The UK data industry has come a long way since firms relied on a combination of the Electoral Register, product registration cards and lifestyle surveys to drive their marketing strategies. These days many brands have data at the heart of the business and this is only likely to increase further with the rise of machine learning and artificial intelligence as data becomes more and more critical as a business driver.
This has, in turn, triggered a proliferation of companies offering numerous specialisms, creating a labyrinth of firms through which clients have to try to plot a course.
One such business which is trying to stand out from the crowd is Blueberry Wave, which was founded in 2000 by Draft Worldwide managing director Pamela Bath and head of data Steve Schneekloth, who had, at separate times, both worked at CACI.
From the outset, the Cirencester agency has offered clients strategic CRM, driven by channel planning, data insight and analytics, as well as multi-channel marketing campaigns. And during its history it has worked with major household brands across retail, financial services, FMCG, telco and B2B. Many of its clients have been with the company for more than 10 years.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this has also drawn the attention of the big marketing groups but the company has resisted the urge to sell. Instead it fell for the charms of investment and advisory business Veriteva, set up by former Lateral and DST boss Nick Dixon (pictured) and business partner Rick Taylor, which took a strategic stake in the agency in November 2016.
Both Bath and Schneekloth have retained a shareholding in the business; Schneekloth has remained as managing director while Bath recently retired.
‘Data partnership inside’
Since then Blueberry Wave has brought in co-founder of insight consultancy Tree and former VCCP Me chief Steve Mattey as director of planning and analysis, set up a London office and struck a major “data partnership inside” deal with J Walter Thompson.
So, what does Blueberry Wave offer over its rivals? Dixon is in little doubt: “I think the difficulty clients face is finding ‘trusted advisors’ who can cut through the hype, sensibly review toolkits and help navigate the data landscape with a strong commercial focus.”
He claims that “there aren’t many, or even any companies that compare in the market. In short, people still buy people”.
Dixon adds: “That’s where we specialise. We have an utter focus on delivering commercial impact for our clients in a true long-term partnership, by having very experienced people who can see this end goal. This means helping clients assess their current situation impartially, defining the ‘art of the possible’ for each business and optimising what can be delivered from the operational resource and financial commitment that the client is able to provide.
“The longevity of client relationships we have is a testament to doing this work well over many years and integrating both digital and traditional channels.”
This was obviously an attractive proposition for JWT, too, as Dixon explains: “Many agencies have tried to embed data before into their core proposition but very few have had the success they desire. Clients in turn are demanding more from their agency relationships in terms of a data offering and need to see agencies embracing data as part of, and not added on to, the core services.
“What is important between us and the agency is the synergy of cultures – this is developed over a period of conversations and proof of concept work on a few clients, to prove that it is a mutually beneficial solution that would put data at the heart of the agency partner’s solutions and deliver added-value to their business which exceeds the ‘sum of the parts’ to create data-driven creative.”
Blueberry Wave’s first relationship for its business strategy of the ‘data business inside’ model sees the business embedded into the London offices at JWT. It is currently in a short-term exclusive relationship period with JWT to give it first mover advantage.
Blueberry Wave is also eyeing up working directly with clients, who it claims would benefit from specialist in-house teams to drive effective data strategy and efficient omni-channel activity.
Data skills in short supply
Dixons adds: “Data skills are in short supply, and it is often forgotten that data is part art and part science. All too often we find that clients employ people with the ‘science’ part of the skillset – in other words they can do a job – but forget that the art is how you craft these skills to be useful in a real-life situation – the commercial activation of the data and insight in the most effective way.
“Again, we employ not only scientists, but also craftspeople. This is the really rare skill-set which clients will increasingly need to compete in the future.”
But do clients “get” data or is it still viewed as a complete mystery?
Dixon believes it very much depends on the company. “There are a wide variety of knowledge levels across all clients. Many do get data very well indeed and are implementing very forward thinking strategies in this area. Most are on the journey to some degree. The real issue is the level to which the business sees data internally, what importance they place upon it and the influence it has through the organisation.
“Some are now appointing CDOs to their boards, though the definition of that role is still being defined organisation by organisation, which is encouraging for the future. GDPR has elevated the data agenda rapidly – largely out of fear – but this can only accelerate. There is also growing recognition of how important data is within an organisation. Compared with ten years ago – we are in a positively enlightened data age.”
A collaborative approach to GDPR
So does Dixon think that client marketers are fully prepared for the immense changes that GDPR will bring?
“No. Clients have been looking over their shoulder at the GDPR train about to hit them, and have now started running to avoid being hit by it. To be fair, the ICO has been poor at assisting companies get clarity on exactly what needs to be done, which hasn’t helped, but the hour is now upon us and we should all be working together better to have a common stance on many issues which need addressing.
“The media industry seems to be in total denial about the impact on programmatic advertising, hoping it may all just go away perhaps?
“Agencies and suppliers seem to have a wider viewpoint on what the market is doing to react to GDPR, but expertise is in pockets across both clients and suppliers. Going on a GDPR course doesn’t make you an expert, and the fear is decisions are being made by many of these ‘experts’, and, similarly, the legal industry will advise what the law ‘says’ rather than looking at pragmatic solutions to the guidelines in practice.
“It is not a happy combination, and we will probably see some cases actioned after the deadline, which unfortunately will start to create greater clarity that we all need today.”
Sheer volume of data can be a problem
However, Dixon does say that the sheer volume of data is a problem, because it is difficult to see the ‘wood for the trees’ when presented with such large amounts of information.
“Identifying the data that matters for each business challenge, is obviously key. The solution is to turn big data into smart data and maintain perspective and focus on the task in hand. Data for data’s sake is not the end game. Finding, using and growing customer data which can drive incremental gain for the business is what matters.
“The second issue is to buy technology which you believe fixes a data problem. Many clients have found themselves implementing an enterprise-wide system which does not deliver the promise it was sold against, is not fully understood by many of its users, and doesn’t operationally work with internal systems, processes and resources.
“Again, the answer lies in proper perspective and planning before committing a business to expenditure which may not have the impact desired.”
The growing influence of customer engagement
Even so, Dixon sees these moves as further proof of the growing influence of data and customer engagement strategies.
“Data pervades everything and every company must have some kind of data strategy underpinning their business and communications. The complexity between businesses does vary as we have said elsewhere, but no serious agency can expect to operate without some data offering to service the market. Clients demand it.
“In an increasingly results-focused marketplace, it is a ‘hygiene’ factor for marketing to be measured and ROI scrutinised, and as the ethics and law around personal data change, the very lifeblood to continue trading for some companies means that data is only going to become more and more important in the marketing and business mix.”
And that is a sentiment that even Blueberry Wave’s fiercest rivals would be hard pushed to disagree with…
Blueberry Wave launches in-house training academy
JWT seals in-house agency alliance with Blueberry Wave
Blueberry Wave brings in Mattey as operations chief
Nick Dixon buyout group swoops on Blueberry Wave
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