Three years ago when St Ives bosses were told to scour the country for a business which would form part of the plan to transform the company from a print group into a marketing services expert, not many would have thought that rural Somerset was the most obvious place to go looking.
After all, you’d think that the hedgerows of Church Lane, Chilcompton, were more likely to be teaming with Red Rubys, Shorthorns and Friesians than one of the marketing industry’s success stories.
But a mile or so down the lane at Manor Farm sits just that: Occam. The company celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and became the start of the St Ives change plan. As the first purchase, Occam now forms a core part of the offering in the management, manipulation and analysis of customer marketing data. It also plans and runs communications activity for clients, with data at the core of this activity.
For many businesses, being swallowed up by a big group brings more than a few headaches, yet Occam’s managing director, Neil Evans, insists this deal has been a major step for the business. He explains: “We have been allowed to define our own future and to focus the business on what we feels our clients need. It’s a real pleasure to work with a group that encourages the business to stand on its own and also to be accountable for its own choices.
“The recent purchases made by St Ives are exciting additions to the portfolio and present huge potential in building a compelling offer over and above what Occam can deliver for its clients today.”
Partnerships within the group
The company now works in partnership with several of the other businesses in the group to form joint propositions that it pitches to existing and prospective clients. One such example of this is the RAC account, where Occam brought in Response One to provide data acquisition and enhancement services that it would have previously gone to market to secure. It is also in the process of planning new propositions and services across the other businesses to expand on the general offering.
Its rivals stretch from agencies such as Rapp, Wunderman and Indicia to specialist businesses like Data Lateral and DBG to the large companies such as Acxiom and Experian. And, like most, Occam is currently wrestling with the big data conundrum.
Evans breaks this down into two parts: the practical management of vast volumes of data through technology and reasoning why and what data you need to deliver an inspiring consumer experience.
“The latter is where businesses should be focusing but few are. Many are still pre-occupied with gathering vast amounts of data but not really knowing what they want to do with it, why they collect it (other than fear of not) and how they will utilise it once they’ve defined what they will do.
“For us, the first point is what we have done for year (now in larger scale) and the second point is where we are putting our focus to understand what a business wants to achieve, what its consumers will respond to and then how we can inspire a reaction from consumers through utilising the right data.”
Where does the expertise lie?
So, where does the expertise lie now, within client organisations or data firms? “It varies as it has and I think always will do,” says Evans, “depending on the strategic direction of a client’s business or brand. Many do not see data and technology as being ‘what they do’ and outsource it while others see it as critical to their strategy, and hold the majority of the IP and knowledge in-house.”
However, this attitude can bring its own issues, he believes. “All too often clients buy technology and hope it will solve their problems. We have a simple approach which is to start with your plans, ambitions, people and processes and work back from there fitting technology to these needs rather than re-engineering your business around a tech platform because someone has made a decision to buy it.
“Too often, you see RFPs for tech with little or no real relevance to how the business goes about its marketing and customer experiences, what insights they have on customers, media and products and what data they need to drive this. The result is an expensive decision that yields no real change other than the pain of moving to a new platform. There is a cookie-cutter approach that is great for the supplier to turn out a solution in good time with a decent yield but this results in client complaints as it does not really meet their needs.” Evans maintains data firms should take the time upfront to get to know a client’s business and its challenges and deploy a solution and services that resolve these.
So what are the major differences in client challenges now compared to two decades ago when Occam first launched? Evans continues: “Today is all about knowing your customer better than your competitor and in an instant being able to provide them with content and offers that will inspire them. While real-time is a big demand, today is about knowing and being able to provide unique and automated content to enhance a customer and prospect’s experiences of a brand.
“Occam is totally focused on profitable engagement and what is good business for its clients and their end consumers. Understanding needs and behaviours and matching this to our broader set of technology and marketing services is what sets us apart from many of our competitors.”
Getting to know your customers
Evans believes there are a number of major issues the industry will face in the future: “How do you make sense of the vast amount of data that is now available? That’s not about storing it or processing it – it’s about understanding it, and knowing what you need and what you don’t, and why. There are also greater budgetary pressures and proving the value of every pound spent is now more scrutinised than ever. The technology has advanced hugely and this alone is enabling marketers to provide unique consumer experiences through an ever-growing range of channels. Add to this the increasing awareness of consumers knowing their worth and the value of their data and you have what must feel like another universe from 20 years ago.”
The industry may have changed beyond all recognition since 1993 but one thing seems certain; there is still plenty of work to be done, down at Manor Farm…
St Ives grabs Amaze for £23.4m
St Ives guns for marketing growth
Why St Ives follows the apprentice
St Ives buys SEO agency for £10.7m
St Ives builds £55m cash war chest
£17m deal fuels print acquisitions