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4 Years Later, is Seth Godin still wrong about Marketing Data?

Ryan Greene

Head of Marketing

Four years ago, back in July 2013, Seth Godin threw shade on Data Analytics in Marketing by stating “Perhaps you could just make something awesome instead“. Seth is one of the most respected Marketing Minds in America, and this is how he put it then:

“Mass marketers love the promise of big data, because it whispers the opportunity of once again making average stuff for average people, of sifting through all the weird to end up with that juicy audience that’s just waiting to buy what they’ve made.

Big data is targeting taken to the highest level of granularity. It grabs your behavior across web sites, across loyalty cards, who knows, across your phone records… the promise of all this grabbing is that marketers will be able to find precisely the right person to reach at the right moment with the right offer.

…it’s based on the flawed assumption that the past is like the future, that correlation and causation are related. By that analysis, every Supreme Court chief justice, US president and New York City police chief is going to be a man. Forever more.

We are going to get ever better at giving committees ways to turn your work into banality. That opens up the market even more for the few that have the guts to put great work into the world instead.”

Three years later, in May 2016, Seth had not changed his mind.  He followed up with another rail against Data Analytics and Marketing by saying “Actually, more data might not be what you’re hoping for“:

“They got us hooked on data. Advertisers want more data. Direct marketers want more data. Who saw it? Who clicked? What percentage? What’s trending? What’s yielding?

But there’s one group that doesn’t need more data… Anyone who’s making a long-term commitment. Anyone who seeks to make art, to make a difference, to challenge the status quo.

… Data paves the road to the bottom. It is the lazy way to figure out what to do next. It’s obsessed with the short-term.

Data gets us the Kardashians.

I, and many others, disagree. Seth must go jump in the data lake.

You can be a visionary, you can be a perfect creative type, and still love and listen to the data.   You can want more data, not for a sense of comfort, but to spark both the left and the right side of the brain.

In fact all those menschen with vision had to ingest some kind of data in order make that which changed the world.  There was some trend they spotted first in order to take a left turn from it.

But we all love the story of the iconoclasts and non-conformists, the crazy ones, misfits and rebels who listen to no one and change the world.

“I don’t want to hear what the people want, I want to tell them what they want.” — Steve Jobs

“If I had listened to people, I would have made faster horses.” — Henry Ford

Except that Jobs and Ford didn’t say these things.

Henry Ford was famous for the assembly line, which remade worldwide manufacturing. Does anyone think that was not based on a lot of data?  He was also famous for not listening that customers wanted a choice of models – and colors other than black – and almost bankrupting Ford.

Steve Jobs said when he came back to Apple in 1997 (yes, believers, there is even a video of it):

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology…I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room…As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’…I think that’s the right path to take.

It is a reality that the companies and Marketers that are outpacing the rest, especially in retail, are those that are activating their customer data best: Amazon, Nordstrom, Starbucks.

Seth Godin is famous for saying, “The guy with the best story wins.”  Seth didn’t say “The guy with the best product wins.” (Except that he didn’t say either! That is how myths start.)

Seth wants to believe you can be a world Marketing leader by listening to no one, when it fact success comes from actively listening and then being convinced that you can change the conversation. That comes through data.

But perhaps Seth is starting to change his mind, and become more nuanced as the data train turns into a bullet train.

In January this year he made a post, “Just the right amount of data” in which he said:

“Information is data with a purpose and a context.”

Exactement, mon frère.


Written By

Head of Marketing

Ryan Greene is an expert on the intersection of customer data and digital strategies who has led big data marketing initiatives within the retail and financial services industries. Ryan joined ActionIQ because he believes business stakeholders are most effective when they have user-friendly solutions to extract intelligence and value from all their data.


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