How I developed my data mindset
Updated: May 30
I have always been a logical thinker, liking order and neatness over what I perceived to be chaos.
But I also had a passion and mild talent for art which seemed at odds with my structured brain.
On balancing an offer from an Art College against a place at Durham University, my decision-making prowess went into overdrive. Gathering evidence to evaluate the relative strengths of each route, I weighed up my options. In the short term. Medium term. And long term in as far as I could forward project at the age of 17. And the Durham route resulted in more ticks than art college for me. My rational, analytical mindset won.
After a fantastic time at Durham (whilst putting art into the "its a hobby" category) I had a desire to forge a career in a creative environment and set my sights on the highly competitive ad-agency milk-round to become an Account Exec. My analytical brain failed to ignite the passions of those interviewing me until I eventually found myself in front of Steve Mattey, the Head of Data at WCJ (as it was known at the time - Wunderman as it is known today). This was to be a seminal meeting in my career and led to my first job in data planning.
Embracing inquisitiveness to understand the problems that could be solved with data and insight, designing processes to ensure data accuracy and compliance, and finding hidden insights that could shape the creative developments were significant contributions to the shaping of my mindset. My data mindset.
My career progressed through various top-tier CRM agencies, a stint client-side and within a data consultancy which led to me co-founding We Are MoJo. Each environment and role in my career journey sharpened my understanding of the benefits of data-led thinking to business growth, and also the barriers to embracing such thinking across an organisation.
Back when I started my career data teams were autonomous, working within the individual team environment and yes, delivering fantastic work for clients, but not always successfully immersed into the client or agency culture.
The bureau model for outsourced data management (for marketing especially) was common, few clients had access to their marketing database or, to be honest, had the SQL skills to interrogate it. Conversely, the bureau programmers rarely had the business knowledge to explore and query the data for interesting nuggets of insight that may reveal a relevant business opportunity.
The challenges for more widespread data-led thinking at that time included:
Integration. Being out of sight and therefore out of mind. The data teams were largely invisible to the marketing (and business) decision-makers which led to missed opportunities to make better decisions.
Lack of business ownership. Customers gave their data to businesses, but without a clear business owner of the data, no one is truly valuing the data collected or ensuring it is accurate, compliant and beneficial to the business.
Competing with intuition. Many decisions were made on gut feel. Facts and evidence didn’t always get enough visibility - and when such decisions were made they were often rationalised with statements such as “we must appeal to the aspirational audience, not the consumption audience”.
Some may argue that these challenges still exist today. And they do in many organisations. But the progress over the last 20 years has been exemplary. The significant changes brought on through changing attitudes to the value of data, the explosion in affordable tech platforms, GDPR and the rise of the CDO has put data conversations into leadership meetings and many decisions.
These positive changes really started to become visible to me 14 years ago when I was working at News International and was fortunate to be involved in a database development project to bring data accessibility in-house using SmartFocus.
Businesses were starting to understand the value of their data assets and no longer wanted to be held at arm’s length. Outsourcing data to agencies was seen as lost knowledge and lack of control, which when privacy was becoming increasingly conspicuous and the ICO was perceived to be issuing more regular fines, was a business risk.
Technology was also evolving giving the opportunity for non-technical users to query and plan using data, with more intuitive, interactive GUI front ends.
Data engineering expertise previously cultivated in bureau environments was still essential, but this was integrated into IT departments (rightly or wrongly) to again build and retain knowledge, keeping the valuable data assets close, and ability use it for insight and marketing closer still.
Over the last decade, these changes have resulted in a significant step change as to how businesses value and use their data.
But there are still challenges to be overcome including:
Data is still seen as a job role or the responsibility of a dedicated department. One for maths wizards and techie-minded people. It is not seen as a language that all employees should be comfortable conversing in.
Silos still need to be broken down. Data strategy should connect with business strategy to support and drive growth. It is not one or the other.
Making data and data-thinking accessible should not only be a privilege of enterprise businesses with deep pockets. We need to make data the currency of businesses of all sizes and value, to help them make informed decision to support their business growth. Ironically, a business with smaller budgets has a tougher task when it comes to choosing how to invest in data technology as the choice is immense at lower price points.
Measurement should be integral and drive decisions, not be an afterthought or a tick box exercise. All businesses should be learning and understanding patterns in behaviours to improve - this spans throughout a business from customer services through to product development.
Data literacy is a fundamental component to overcoming challenges such as these. But it will not overcome them in isolation. The cultural change as to how business leaders embrace the value of data and distil that throughout their organisations, the identification of the right capabilities in which to make data accessible for use and the skills of the people using data to drive businesses decisions day in and day out have to be considered.
Over my career, I have developed techniques and approaches that help businesses overcome these (and more) challenges.
This is where my data mindset triumphs.
Helping businesses use their data well in their organisations and drive growth from it by being more efficient, identifying hidden opportunities and by making better decisions.
Seeing a business grow using data well gives such a positive vibe, reassuring me that I made the right decision back when I was 17 to follow my logical, analytical head!
Founding We Are MoJo with Natasha Joslin has enabled us to combine our methodologies and mindsets and bring more businesses on their data mindset journey. Guiding business leaders and teams to embrace and use data well in their organisations, to drive business growth and increase data literacy across all tiers of employees.
If you are interested in how we can help your business find its data mindset and grow with MoJo, take a look at our website, LinkedIn page or email me at email@example.com