The following is an excerpt from an August 2020 conversation between Chandos Quill, Chief Strategy and Development Officer at Adstra, and Andreas Cohen, Founder and Chairman of I-COM Global.
CHANDOS: It’s hard to believe that it’s already been 5 months under COVID. What have you seen with I-COM members and how they have responded. What’s changed?
ANDREAS: It’s a great question. I-COM brands were already taking a close look at how to adapt to changes in consumer habits. Our theme for this year was customer-centricity—a reflection of the fact that I-COM members were looking closely at this question even before COVID became a force.
When COVID came along, the natural response was to react and account for radical short-term shifts. For many of our members, this involved pivoting to online customer experience and hitting pause on large parts of their media plan.
But it was not long before many members realized that this was not merely a short-term crisis, but a generational paradigm shift in consumer behavior. 2020 may be the most disruptive year we’ve ever experienced collectively, and its effects will last for a long time. Many of these radical changes may be permanent.
This has given many brands permission to think big about how to transform their businesses. They’ve gone from exploring near-term adjustments to exploring major long-term strategic overhauls. And that’s unleashed a lot of creativity. You already can see remarkable minds getting to work.
CHANDOS: We’ve seen our clients go through a very similar progression. Initially, the majority of people hit the pause button while they waited to see what would happen. I think it was important to take a step back and understand where the consumers were going, how they were engaging with the media, how they were buying, and how their overall mindset was changing.
Fairly quickly – within just a few weeks in many cases – our clients started adjusting their channel strategies to support a more direct consumer relationship. Those that had paused spending began to increase again, but in an adjusted way with an adapted channel strategy – one where email and digital advertising play the lead roles. Marketers were already moving forward.
The key is going to be how companies use this as an opportunity to think about their technology, the data that they have, the media channels they use, and how they bring those things together. It has placed a new demand for efficiency and agility in how they operate between channels and how to orchestrate data between endpoints.
Everybody, every company kind of stepped back, revisit, examine their business, look at ways to cut costs, obviously in the short term and then create efficiency – and, ultimately, to think expansively about how to do business differently. You described this cycle really well. I think we’re coming through the finishing stages of the first phase, which was: OK where do we need to protect our business? But that’s quickly expanding to a broader look at what can be done differently for the long haul.
What have you seen on your end or with your members around how they’ve changed their approach to using data?
ANDREAS: In the most general sense, we are seeing more investment in data across the board. There is now much greater, general openness to new data sources and new ways of using data to connect with the consumer. Everybody’s grappling with major changes and trying to predict which of the shifts to customer behavior will stick. I’ve seen a tremendous surge of interest in the marketing sciences around that question specifically. So I think in the most general sense, COVID is leading to more investment in data solutions that can bring brands closer to their customers.
CHANDOS: One thing that we’ve found is that COVID has really exposed the barriers to applying data where it needs to go – especially barriers around the cost model for data and how it maps against value.
In some ways, this deeper examination has been very well timed for Adstra in the sense that it aligns well with our disruptive strategy. Ever since our management team came to ALC, and through the rebrand as Adstra, we’ve been giving voice to this idea that there is a mismatch of the use and value of data to how it’s priced.
It’s been central to our message since the beginning. And then through COVID many of our clients needed to look at ways to reduce costs where they could. And this demand for efficiency has opened up a lot of really good opportunities to test our hypothesis and to prove the efficacy of our approach. There’s been more interest in talking to us about how we can help them do things in a more value-add way and kind of disrupt the way the legacy data companies have been charged for data in the past.
This message recently came to a head as Adstra debuted new branding and redefined the company as a Data Bureau. We felt like there just needed to be a new category to describe the kind of company that we’ve built and, and what we’re doing to disrupt the way things have been done in the data and identity space in marketing and advertising.
This strategy and mission are to build a company that can overcome the barriers that are preventing this broader application use of data and marketing. We felt like there needed to be a new company that combined not just technology, but also the service and human support that enables clients to send us any form of identity at an individual or household level, assign a persistent ID to that person, and then connect any other attributes or identifiers to that data, and then orchestrate the action that a client wants to take with that data. There are endless places to take the data. It could be ingesting it back into their CRM system. It could be sending it to a DSP for a digital campaign or could be working with other partners like measurement companies.
The full lifecycle of marketing data requires that portability and that expert oversight, and that’s what a Bureau does best. We wanted to create the kind of company that could solve discrete problems where gaps existed, and do it with modern technology and a more value-based economic model than what others have created over the years.
As I mentioned, service is a key component of that which has already proven itself out during COVID. Clients still want and need to interface with people. They still have questions and they still need help. So, you know, as a Data Bureau, we felt it’s not just about the technology and the data. It’s also about providing the right kind of help and advice and service that clients need to navigate all this.
So to your point – we came in pre-COVID with kind of a disruptive view on what needed to change in terms of value, in terms of the economic model for data and an agile, service-forward approach. And COVID has only accelerated the demand for this type of thing and accelerated the deeper critique of barriers that our company was set up to overcome. We wish the circumstances were otherwise, of course, but the unique challenges of this period have really opened minds to our disruptive strategy and led to faster adoption than we could have predicted. This is an exciting time for us.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about something fun. I’m so excited about what you’re doing at I-COM in taking a brand new approach to the virtual event format.As a member, I’ve seen some cool stuff that you’ve done to pivot I-COM and the value prop of your organization during COVID.
Tell us a little more about what else you’ve done. I know you did the virtual meetups, which were wonderful, but what else have you done to pivot your business?
ANDREAS: Let me first say: What you’ve done at Adstra is a perfect example of how to surf this wave of disruption. Adstra seems well-positioned from the start, but the same goes for any organization, even those that did not set out with a disruptive strategy. I-COM is of course no different in that respect – in needing to rethink the very core of what we do and how we do it.
You attended our recent virtual data meetup wine tasting, which was a format that we developed understanding the psychological hindrances of virtual meetings and trying to bridge those to create the kind of meaningful connections you get in person. Creating the common thread of good wine and good food adds an element of a shared experience that you just don’t get doing things over Zoom alone.
We noticed that it’s really important to get physically shared items to the members so that they can bridge the virtual divide. At an operational level, we’ve begun staffing up against logistical functions, bringing on folks that are career experts in getting physical things to different locations. That was never part of our business, but it is now.
And at the same time, we are also rethinking the conference experience for the future. We started looking at ways to safely convene small, agile meetups – something like your upcoming November Summit, where we don’t program anything in advance and combine that with some wine tasting and nice food. So we are going on this path, increasingly adapting to the virtual format. When you get fabulous people together, they can chart their own course and you just have to provide them a basic framework to help them to do that. Although we cannot do it this year, this type of COVID-inspired (or you might say, forced) creativity is something that will likely inform our efforts going forward.
CHANDOS: I think it’s going to be fantastic. Well, I know it will be fantastic. I think I-COM Global is onto something with sharing physical items like wine and food that forge connections beyond just sitting in a Zoom call. I’ve been in a lot of virtual events over the past few months and none have compared to the virtual wine-tasting meetup There is a very special ambiance and culture that you’ve created that comes through virtually, largely because of the unique way you’ve purposely designed this to bring all that out in people. So, I can’t wait. It’s going to be a lot of fun.