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Your Data-Driven Marketing Is Harmful. I Should Know: I Ran Marketing at Google and Instagram

Entrepeneur 15 Jan 2020 02:00

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Your Data-Driven Marketing Is Harmful. I Should Know: I Ran Marketing at Google and Instagram
Image credit: Doug Chayka

This story appears in the January 2020 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was about to join my very last “performance calibration session.” This was late in 2018, when I was a managing director at Instagram, and these sessions had been a common part of my life -- just like they are at many big companies. They’re a time for senior managers to discuss the performance of their individual team members, applying common organizational standards across job levels. HR specialists moderate performance discussions on a biannual, sometimes quarterly, basis. Conceptually, there’s nothing all that weird about calibration. But that’s conceptually.

I have held senior-level marketing roles at YouTube, Spotify, Google, and Instagram, so I’ve sat in on a lot of these. And the reality is this: A group of highly opinionated, often outspoken managers get together in a room shielded from prying eyes. Most managers gather in a physical conference room; others dial in by phone or video, making it nearly impossible for everyone to weigh in equally. The HR representative says a few obligatory words toeing the company line, and then the verbal battle swords come out. For the next several hours, we go around the room, screens, and phone lines making the best case for why one manager’s team member deserves an “exceeds expectations” rating (“She’s a rock star!”), while another’s should be a “meets expectations” (“He’s solid but hasn’t gone to the next level”) or, worse, a dreaded “meets most expectations” (“Her peers sometimes find her difficult to work with”). During one particularly memorable calibration session at Google, a young man’s rating was under scrutiny because his manager argued that this employee needed to “grow a pair of balls.” 

At the age of 20, like so many college students, I was in search of some kind of “truth.” Math and the harder sciences lay outside my mental wheelhouse, so I settled on cognitive psychology, with a focus on language and reasoning. This was a bull’s-eye on people skills, but backed by brain biology and a heap of statistical analyses. I became enamored with the vernacular of objectivity. People who participated in my experiments became subjects. To get published in the field, I was instructed to be in constant pursuit of statistically significant results. I learned how to run t-tests and ANOVAs and other math-y things that allowed me to abstract away from the individual in order to talk about populations. This was a version of truth I could identify with, and I was hooked. 

After corporate life, I did what anyone in a career crisis does: I worried. Then I relaxed and traveled a bit, discovered the value of sleep, and enjoyed quiet mornings that didn’t begin with an overflowing inbox. I learned that there’s more to this world than the narrow band I’d been laboring in. I started speaking with others who felt stuck or were looking to make change. I confronted the issues I had put off; I properly grieved for my father and started, slowly, to learn how to talk about it with others. And then I tried to find my new place in this world. Which meant starting with new ideas.

Today, I consult. I know, I know -- it’s clichéd and expected: the man who left corporate life and now serves his old masters in new ways. But I find it satisfying in that I can now walk into data-driven places and say, Stop.

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