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When was the last time you saw the whites of your customers’ eyes?

How many layers are there in the decision making process that drives your marketing activity? Do you rely on a complex marketing technology stack to the point where it’s become a surrogate or proxy for true face-to-face human connections with your customers?

Does your data mostly drive what you know and feel to be the right actions? Or does it often leave you feeling compromised – if simultaneously relatively safe – because “at least the numbers make what we do measurable and therefore easy to report”?


Such thorny, provocative questions are always worth asking at the turn of the calendar year, a time for reflection and renewal.

These particular themes though feel especially timely for anyone who was witness to a discussion held last week between top marketers responsible for some of the highest profile brands in the world in the past two decades.

Abigail Comber, former Head of Brand, Marketing & Customer at British Airways and Alex Von Schirmeister, whose career sandwiches a decade as CMO and General Manager of eBay Europe between senior roles at Procter & Gamble, Facebook and Telefonica, spoke in London last week on a panel along with Microsoft, business transformation consultancy Optima Partners and intelligent marketing platform Simple.

The discussion theme, Clawing Back The Cost Of Complexity, drew frank admissions from the panel amid fears that marketing had become too focused on niche specialists at the expense of skilled generalists.

Marketing, it was agreed, has become too built around digital ecosystems that generate outputs devoid of the kind of deep human insights gathered in real conversation with customers.

Abigail Comber speaking at Simple's Clawing Back the Cost of Marketing Complexity event

Abigail Comber: “If I meet a marketer who hasn’t seen the whites of their customers’ eyes recently, I’d say they don’t know their customer.”

Comber’s key takeaway, having watched the evolution of marketing during her 24 years at BA where she rose from advertising manager to a number of senior global roles, was that of all the marketing activities she’d been involved with, none was more packed with valuable insights than the “whites of their eyes conversations” she had periodically with the airline’s loyalty scheme customers.

“Hearing our customers tell stories about their lives helps you as a marketer remember that you’re dealing with human beings as opposed to data and digits,” she said.

“Marketing has to stand for sitting in front of the customer and having a human conversation and using it to challenge the data to find context.

“Without that context you’re just wasting money on flowing data into the wrong channels and building frequency for a customer that ultimately isn’t that interested in you because you haven’t scratched the surface of who they are as a person.”

‘Do marketers still have the customer at the heart of what we do now?’ was the challenge that Comber threw down in front of an audience of senior brand marketers.

Watching an enterprise marketing function expand across many new layers and responsibilities over two decades has, she argued, given her a powerful take on what really matters.

“Organisations are faced with a such a complexity of disciplines and channels that they risk forgetting the mechanics of creativity,” Comber said. “And if I meet a marketer who hasn’t seen the whites of their customers’ eyes recently, I’d say they don’t know their customer.”

Read next: 7 Ways Simple Helps CMOs Reduce Marketing Complexity

Simple’s intelligent Marketing Operations Cloud platform helps marketers manage their end-to-end marketing operations, reducing the cost of marketing complexity. To find out how reach out to one of our representatives.

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