How can you separate consumer information from insight?


Bill Williams is here to share his perspective on how agencies can better understand consumers.


Bill is the Director of Client Services at The Miller Group, a woman-owned, creatively-led, strategically-driven digital advertising and marketing agency.


He’ll cover:

    • The importance of asking “why”
    • Root cause analysis
    • Why data is a commodity, but insights are precious
    • Why briefs are crucial
    • And more


Mentioned in this episode:



Voiceover: This is Performance Delivered, Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success with Steffen Horst and Dave Antil.


Steffen Horst: Welcome to the Performance Delivered Insider Secrets for Digital Marketing Success podcast, where we talk with marketing and agency executives and learn how they build successful businesses and their personal brand. I’m your host Steffen Horst. In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about how to separate consumer information from insights. Here to speak with me is Bill Williams, who is the Director of Client Services at The Miller Group, a woman-owned, creatively-led, strategically-driven digital advertising and marketing agency. 


Bill spent his early years in account management with multinational agencies, including McCann Erickson, J Walter Thompson, and BBDO, where he helped automotive companies in the US, Europe and Canada grow. After leaving the big agency world, he joined JD Power. There, he focused on research and helped guide a mix of qualitative and quantitative learning. Bill, welcome to the show.


Bill Williams: Thank you, Steffen. Everything you said is true.


Steffen: Looks like at least at some part, we worked with the same company I used to work at Universal McCann in Europe, and in some countries, Universal McCann didn’t exist. They just had McCann Erickson, obviously the more of the creative arm do also the media buying part for their clients. Anyway, Bill, before we start talking about, you know how to separate consumer information from insights. Tell us a little bit more about yourself. How did you get started in your career and what led you to The Miller Group?


Bill: Well, it’s interesting, Steffen, thank you for asking. And if anybody believes they’re going to be listening to a research expert, they’d be making a mistake. Because I really did, as you mentioned, start off in account management. And I started off in durable goods, specifically automotive, not only automotive, but specifically automotive. And I was in large multinationals in various parts of the world doing that kind of work. 


But what was interesting back and then now I’m talking about the pre internet Pleistocene era, when you know, we were all neanderthals. Interestingly, with durable goods, specifically automotive, you were able to track shopping habits. You were able to track purchase habits because the cars were registered, so you could find where they were registered. You could track warranty claims, and then you could track trade ins. 


So the beauty of automotives was that we could have at least at that time, a fairly good portrait of the buyer. The interesting thing was you had a lot of information about behavior. So what we had to do was find out about attitudes. So you’d see a lot of focus group research, you’d see a lot of qualitative studies of why people did what they did. So at that time, we knew what they did, we didn’t know why they did it. 


Now, in this age, we seem to know a lot about what they did, we still don’t know that much about why they did it. And I think that’s part of what always interested me. And I was able to take that interest and evolve from account work to more engagement with planning. And one thing, as a European, you probably remember, Europe was at the forefront of account planning, back in the 90s. And I learned over there that planning was not about client service, it was more about serving the creative. And I think that’s what I want to focus on some today. 


Because a lot of what we talked about in terms of research, information insights, is designed to help turn out a better creative and media product, not necessarily to make the client smarter, although that happens along the way, but to drive better, more interesting, more compelling, more engaging, creative. And I think that’s why being able to kind of tease out insights becomes so important. And that’s why I thought it was worth some time today to talk about that.


Steffen: Yeah, I think that’s a great point that you’re making. A few days ago, I had a conversation with a software company that are in a CRO space, and we’re talking about the fact that, you know, these days when we do media buying and obviously creative is part of the media buying process, because that’s what a target audience is exposed to. That kind of triggers the reaction hopefully. 


From a media buying perspective, we get so targeted, right, we’re trying to break down the audience segments into sub segments, so that we can have better messaging that really fits for that particular sub segments. And, at the end of this, we don’t really use a lot of targeted landing pages or landing page environments that fit those target groups. And I think, as I said, creative is one part of the entire equation. 


If you’re having a general message to a very targeted group, you’re really missing out on an opportunity to really trigger something specific from that audience. Now, you talked about information, Bill. These days, obviously we as marketers have a lot of information at hand. Does that help make things easier as it relates to, you know, developing the right creative for the right sub segments, etc?


