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Training Marketing Unicorns at Medill

Apr 17, 2023

Chris Cahill, a senior lecturer in the IMC Professional program, said, “There are armies of data scientists that are being minted by universities and organizations, and they're really good at optimizing a specific goal. What they're terrible at is being able to put that into the business context or explain that back to a marketing team lead.”

Cahill knows a lot about using data in marketing. He’s worked in analytic leadership roles on the agency side with the Chicago office of Wunderman (now Wunderman Thompson) and on the brand side for Associated Bank, among others. He also founded and ran a marketing analytics company for several years.

He now serves as the vice president of North American operations and global procurement at dancewear company Rev Up Brands, in addition to his work with Medill. He teaches Marketing Research, one of the three IMC Professional core classes, and the elective Segmentation and Lifetime Value.

Building Careers at the Intersection of Data and Marketing

Cahill believes people who can translate data into strategic or tactical direction are uniquely valuable. “They're unicorns still in the business world, where they've got one foot in the data world and one foot in the business world.

“And I think the IMC students are really geared to serve as that data translator, someone who understands what the model's intended to accomplish and then how that result can be used to inform and optimize a campaign over time,” he said.

Driving Action with Data Stories

Data doesn’t create any business benefit unless it drives effective action. Telling a good data story is the best way to help people understand what action to take. “That data translator is someone who's able to take the insights from an analytic technique and communicate that in a story–communicate that in a way that the marketing team's going to understand it,” Cahill said.

He emphasizes the development of storytelling skills in both of his courses because it’s a specialized skill that takes practice.

“It is very specific, and it's challenging to get that right balance between creating confidence in the fact that you know what you're doing,” he said, “and at the same time, not talking with so much jargon that people can't understand what you're talking about.”

Predicting Customer Responses

Understanding customers and predicting their purchases is central to Integrated Marketing Communications, and marketers were early adopters of predictive analytics.

Predictive analytics is a set of techniques that “identify meaningful patterns in current and past data that can, in turn, help companies understand what happened, why something happened, what might happen, and what should be done next to optimize outcomes.”1

Cahill focuses on three general predictive analytics use cases in his Medill courses: customer scoring, segmentation and customer lifetime value.

For customer scoring, Cahill noted, “it's about their pattern of customer behavior.
Have they bought recently? How often did they buy? How much did they spend?”

Tailoring Marketing Activations

Customer segmentation, grouping customers in meaningful categories for a particular business, is another form of analytics that can drive effective marketing activations. “That's a different technique,” Cahill said, “where you're trying to find characteristics of the customer that are similar to others, but that group is distinct from other groups that you're creating.

“You're trying to create these customer segments so you can inform the content of your messages,” he continued. “So you might be selling the exact same product, but you can start to tailor the benefits in a way that is more relevant to each one of those different customer segments.

“You can tailor those differentiated messages and offers back to a family that is going to be distinct from empty nesters; that's going to be distinct from young college graduates. They all have different needs and experiences.”

Understanding the Value of a Customer

Understanding customer lifetime value is helpful in creating marketing budgets. If you know the average lifetime value of a customer, it’s easier to know what to spend on customer acquisition and retention efforts. Medill IMC’s elective course, Customer Segmentation and Lifetime Values, focuses explicitly on the concept.

“The methodologies that I'm teaching are industrial-grade segmentation methodologies. If the students were to go to most any consulting firm or analytics consulting firm or agency, their data teams would be employing these exact same methodologies,” Cahill said. “The experience that they're getting through that course is a tutorial that they're not going to get many other places.”

Practicing with Large Data Sets

Cahill draws on his long experience with marketing analytics to supply Medill students with realistic data sets for coursework. “They're stylized versions of a data set, what it might look like for a mutual fund company or for a certain type of clothing manufacturer. But they're truly representative of what that kind of data is,” he said.

“It's not a small data set,” he continued. “They're working with a realistic set of transactions, and I'm asking them to start to modify this data set so they can actually do some analysis. I work through each one of those steps with them.”

Dyani Marvel

Unlocking the Inspiration in Your Data

Watch instructor Dyani Marvel's presentation on data and creativity for insights and an inspirational case study about data-inspired marketing.

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Thinking About AI in Marketing

ChatGPT and other large language models have garnered a lot of public attention, but Cahill thinks the data wrangling and analysis capabilities are more interesting applications. “There are a lot of ways in which AI as an approach is helping to handle some of the data hygiene and missing data type problems that we have as data scientists.

“It's also starting to help automate how we produce the algorithms, the models themselves. There's a lot of advances in that AI capability, and there are certainly lots of organizations out there that are building black boxes,” he said.

But off-the-shelf AI tools don’t fill the need for marketing insight. “If you just have a score, you can use that to talk to the right people, but you don't know why you're talking to them. And at the end of the day, marketing is all about understanding why you're having this conversation with this likely-to-convert customer. And if the black box can't tell you that, then you're marketing with one arm tied behind your back.”

Creating Your Winning Value Proposition as a Marketer

High-caliber instructors and a professionally-focused curriculum are key components of Medill’s value proposition for professional marketers. “We provide a really good curriculum geared toward giving students exposure to the latest tools and concepts and approaches across a wide variety of different disciplines within marketing,” Cahill said. “So it's not just analytics, but PR and communication strategies, brand strategies, the whole ballgame.”

The other component of the IMC Professional program that helps students in their quest to become marketing unicorns is the opportunity to collaborate with other dedicated marketing professionals. “What sets the IMC Professional students apart is the diversity of the current work environments that they're in–an amazing representation of different organizations and different industries. And the payoff is for the students because they hear so many different perspectives on the same issue.”

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