Fine Margins

by Mark Sales | Jul 20, 2018

I'm writing this blog two days after England was knocked out of the 2018 World Cup.  While the end result was obviously gut wrenching, in hindsight what matters most is that my obsession with the sport was satiated for almost a month, as our often maligned national football team restored our pride by overachieving and reaching the semi-finals of the biggest sporting event on the planet.

I personally love sports, of most varieties, and although my participation is now limited to 5-a-side football once a week with friends, my monthly satellite subscriptions keep me "in the game" -- making it possible to watch live sports on TV 24/7. This is something my wife absolutely abhors, but she understands that it's just something that's built in me, a fine example of nature vs. nurture. She's more a lover of the arts, and there starts the debate -- is sport, particularly football, an art or science?


I personally think it's evolved over time. From the  1950's through the 1980's, the world witnessed such artists as Stanley Matthews, George Best, Pele, Diego Maradona and the like. Players who were so gifted that they were head and shoulders above the rest. They defined "the beautiful game", yet surprisingly many of them smoked and enjoyed the "good life". George Best, for example, definitely loved a glass of champagne, or 10! That's not even mentioning all of his other "extra-curricular" activities.

But then, something happened, and I can even pinpoint the date it happened. On 15 August 1992 the Premier League launched in England and Sky TV poured millions of pounds, which would later become billions, into the sport. Success took on a whole new meaning and players' salaries and transfer fees rocketed. The strong focus on winning drove an influx of sports scientists -- from nutritionists, to psychologists, to the famous "moneyball" approach that was adopted from the Fenway Sports Group in baseball to Liverpool FC.

But most of all, this scientific approach was all about fine margins -- the ability of a player to go at full exertion for an extra 5 minutes, or to mentally know he will score. Collectively, fine margins make for winning or losing teams. A sport that exemplifies this better than any other is Formula 1 racing, as gaining even 1,000th of a second can be the difference between victory or defeat.

Science and fine margins are things we're obsessed with in medicine discovery and development, but I'm not sure we pull this through to pharma brand marketing. And, the way we're setup doesn't help at all, as we're far too good at doing what we've always done as an industry. This includes:

  1. Far too many people being a product of the system (sales force > sales management > marketing) and who don't have the skills needed to truly succeed.
  2. Stakes that are so high that they perpetuate the "nobody ever got fired for buying IBM" mentality.
  3. Complacency and a mindset of - "Well, we've been launching blockbusters for years and we know what we are doing". This annoys me the most! Did you never think that the playbook may be old and once proven approaches have now fallen by the wayside?

The day has come for us to use evidence to make our decisions, not only at launch but throughout the product lifecycle. We need to not simply rely on the classic "rear view metrics", but instead find the leading indicators and leverage modern marketing science to make the right decisions and achieve those collective fine margins.

To that point, I suggest that you take a look at  our latest Edge of Insight report, "Marketing Science Innovation: The Road to Weatherproofing Your Brand", which takes on this exact subject. Our team at Kantar Health has produced a landmark piece of research that shows that marketing science provides strong leading indicators that enable impactful decisions based on evidence -- not just the playbook you've always relied on.

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