Bill: It’s interesting you ask Steffen, because it’s true, we have a lot of something now that we didn’t have before. What we have, in my opinion, is a lot of data that we didn’t have before. No question about it. I can look at clickstream data, I can look at search data, I can look at all kinds of data. And I can say, sure, it should make things easier. In fact, to a lot of our clients, and I mean, this is no disrespect. They assume that because we have that data, we should know a lot more than we actually do. 


The problem is, I think there are four things that we’re wrestling with. One is the data, no question about it. These are dot points on a map, these are things that we can look at, as they say from clickstream or CRM or search. That’s data, it has no particular meaning, it’s just data. With the next step, beyond data is information. So how do we take data and turn it into information where we start to connect the dot points? 


Okay, now that you’ve told me how many hits I got, how many visits I got, how much time on page, all the other things you can tell me. Can I now put that in context with other information so I can now create some information. So now it’s no longer data, I’m now talking about information. And at this point, somebody in the company says, well, that’s all really well and good, what the heck does it mean? 


So now I have to go to the next level, which is intelligence. And intelligence is really taking the data and starting to massage it. And this is where it gets a little tricky, because it’s not just any longer factual, it’s also interpretation. So I’ve gone from data, to information, to intelligence. And intelligence is good, but now what we really need is okay, now tell me, what the heck does all that intelligence tell me? What’s the insight that you can derive from that? And, you know, insights, give us multiple pictures of what’s going on. 


Insights, by definition, have a bias. But insights are also a part of the process. They’re not the end result. So I think that to your original point, yes, there’s a lot of data now that there didn’t used to be. The question is, are we learning any more from it than we used to? And that’s where the researcher or the planner, or the agency as a whole has to come together and talk to clients in terms of here’s what, here’s what this all means. But more importantly, here’s what we can do about that. As you said earlier, okay, we can target. 


My goodness, we can narrow cast right down to a specific demographic, psychographic, behavioral target. Now, what’s the insight that’s going to drive the messaging to that target? What’s the insight that’s going to drive the media to that target? And that’s, I think, what’s important. So yes, to your point, there is more and more data. The question is, are we making more and better use of it? And that’s where the agency has to step up to its role.


Steffen: Yeah. So I mean, there’s a little bit of a data overload, right. I mean, as you said, there’s a lot of data available. The tasks now for individuals, for agencies is getting the right information, picking the right information, and then doing something with that information that informs at the end of the day. From your perspective, what is the right approach to take out of this huge data pool that is available to pick the data that is relevant for a client, and then use the data to pull out information and insights.


Bill: So often, and there’s no delicate way to put this. So often, a prospect or a client comes with the solution in mind. I need you to do a digital campaign for me, I need you to create this poster, I need you to get my website fixed. So we deal a lot now with what, and we deal a lot with how. We don’t talk much about why. So my feeling is that to tease out the kind of insights that we’re looking for, we all have to ask that question of why. 


Why do people do what they do? And I think the reason that I moved from account management work into more research and planning was that I find the consumer endlessly interesting, because they’re somewhat predictable, but not totally. They’re multi task, multi taste. They may move from one category to another with completely different motives. And I think that the way to kind of tease out what we need to know is to keep asking ourselves, why? 


Why did they or did they not respond to that subject line? Why did they or did they not respond to that offer? And I think that the most fruitful part of a relationship with the client is when you have that kind of relationship, and you can say to each other interesting, but why? And I think that the data and the tools are there that we can start to pull that veil back and start to open up the thinking as to why. 


At least we do at The Miller Group. I mean, that’s usually the big question that our president Rene Miller, or the creative people ask us in planning is why. Why do you believe that people are clicking the way they’re clicking, doing what they’re doing, buying what they’re doing, re-buying or not buying? And so that’s kind of where we focus.


Steffen: Yeah. And then when you go through that, do you then go to the what? What does that mean? So you looked at the data. Why are they doing something? But that also means what does that mean? Why are they doing that?


Bill: Right. Yeah, you work backwards in a way from, because as I say, a lot of people will start with what. Well I’ll give you a good example. We have so many, I have to be careful what I’m saying, so many folks who come to us saying, I need more brand awareness. And so then the first question is, well, what is it now? And the first answer is, we don’t know. So you say, well, wait a minute, you want to increase brand awareness, but you don’t know what it is? 


So how will you measure it? When we go forward? Well, we don’t have a mechanism right now for measuring changes in awareness. So there’s an issue where you say, let’s start at the beginning. Let’s start at, what is it you want people to do? And why do you want them to do that? So I want my current customers, I want the higher repurchase rate among current customers. Why do you want that? 


