IBM’s Erick Brethenoux on Getting Smart, Not Creepy, With Data

Erick Brethenoux is the Director of Business Analytics & Decision Management Strategy at IBM, an enviable position for anybody interested in the collection and application of data.

April 25, 2014

He spoke with YCCI recently about the insights that companies can gain from a careful look at information, along with the personal insights he’s gained from the words of his dissertation adviser and his role as a parent.

Brethenoux will dig much deeper into big data when he presents on May 9th at the 2014 Customer Insights Conference in a discussion titled, “Online Marketing: Now It's Personal.”

The following has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Within IBM, what do you see as the frontiers—the unexplored areas—of data analytics?

Well, the answer is very varied, because the usage of data is so varied. Looking only at our customers, you get very advanced marketing organizations, and then you get people who are laggards. So the frontiers are different depending on how advanced the data usage is and how risky the organizations choose to be.

What I would say is that concerns around privacy and security—privacy of data and security of data—are the things that are constantly nagging everybody. These concerns are steadily on the minds of people who use big data. When it comes to the application of information there is a border, and nobody quite knows where the border is at this point. Everybody is mindful that there is a line. They have to be very careful about crossing that line.

That gets directly to the second question. You’ve mentioned that leveraging data can push interactions "to the edge of uncomfortable business behavior." How do you gauge where that edge is? How do you know when you’ve crossed beyond it?

That’s a tough one. In addition to the fact that some companies are business-to-business while others are business-to-consumer, even individual industries are very different in their approach to analytics. So retailers, cellphone providers, bankers—they all have different ways of looking at this issue, and a different history of looking at it.

But for everybody it’s an issue at the individual level. My level of comfort will be very different than yours, which will be very different than your mother’s, and so on. So there is a way to think about this issue as dependent on the individual people you are accessing. Highly personalized marketing is still an art form, even if analytics is much more of a science than it used to be.

Therefore, companies must get into the habit of really listening to the customers. I’m not talking about “customer is king, let’s listen.” Frankly, most companies do not intently listen to their customers, or to their consumers. They do not. They need to start getting into the habit. If they are not listening, then these voices are being amplified through social media, and they can come back with real force. It can be very hard to repair this kind of damage. So finding the edge of highly personal analytics remains an art form today. To gauge where the boundary is—well, that requires work, because companies have to listen very closely to every one of their customers.

Where do you see signs of companies that are starting to listen closely?

I see some of the food companies doing this. Nestlé and Dannon, for instance, are starting to pay much more attention to individualized communications. Much more than airline and cellphone companies, food companies today realize that they have a vested interest in this area given the type of products they sell. Generally, I think that companies involved in health and wellbeing are doing this well. Weight Watchers, for example, is very intently picking up on cues at the individual level. They are careful about how they communicate on such a sensitive subject.

And, surprisingly, I think that Dove, as a brand, is pretty good at this. The advertisements that they have with women who are not models? Those kinds of shifts mean that they are starting to be very careful about how they communicate.

I was curious about something else you’ve said, that trust and loyalty have to be rebuilt with consumers. Is that because of privacy issues? Why rebuilt, as opposed to just built?

Because all of us have been treated like cattle. We’ve been spammed, we’ve ben junk mailed to death. We’ve been flooded with messages that have nothing to do with what we want. We’ve been offered coupons for things we will never in a lifetime buy. Companies keep overwhelming us with irrelevance. But since the advent of social media, consumer expectation has risen significantly and we, companies, can pay far more attention to it.

So the “rebuild” means, simply, show me you care. Just show me you care, that you know me better than this.

How do you see customers responding to companies that show this kind of care?

So that goes back to the second question—that edge of discomfort. We talk a lot about the creepy zone, which was a concept originally discussed by Gartner, and one that I find really interesting. What is your level of comfort? How fast can I, as a company, respond directly to you, and how well can I craft the response to your tastes, without creeping you out? Where is this balance? It varies by person, of course. So companies have to show enough knowledge about me, as a customer, to indicate they know “my kind.” Once they have the right kind, and assuming I respond well, then they can start to understand me a little more personally and see how that lands.

There is a game consultant company, and the President, Nicole Lazzaro, has said that intimacy is when you can poke people and they poke back. Another way to see this is with The Friendly Insult. I like that very much. That level of intimacy is essential, when you do something with a customer and he or she responds well—though not all of them will respond the same way. If companies are sensitive to this variation, sensitive enough to be personal and individual based on responses, then they can start to engage in a truly trusting relationship.

Switching gears dramatically, we’re always curious to ask people how they think about, or define, an insight.

For me, it’s that small a-ha! An insight is a transient moment. You’re like, “Oh, yeah. There you go. Very interesting, I didn’t think of it that way!” So, a small a-ha moment.

What's some of the best advice you've ever received?

You know, I thought a lot about this question, about some of the advice I got early on and still strive to apply. One of the most important pieces of advice came from my dissertation adviser, Dr. Weaver. Before releasing me into the real world, Dr. Weaver told me: “You will succeed in your professional life if you apply two things.” First, never take personally a critique aimed at your job. Second, work for ten years on a piece of research, watch someone in a single morning unquestionably disprove your progress, and then return the next day to start over with the same enthusiasm.

I have found number two much easier to apply than number one. Every day I pour my heart, my passion, into my work. Because of this, I constantly try to look at my work objectively, to be ready to take criticism at face value, constructively. It is much harder than it appears, and it does not get easier as long as you continue to pour that same passion into what you do.

And the final bit: if you were writing your autobiography, where would you start?

Probably when I held my firstborn in my arms. Suddenly, life took a completely different turn. Everything that I had done before was put in new light, and everything I was doing going forward I was completely unprepared for. So I would start at that moment.

So no amount of data analytics helps with that?

The only thing that helps is knowing that I need to learn things constantly, and to anticipate. And so data analytics is a piece of this, of hoping to see what’s next. Having this predictive background, I apply it to parenting.

In fact, data is very important because data does not always mean numbers. It can mean my daughter comes to me and is talking about something, trying to convince me of something, and I take a pause and say: okay, what are the facts? Let’s not just take emotion. Emotion is a very important variable in any equation, but it’s not the only one. You also need to be able to get the facts. That’s what data means. Let’s not just hope and dream. Let’s make decisions based on something that is real.