you’ve gone through and certain lessons that you’ve learned?

“Data on it’s own is pointless. It’s basically the difference between having a load of words and not telling a story with it”

Adam: Yeah, I would say that the thing that we’ve noticed the most is firstly, just the thirst for data. You can see that in terms of, I guess, the conversation we’re having now and the conversations we have with our clients. More and more, having a report, a PDF, that’s sent across every three months or every month doesn’t cut the mustard anymore. I think a lot of clients want access to the information a lot quicker, and so that has definitely given people more data more frequently, but I think more and more, there’s a slight backlash to that. Data on it’s own is pointless. It’s basically the difference between having a load of words and not telling a story with it, and I think that’s what more and more clients want to see. They want to see what the data is actually telling them, what are the key trends? What do they need to do as a result of that data? And so, I think the biggest thing we’ve noticed is the importance of that. Making sure that everything we’re doing is, has a conclusion, has it has a takeaway point, because I think marketers, they need more and more answers. They don’t just want the data in the first place.

“Different roles and different people require different things – giving the same four people in a business, the same report doesn’t really work anymore.”

I think the second thing that we’ve definitely noticed comes back to what we were saying a minute ago, different roles and different people require different things – giving the same four people in a business, the same report doesn’t really work anymore. I think the importance of good reporting is taking data and giving that intelligence, that business intelligence, to the right people and only giving them what they need to see. So, yeah, I think more and more what we’ve seen is the importance of the ability to not just have the data in the first place and to be able to pull it together, but to tell a story with it and present in a palatable way that is actually quite actionable.

I’d be interested in some of your thoughts on some of these topics. How have you seen things change from your side? 

Dan: We tend to deal a lot with business owners or senior decision-makers within slightly smaller companies, and therefore these individuals have really, really short attention spans.

There are probably two or three metrics they really care about, and they’re interested in what it means, as you’ve alluded to, and what those actions will then look like over a relatively short period of time. So, I think we’ve for quite a long time, had a big focus on that very frequent communication of a very small number of pre-agreed, quite strategic KPIs along with a relentless focus on quarterly strategic objectives, because I’m just a big believer that if we always take the attitude that in three months from now, we’re going to achieve three, four, five things that are going to have shifted the brand universes beyond where it is today, then the KPIs are going to take care of themselves and you know, yes, you’ll have good weeks and bad weeks and broader economic factors that may filter down or whatever, but it’s about in my mind, it’s about not getting distracted by that. Just being laser clear on what those big strategic items that we need to tick off. 

So, I think that’s been our focus for a little while, but I think we’re still playing a role around with exactly how we deliver that to clients. As you’ve said, different people need it in different ways. For someone, you know, it may be a 30 or 40 page PDF that they want, because they’re really interested in the detail, you know, particularly if they’re a marketing manager themselves, whereas a business owner or C-suite director may want a text message, or it could be anything in between. So it’s just as you say, it’s about treating individuals as individuals and making those smart decisions rather than just shoehorning everyone into the same category. I certainly think we’ve got a way to go. We’ve got some ideas about how we can improve this further, but it’s reassuring to hear that you’re broadly thinking the same thing. 

Adam: Yeah. I also think, as I said, it does come down to personal preference with these things and I think you know, if as a marketer, you are comfortable with the numbers and familiar with that, you’re going to spend more time deciphering it and that kind of thing. Whereas, you know, if you’re more of a creative person or brand-led, you’re less so, and I think it’s just trying to find that balance between both of those worlds.

Dan: I would suggest that maybe some channels are by their very nature, more short-term than others – that’s a huge generalisation – but I wonder if there are any particular channels that you try to bring your customers back to and say, all these channels are really important, but actually strategically these two or three is where we can build serious, long-term assets. 

I’d just be interested, particularly with you having such a strong focus on e-commerce, if you have any particular channel focus in that respect? 

“Just because a channel doesn’t deliver a direct purchase, it doesn’t mean it’s not doing something.”

Adam: Yes. The thing with that is there are definitely channels that if you can grow over time, will reap rewards. So it completely depends on the brand and the vertical, but we work with a lot of brands that would call themselves purposeful brands. They have extremely strong brand equity and engagement with their customers, and so that typically occurs across the likes of Instagram, YouTube and your stack of social channels. Those channels that typically yes, you will get a return on them, and that has increased in 2020 versus a couple of years ago. It’s definitely increased the likelihood of getting a direct purchase, but what we think is important to realise is as those channels grow, the ability then to use those audiences to drive the bottom of the funnel activity does too. So, it’s not just getting that brand reach and showing somebody maybe an advert at that point, it’s also by them coming onto an audience remarketing list, maybe visiting the website over the next two or three weeks. It’s not just the long-term, but even in two, three weeks, they will then potentially become a customer because they are now on another data list and that kind of thing.

So, I think there’s definitely channels that are more long-term and brands need to focus on, but it is joining the funnel. I think too often you might do a huge media campaign that had no link to the other activity that was happening, so there could be a huge display campaign showing ads across a stack of different websites, maybe doing some catch-up TV or some pragmatic videos, and that would all be a completely separate entity. All the activity that was happening across SEO or PPC, or even email marketing, are separate entities probably run by different people. So what we are trying to do more is make sure that there is a holistic strategy with that, so the customer(s) you’re targeting is clear, and so is what each channel is doing and what role they have to play. Good attribution modelling is important as well, so that again, just because a channel doesn’t deliver a direct purchase, it doesn’t mean it’s not doing something.

