The year of first-party data: Sir Martin Sorrell lays out 4 lessons for marketers to succeed in a new era of advertising

Vikas Agnihotri / December 2019

After three decades of unprecedented success at WPP, Sir Martin Sorrell knows a thing or two about driving businesses toward long-term growth. At Think Platforms India 2019 — a two-part event in Delhi and Mumbai focused on successful data-driven marketing in a privacy-focused world — Google India’s managing director of sales Vikas Agnihotri sat down for a chat with the inspiring advertising leader.

Sir Martin Sorrell needs no introduction. The founder of WPP plc, Sorrell notes that while he was with the advertising and PR firm, India was its “crown jewel.” After 30 years at WPP, Sorrell established a new digital advertising and marketing services company, S4 Capital, where he’s still captivated by the people, culture, and tremendous opportunity for growth in India.

I had the privilege of speaking with Sorrell at Think Platforms India in Delhi about his thoughts on India and lessons from his past experiences. But what stuck with me the most was Sorrell’s vision for marketing today. He laid out four key principles guiding S4’s path forward that I believe every marketer and business leader can learn from.

1) Go where the growth is

“Among the fastest-growing areas [at WPP], three were by far the most interesting: digital content, programmatic, and first-party data.” — Sorrell

While still at WPP in 2018, Sorrell saw that agencies like AKQA and Essence and data-driven companies like Kantar were growing faster than other areas of the business. The difference was their heightened focus on three facets: digital content, programmatic, and first-party data.

In those facets, Sorrell recognized a foundation for S4’s success. He saw where the growth was — in digital content and technology — and started “pushing on an open door.”

When marketers take a step back to survey what’s working (and what’s not), both behind their own business’s doors and around the industry, they can get a better idea of where they should be investing their time and resources. It just takes a willingness to learn, evolve, and adapt to areas where growth is strong.

2) Embrace first-party data while giving users choice and control

“One of my clients building up their business in India described 2020 as being the ‘year of first party data.’” — Sorrell

Research will tell you that specific, tailored marketing is much more effective than trying to achieve mass appeal. That’s where first-party data becomes critical. It’s the key to creating and delivering highly personalized content to the right audiences at scale.

Sorrell expressed that he and his team firmly believe that creative needs to be fit for both format and purpose. For instance, when they get an insight about consumers, “like women spending an average of 1.7 seconds on a Facebook post,” their first response is “to develop two-second digital ads — not a 15- or 30-second TVC.” The creative execution is inspired by an insight from first-party data.

However, Sorrell also shared that businesses may want to action first-party data but either lack integrated systems or clear policies to respect user privacy — or both. Using Boston Consulting Group’s definition of digital marketing maturity, ideally 100% of Indian companies will be using first-party data in the most effective way in a few years. India currently leads the region in that regard, but the number of companies that have reached their full potential is just 6% of those that BCG surveyed. This raises a pressing question: What can the rest of India’s businesses do to catch up?

In this environment, it’s up to business leaders to build more transparent, meaningful relationships with consumers to deliver tailored, timely messages while ensuring users’ right to privacy.

3) Focus on agility, quality, and efficiency

“One of the biggest problems CEOs of legacy companies face is the failure of their organizations to adapt quickly to digital transformation.” — Sorrell

Sorrell believes in three simple yet powerful tenets: faster, better, and cheaper executions. This trio has helped S4 grow from a “peanut”-size company to a “coconut or maybe even a pumpkin,” in just two years.

Faster is about being agile. If you’re not evolving as an organization, you’re falling behind. Being open to change and experimentation is paramount.

Better comes down to being well-versed on the advertising ecosystem. Sorrell advised that every marketer should understand 15 leading platforms and software companies, including Google, Snapchat, ByteDance, IBM, Adobe, and Salesforce, among others. Knowing how each company’s tools and platforms work, what unique benefits they offer, and why they’re hot (or not) in the industry is essential to advise clients on the best tools and route to take.

Cheaper is about becoming more efficient — not just with time, but with dollars and cents. That doesn’t mean resorting to zero-based budgeting (ZBB). While Sorrell described the approach as having a “dose of efficiency,” ultimately, long-term growth — not short-term gains — should always be the goal.

These three tenets come down to finding the most efficient strategy for your clients while still delivering the quality they expect and deserve. That requires being up to speed on new tools and technology that make it possible for marketers to work faster, smarter, and more efficiently than ever.

4) Get all teams within the organization to communicate

“The biggest issue for any CEO is getting everybody to face in the same direction at the same time.” — Sorrell

It’s up to business leaders to establish a single definition of profits and losses across their organizations. That’s impossible when long-standing, opaque walls separate each department.

Sorrell called out three areas in particular that need to work more closely for today’s businesses to succeed: marketing, sales, and IT. He elaborated with an example we can all relate to. Think about the last time you visited a bank. That interaction wasn’t facilitated solely by the marketing department; IT also played a huge role. And if you sat down to speak with a bank associate, there’s a good chance sales played a part, too.

Getting your teams to work together seamlessly is an organization-wide effort. It takes time and focus, but the result is being able to measure your campaigns more accurately, surface relevant insights from data, and get a better understanding of your audiences — all of which lead to deeper, more meaningful relationships with your consumers.

A new business model for long-term growth

Much of Sorrell’s success at WPP and his vision for S4 can be chalked up to an intense focus on being in business for the long term. Every business leader can borrow a page from that book and think about what they can do today to prepare their organization for the next five, 10, or 20 years. Keeping up with the pace of today’s consumers is an ongoing process, and setting up teams to adapt and evolve takes time. But the right time to start is always today.

“It’s clear to me that understanding the role of data and programmatic, and how that fashions highly personalized content at scale, is going to determine the future of marketing.” — Sorrell
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