Building Notre-Dame

I was recently in Paris for work, and meeting with my publisher was on my agenda. Eyrolles being on Saint-Germain Boulevard, I took the M4 metro line, which was quite direct from my hotel. Some technical trouble made me decide to get off at Châtelet, and do the rest of the trip on foot. Zigzagging through the streets of what I think is the most beautiful city in the world, I ended taking the Rue de la Cité which made me walk pass the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral which I distractedly noticed, thinking about my upcoming meeting.

I first saw that marvel at 17, during my first trip abroad ever. It was quite a shock, not necessarily provoked by the size of the building, which is by no means a very large one by today’s standards, but rather by the era during which it was erect. Architecture and building techniques greatly advanced in The Middle Ages when huge cathedrals started to be built across Europe. What astonished be then, and still does, is the idea that the legions of artisans of all sorts took 87 years to complete it! They kept adding details, wings, decorations, and modifications for another 100 years before Notre-Dame was said to be fully completed. Imagine: generations of workers went through life doing their little part in that grand master plan.

This collaboration between so many people from several trades over multiple decades is an amazing thing. I sometimes wonder how much time we ourselves would take if we started such work, even with our modern tools (already 130 years for Sagrada Familia); would we even be capable? Just think about Boulanger’s impossibly masterful ironworks on the building’s doors. I wonder if there are any artisans left nowadays with such craft.

Never shy of making bold metaphors, seeing Notre-Dame again made me think how, at a much, much lower scale, what we build at work is the result of little actions over long periods of time. We often lose track of how time needs to play its role. We also too easily forget how much we need to collaborate, and put our crafts and trades in common. I think Marketing is no exception, and it is certainly not a superfluous function in a business, as some people seem to think.

However, I believe one of our biggest problems in today’s work life resides in the fact that we need to keep showing short-term results. I know this is a cliché to say that most companies lack long-term vision, always slaving for shareholders and analysts, the investment ones that is. Still, it seems that short-term gains are permanently in order. Marketing is definitely not sheltered from that, and too much of what is done there falls into that trap.

Thus analytics, as one sees it in use in Marketing, often serves the tactical agenda, and more rarely the strategic one I think. In an effort to explain what happened yesterday, so that we can make decisions about tomorrow, I am afraid too few analysts are able to look at a horizon of several years, and help predict how healthy the business will be then.

Not surprisingly, this could be due to the fact that people move so much more these days than, say, a couple of decades ago. I remember one client in cosmetics where Marketing managers never stayed longer than two years in the same position. Actually, having been in the same position for more than two years was a rather bad sign. So, this meant that they would chase projects that would deliver very quick results within the first year; second year projects tended to be sloppy, left for the successor to fix, who would generally kill them anyway to launch his or her own ones.

In such work dynamics, analytics does not build, does not contribute to the business long-term knowledge capital. Although being able to predict what to expect from a campaign surely is better than spending the money blindly, shouldn’t analytics be part of the master plan? Shouldn’t we try to elevate our point of view, and see beyond the next conversion rate? Marketing analytics need to ask deeper questions with more profound, lasting consequences.

But of course, we don’t build cathedrals, and no one will wonder, in a couple of centuries, “how did they do that?”