So yeah, I think there are definitely channels out there, but it’s how they all fit into the big mix.

Dan: As you say, the key there is integrating it all and making sure it’s all aligned, so you’ll have different people who are specialists in different areas, but presumably then you need one, or maybe several people, spearheading that and bringing it all together? Presumably that therefore demands that they have a combination of left and right brain and quite a broad skill set? 

What are your thoughts on individuals in that kind of role? If we go back 20 or 30 years, the kind of conventional marketer wouldn’t necessarily have been talking about data – they probably still had an analytical mind – maybe not in quite the same way that we’re talking about today. I wonder what are the two or three traits that you might search for in the kind of individual to lead that and to bring those very different parts of the overall marketing spectrum together?

Adam: Yeah, it’s definitely a difficult role to hire for, whether you are agency side or in-house, we call it ‘a unicorn’. I think realistically, you’re looking for somebody that is maybe not a complete mathematical genius, but they are comfortable with numbers. They can interpret data and play around with it, but they also have an appreciation of solid marketing theory and frameworks and an understanding of what makes a good brand versus a bad brand. That links to being able to understand customers and the audiences they’re talking to.

I think you are looking for somebody that potentially isn’t super strong in any one of those areas, but can join the dots and bring it together. Naturally, they’ll be quite an inquisitive person, they’ll have an interest in finding out more information and digging a bit deeper. But yeah, it’s not an easy role to hire for.

I think what you can find though, and we see it if you look at successful businesses (and there are so many examples of these), there’s always a range of people at the top that have grown that business. You have somebody that is the financial director and heads up that side of the business, then you have somebody who is a salesperson, or more focused on the brand or marketing, so it doesn’t always need to just be one person. I think, as long as there’s encouragement and dialogue there along with joint decision making, I think you can have a team that has a mixture of those skills. 

Dan: Is there one – and the answer may well be no, as you say, maybe it’s just a general mix of being quite good at lots of different things – one single defining trait that links all the best marketers you have worked with together?

“I think the two traits that come up again and again, are big picture thinking, and also being able to assess it and analyse a set of data points or options on the table and make decisions fairly quickly”

Adam: That’s a good question. I’d say it’s hard with this one, because at Reload we have clearly defined values that we look for, and they’d always be people that have clear drive and determination, people that take responsibility and people that want to collaborate and share ideas. I do think if you add those values into the mix, any marketer would benefit from them. 

I’d say maybe looking more at the clients that we work with, the different businesses and brands – it completely depends on the role specifically – when I look at the best all-rounders, the people that are leading an internal marketing team, they may have a data analyst reporting to them, they might have a brand or creative person and some specialists, and they’re also coordinating with an agency. Typically, that person can think ‘big picture’. They can see beyond the monthly report, they can see where they want to take the marketing and the goals that they have, where they want to take that in the next six months and beyond, because I think that big picture, strategic thinking allows them to make good long-term decisions.

I think the people that we’ve worked with have always had an interest in understanding what other brands are doing in the market. They can reel off their competitors and why they’re either good or bad. So I think that’s really important, and at the same time, they can look at the details and make quite quick decisions based on that.

So I think the two traits that come up again and again, are big picture thinking, and also being able to assess it and analyse a set of data points or options on the table and make decisions fairly quickly, because particularly in e-commerce, decisions do need to be made quickly. It can’t be a case of taking two months and having a two-hour coffee break to make that decision. 

Dan: Final, question: what’s the single biggest mistake that you think you’ve made? If you were to go back and talk to yourself, say eight or nine years ago, and you could say one thing to that younger Adam to ensure that he accelerated that learning or avoided that mistake altogether, what might that be? 

“Make sure that when you are looking at any mistakes, look at the reasons why.”

Adam: I think, firstly, I’m a big believer in the idea of learning from mistakes. I think one of Facebook’s values is ‘fail fast’, and to me, that is really important, particularly if you are in a leadership position in any business. Being able to understand why you’ve gone wrong and being able to listen to your team, to the people around you and take away the personal emotions from that, I think are vital to good decision making and that kind of thing. 

If I was to look back, I would probably speak to my 20-year-old self and say make sure that when you are looking at any mistakes, look at the reasons why. 

We’ve had it a couple of times hiring, we’ve done a lot of hiring in the last couple of years and we’ve made good decisions and bad decisions and I think too often, you’re quick to make a judgment on why that was maybe a bad decision or why that mistake was made. For hiring in particular, it could be your interview process, or was it the candidate pool? Could you have gone out and done a bit more? I think you can extrapolate that across everything. It kind of links back to the conversation we had about data. It’s really understanding, was the strategy bad? Or were there other factors at play? Was it more of a symptom of the situation at hand? 

So, just taking stock and not panicking. Try to work out why that mistake was made. Once you’ve worked that out, It’s moving quickly to put it right. So, yeah, that would probably be what I’d say to my much younger self. 

Dan: Well, thank you so much, Adam. Some really insightful stuff and I’ve made a tonne of mental notes to action. Really appreciate your time.