I spoke with Christopher Hoareau of Publicis Health Media and Ina Yang of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness about how their backgrounds in microbiology and journalism, respectively, prepared them for success in healthcare marketing analytics.
I have witnessed a great deal of change over the nearly nine years I have been working at the Publicis Health family of agencies. Since I joined Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness in 2013, the agency’s data analytics department has evolved from a small group of scrappy data professionals to a robust analytics organization. Recently, the convergence of similar evolutions happening across other Publicis Health agencies has paved the way for one of Publicis Health’s most exciting interagency initiatives: ARIS.
As I have observed — and often participated in — these changes, I have developed a deep appreciation for the value of bringing together analytics team members from varying educational and professional backgrounds. Because marketing analytics occupies the middle ground between art and science, there is no single “right way” to prepare oneself for career success within the field.
While earning a degree mathematics provided me with the right fundamentals and technical chops to excel at Saatchi, earning a minor in education has proven to be extremely useful, as well. Teaching involves presenting complex ideas that are often new to an audience in a coherent, comprehensible way — something I must do on a weekly basis in my current role as Head of Analytics at Publicis Health.
I am by no means the only team member who has found ways to put their unorthodox background to good use at a Publicis Health agency. I recently spoke with Christopher Hoareau, Associate Director of Business Intelligence at Publicis Health Media, and Ina Yang, Senior Analytics Associate at Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, about how their distinctive educational and professional backgrounds have enabled them to be highly successful data professionals.
Kevin Troyanos (KT): Whenever I give a talk to people interested in pursuing our line of work, one question I always get is, “What is a trait every successful analyst exhibits?” My answer is usually, “Curiosity.” In what ways have your backgrounds made you more curious analytics professionals?
Ina Yang (IY): My background is in journalism, and journalism is all about identifying truths and leveraging the art of storytelling to communicate those truths to a wide audience. You have to relay the facts, yes, but you also have to figure out how the facts fit together, as well as why certain things are the case. A good journalist plumbs a subject’s thoughts and beliefs in an effort to understand what motivates the subject and how this motivation bears upon the broader story. Doing so requires an innate curiosity — the drive to ask a lot of questions — and empathy for different perspectives and experiences, both of which are essential in marketing analytics.
On the surface, clients work with their agency analytics teams to build dashboards that report on key metrics and perform analyses on these metrics. However, whether it is ever stated explicitly or not, clients almost always want more than pure execution from us. They want us to help them ask the important questions. They want us to excavate the “why” behind the data. And then, most importantly, they want us to tell them what they can or should do with these insights.
This is where empathy comes in. To make the right “next steps” recommendations, an analyst must (1) understand consumer behavior and (2) understand the why behind what a client is asking for. Now, just as a journalist should not project their own narrative onto a subject’s story, analysts should not let armchair psychologizing override the facts their data expresses, but there really is a lot of value in exploring why a person acts as they do — whether we are talking about a consumer making a purchasing decision or a client asking for a particular analysis. This can be a tough balance to strike, but I think my background in journalism has helped me apply this, shall we call it, “critical empathy,” in my work at Saatchi.
Christopher Hoareau (CH): Ina brings up a great point. I studied microbiology with the intention of going to med school before discovering my passion for the business side of healthcare. While I am coming to our work from a different academic perspective, the marriage of curiosity and human-centric critical thinking definitely strikes me as a key component of successful marketing analytics.
In a sense, my training as a microbiologist hard-coded curiosity into the way I interact with the world. The scientific method begins with the definition of a question that shapes the entire research process. If you are trying to cure cancer, you do not just perform experiments haphazardly. You ask a specific question — say, “At the molecular level, how does this protein interact with that protein?” — conduct background research, formulate a hypothesis, and only then run a test (and then another test, and then a third test, and so on).
This cycle of asking a question, testing, and learning is at the heart of what we do at Publicis Health Media. Are microbiology and marketing analytics the same? No. But the scientific methodology I learned when studying the former is a critical foundation l in practicing the latter.
KT: What are some of the key differences between your academic experience within the world of Microbiology and your professional experience within the world of Marketing Analytics?
