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Why your brand should hire a chief science officer

The C-suite is getting a lot bigger these days. After the chief executive and the finance chief, now add chief innovation officers, chief information officers, chief content officers and chief revenue officers.

The creation of these senior-level new roles are a response to demand produced by new disciplines, challenges and business opportunities. So it’s no surprise that we are also witnessing the emergence of the chief science officer.

The chief science officer, or CSO, used to be a role reserved mainly for truly scientific institutions, where the post-holder would develop and manage heavyweight research initiatives. But now other sectors are beginning to acknowledge the quantitative imperative of business by appointing science chiefs, and marketing should be no different.

My company just created its first CSO position. But it’s not just technology vendors that should be doing the same. Other notable corporations to have created this role include Unilever and Hotels.com. Maybe yours should too? But first you need to ask yourself why do you need one? What fundamentals does a chief science officer address?

The answer is in the context. Right now, marketing is going through more change than ever before. But some are adapting better than others. We are swimming in data – but are drowning for lack of insight.

The trouble is, in a world of fragmented channels, most customer data is disconnected. At a recent presentation in London, eMarketer chairman Geoff Ramsey said 59 per cent of marketers believe data management is important – but only 6 per cent of them have a single, integrated view of that data.

The few brands and agencies that do pull this off often end up dwelling on analytics that show customers in the rear-view mirror, whilst, in the future, it is predicting their behaviour and movement that will become more valuable and make spending more efficient.

This is where the chief science officer comes in. A CSO’s first task is to manipulate this data to make smarter marketing decisions in a world where reading audience has never been more difficult. Making sense of data is the challenge of our time, and the possibilities are beginning to look like super-powers – but wielding them takes sophistication.

I once saw a CEO walk by a queue of ticket-buyers, and expected him to be delighted by the sight of all these customers – but he was furious their data had not been captured to cross-sell future discounts and promotions. There was no underlying data strategy.

Sure, brands should already be adapting to these imperatives. But many are paying lip service to an imperative that is essential. To really upgrade your marketing efforts, it may become important to put data at the top table, making its importance emblematic and integrated with multiple other distinct departments.

So, what does a chief science officer look like? Ours, Peter, is a Cambridge astrophysics graduate with a winning smile. But, more important than that, the new role of CSO is really a composite of skills from elsewhere, operating at a higher level, skills like:

  • Maths and statistics - a science chief absolutely must know their way around a statistical toolset.
  • Hacker mindset - if you enjoy extracting, playing with and twisting data around to get results from it, you may have what it takes.
  • Business acumen - results are nothing without an ability to communicate it, so a CSO needs to know how to make meaningful data-based recommendations to colleagues.

A typical day for a chief science officer may be spent buried in the Python or R programming languages, visualisation tools, the Spark cluster computing engine, the Hadoop system for big data processing and the Scikit-learn framework for running machine analysis.

This, of course, is not your typical marketing competency list. But these will become more necessary functions as more brands realise the importance of data to customer targeting. Many of those that have already begun to heed the warnings are relying on their agencies to run such operations. But data and its application is often a source of friction between clients - if you rely on agencies for insight about your own customers, you can become beholden to them.

And, while some forward looking agencies may be performing data science with C-level oversight, many others don’t yet boast this kind of senior specialist.

That’s why I think putting science around the board table will be crucial in the years ahead.

Today, CSOs don’t come readymade. The discipline is in short supply; that’s why data science was named by Harvard Business Review as “the sexiest job of the 21st century”. Instead, you are more likely to have to grow a science chief from within, or to hire one from a different but related discipline.

Whichever route you choose, just make sure you do examine whether you are giving data the prominence it deserves in your organisation.

Tom Bowman is CEO of Intelligent Optimisations

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