In politics, the useful idiot is someone who can be misled into supporting a dubious cause that goes against his own best interest. In marketing, the outside actor here is ignorance and it’s time to change that.

As an email strategist and fractional CMO, I’m always amazed – and not in a good way – when I start working with a company on its business and discover massive holes in the data.

It reminds me of that old quote, attributed to John Wanamaker of department store fame: “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted. I just don’t know which half.”

On an episode of Showtime’s “Homeland,” one character called another a “useful idiot” (seventh season, ninth episode if you’re interested) as a reference to an outside influence supporting a cause that ran counter to the character’s own interest. It reminded me of some companies I’ve seen.

Two kinds of data attitudes

When it comes to data, companies get split into two buckets.

The first is a company actively trying to get connections to all its data to understand where its money is going and where it’s coming from. This quest is a high priority within the organization, prioritized at the same level as production innovation or company growth.

In the second are companies where people want this information and keep talking about how great it would be to have it, but the project always gets deferred. Whenever they fill out questionnaires on budget priorities, they’re the ones who always answer, “We’re working on it.”

They are the “useful idiots” in the marketing world.

What happens when you don’t have the data?

Data is everywhere. We can buy it and track it at every level of digital interaction. We can find out at the email level who has opened our message and who made a purchase from it. Our analytics can tell us who visited our sites, how long they stayed on the website and where they came from for purchase attribution.

Companies that keep their corporate heads buried in the sand and de-prioritize data collection, analysis and action will find growth is based more on dumb luck than consistent, objective-oriented, strategic decision-making.

At one company meeting, someone told me, “We spent a lot on PPC.” When I asked which terms brought in the most money, this person shrugged and said, “We don’t know, but if we turn off PPC, our sales go down.”

I resisted the impulse to roll my eyes. Instead, I asked, “Why haven’t you taken the time to find out the answer?” The answer was a variation on all the excuses I’ve heard over the years: “Our systems don’t talk to each other.” “Our systems are broken.” “We’ll get around to it when we can.” Blah, blah, blah.

This is when marketers turn into useful idiots.

Useful idiots in marketing

In politics, the useful idiot is someone whom outside influencers can bamboozle into supporting a dubious cause, often one that goes against his own best interests. In a marketing sense, the outside actor here is ignorance.

This pure, unadulterated ignorance leads you to believe you and your marketing and revenue efforts are doing just fine without all those layers of data that just complicate everything. Who understands what all those numbers mean, anyway?

A useful marketing idiot is dangerous. It shocks me to see how pervasive this dismissal of knowledge can be among marketing professionals.

Many marketing thought leaders have said the greatest challenge in marketing is the integration of data between systems. Even though it’s a big challenge, we still need to address it and tackle it head-on. NOW!

If this scenario sounds uncomfortably familiar, then your company might fall into that “useful idiot” category. Here’s how you can change that.

1. Stop being offended 

You’re there because someone close to you on your team put you there. Write down all the things your organization prioritizes – as in, where it chooses to spend its money most freely.

The top priority should be: “We need to know where our money is going and where it’s coming from.” This can’t happen unless you integrate your systems. Make this your focus in 2020.

If your executives are obsessed with hitting its numbers, you need to know which levers to pull. If your company has 300 keywords in your PPC strategy, you need to know which words to beef up because they drive conversions, sales and profitability.

In email marketing, you need to know which segments of your customer database are the most lucrative, how to create them and how to predict customer behavior.

When you know your data, you know which levers to pull.

2. Know where to invest your time and money

As an example, one reason email doesn’t get invested at the same level as other channels is that executives don’t understand the profitability and future upside of the email marketing channel.

How can any organization allocate funds accurately based on an aggregate consolidation of reporting without understanding the proportions in which channels contribute to company revenue?

Marketing must come to the table armed with statistics and analysis that allow them to say, “If we spend more money here, we can make more money there.” That does not exist in an aggregate view.

3. Stop marketing like it’s 1999

Come on, already. The fact that any marketer or company doesn’t understand where its revenue is coming from is ludicrous, if not terrifying. If your company’s growth ranges from “no” to “slow,” if you don’t understand why channels are making money for you, you’re just an idiot. and not even a useful one.

Wrapping up

I don’t mean to be unduly harsh on companies that don’t have their data acts together yet. I realize the challenge it can be to collect the right data, make systems talk to each other and extract meaning from the data.

But you have to manage up to your executive team and help them understand why they need to get on board. If you’re an executive, you have to prioritize these projects even if it means slower growth for a while.

At the manager level, I see marketers yearning for that knowledge. I give full faith and credit to marketers who keep beating the drum to get more insights.

What can you do? Forward this post to your boss. Post it next to the water cooler. Tape it to the table in the executive lounge or corporate boardroom. Maybe put it in a plain envelope and slip it under your boss’ door like a ransom note.

If every department put “We need to make more educated decisions to make money” at the top of its priority list, that would send the message to your executives.

Take the lead. Be the smart marketer, not the useful idiot.