CH: Microbiology is a lot more “black and white” than marketing analytics. In a lab, everything is tightly controlled. You isolate one variable at a time in order to achieve a 98 or 99 percent confidence level. You are never going to have the luxury of such close control in marketing — the realities of the marketing world are inherently ‘messier’ than the tightly controlled environment of the laboratory. Ultimately, human behavior is inherently messy – and we can’t control human behavior but we have to find ways to account for and control for this as much as possible.
But, building off Ina’s point, the best marketing analysts leverage empathy to understand what a client really wants to know and then structure their analyses accordingly. It may not be possible to control for every variable in marketing analytics, but as long as we ask the right key business questions (KBQs) up front, we can consistently give clients answers to the questions they ask — and often proactively provide the answers before they ask.
On a related note, knowing — and accepting — the limits of your data and analyses is another concept that has carried over from my time in microbiology to my time in marketing analytics. In microbiology, you simply cannot fiddle with your data — people’s health and wellbeing are often on the line. Your experiment might end up being unsuccessful, but you have to accept it, learn what you can from it, and regroup.
The same is true in marketing analytics. Sometimes, analyses return results that do not align with a client’s expectations. While it may be tempting to find ways to soften this disappointment, doing so is not only ethically dubious, but actually counterproductive in the long run. The value of optimization in marketing often stems equally from learning about what doesn’t work as much as it stems from learning from what does work. In microbiology and marketing alike, disproven hypotheses, while disappointing, are highly valuable, and maintaining this attitude of integrity toward your data is essential.
IY: I completely agree, and it is in moments like these that adept storytelling becomes all the more important. On one level, providing context is a lot of what we do when presenting to clients. Business stakeholders in particular are less interested in statistical nuances than straightforward explanations of what a certain metric means, what “good” looks like, and what they should do to move closer to “good.” To a business development specialist, the fact that their company’s website received 10,000 unique visitors in a month might not mean much. It falls to us as data professionals to craft a compelling story about what this means, why this matters, and what next steps should be taken.
And, on occasion, part of this story is, “We cannot measure this,” or, “We need to gather additional data before we can perform that analysis.” As Christopher mentioned, there are inevitably limits on what we are able to do in any given set of circumstances, but remaining open to new lines of inquiry that are uncovered through ostensibly unsuccessful analyses often leads to better results in the end.
Coming from journalism, this openness has always felt natural to me — and, for what it is worth, I think this brings us full circle to your initial question about curiosity, Kevin. It is not unusual for the article that ends up going to print to be dramatically different from the original pitch the journalist made to their editor. Once you start digging into the research process, you might find that there is a more interesting angle to your original story or even a more important story to tell. The curiosity and proactivity that enable a journalist to reconceive their story as new facts come to light also enable a data professional to optimize their analyses as they develop new insights from testing-and-learning.
KT: Clearly, each of you has brought skills you picked up in your previous fields to bear on your work at Publicis Health agencies. Do you have any advice for people studying or working in fields similar to journalism or microbiology who may be considering making the switch to healthcare marketing analytics?
CH: From my perspective, balance is the name of the game here. One reason people like me and Ina have been able to thrive at Publicis Health agencies is that working in healthcare marketing analytics requires a diverse set of skills. You obviously need a foundational technical skill-set, but you also need soft skills like curiosity, critical thinking, empathy, and flexibility.
To be honest, this came as something of a surprise to me when I joined Publicis Health Media. My background in microbiology gave me a strong understanding of the analytic methodologies at play right off the bat, but I had to learn how to identify key takeaways, extract them from analyses without divorcing them from their context entirely, and communicate them to non-technical audiences.
IY: Well-roundedness is definitely the key. I was fortunate to have picked up some technical knowledge in a previous strategic role, which gave me the confidence to take the leap into healthcare marketing analytics. That said, as my manager at Saatchi told me when I started, it is easy enough to teach someone niche Excel shortcuts or how to use Tableau, but it can be difficult to teach someone how to ask good questions.
At the end of the day, data analytics is as much about strategy as it is about spreadsheets. Whatever your background, if you develop competencies in both, you will be well on your way to success at an agency like Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness or Publicis Health Media.