Well, those are my most profitable customers. So what can we do to incentivize, motivate your current customers to purchase more frequently. It’s not about the money. So let’s look at your CRM, let’s look at the other tools that we have. So to a large degree, it’s a matter of looking in the toolkit. 


And by asking why, figuring out which lever you have to pull to get behaviors to be that way you want them to be. I love predictive modeling. It’s very complicated. I am not as I allow it to begin in this conversation, a trained statistician. But to be able to go into an engagement with a little bit more certainty is everybody’s wish. 


I mean, what client wouldn’t want me to be able to say, if you do this, I guarantee you’ll get this result. But predictive modeling, and descriptive analytics are both a help. I mean, descriptive analytics tell you what’s happened in the past. Predictive analytics tell you what’s going to happen in the future. And to the degree we can start to refine those, the better off we’ll all be.


Steffen: Yeah, now Bill, you’ve been in advertising for quite a few years. 


Bill: Yes. 


Steffen: How has the role of an agency in client planning changed over the time?


Bill: You know, there was a certain amount of respect may not be the right word, a certain amount of allowance made for agencies to be experts in the area of art, and copy, and media, and production. And as tools have become cheaper and more accessible, I mean, I’ll give you an example. I run into so many people with a mobile phone, who believe their directors, who believe their producers. 


We have an agency producer, who says, you know, to produce something high quality will cost this much. To which a lot of prospects say no, no, I’ll just hold up my smartphone, I can do it on my own video. So to some degree, whatever hallowed ground we may have had as agencies in the past, has been eroded by clients who believe they know as much if not more than we do. 


And I think to some degree agencies have allowed that to happen, because we’ve never really taken a hard stance on what we believe is important. So trying to find a way to have a meeting of the minds strategy before we leap into execution is really important. Instead of letting a prospect or client come to you, sometimes they’ll come to you with the need for a thing. I need a flier, I need a poster, I need a commercial. 


Fair enough. I mean, we’re in the business of service. But oftentimes, it’s a matter of assuming a solution, when in fact, what you really need to have is a good discussion about the problem. And I think what we don’t require enough as an agency is root cause analysis. Before we put our heads together on how we fix this, because we’re not an agency that sits around the room and spitballs creative ideas. 


We’re an agency that likes to have some basis in fact about what we’re trying to accomplish. So I think the role of the agency and client has evolved now to one where we are increasingly at risk of becoming job shops, if we don’t begin to demonstrate that there’s something deeper than just action. If we don’t begin to say, we know something. 


And the only thing we can say we know better than the client is that we better know your client your customer better than you do, or as certainly as well as you do. One of the things we like to say, Steffen, in our meetings with clients is we’re here to represent the one person who’s not in this meeting, and that’s your customer. And we have done our own research and can tell you from our own data, that this is what they’re feeling. 


This is what they’re thinking. And this is what matters to them. Otherwise, what value are we bringing? We’re just there. So, we tried every turn to come as the title of this podcast suggests with insights. With something, an aha moment, a silver bullet. Something, something that the client hadn’t thought of.


Steffen: Okay, now, what are some of the barriers to the development of actionable insights?


Bill: Right. There are a few. One is an organizational culture that simply has no countenance for insights. There are organizations that are driven, rightly or wrongly, it’s the culture of an organization, complete bias to action. It’s not ready, fire, aim. It’s fire, fire fire, we’ll get around to aiming and getting ready later. It happens. Another important barrier is privacy. You know, regulatory privacy, of personal privacy, people have learned that privacy is not just a right, it’s also an asset. 


So they’re willing to trade that privacy under certain circumstances, like with gated content. I’ll give you my email. What’s the offer? What do I get in return? So that’s a barrier, this issue. And of course, obviously, as I mentioned, regulatory privacy where we have to be careful. And that there’s just a lack of interest, a lack of interest in those insights, a presumption, almost an arrogance of knowledge that we know our customer better than anyone. 


So what are you going to bring to us and I’ve had it happen, you know, we have to prepare for that. That some organizations don’t countenance that kind of contribution easily. They have to be shown. And I think it sounds like if there’s a lot of tension. There really isn’t. It’s really just a matter of saying we care a great deal about your organization, about you as a client. We care about your customers. 


And because we care, we spent a lot of time trying to understand them, too. And there’s so many bits and pieces laying around the shop room floor we can use. We had a client. Here’s a good example. A very small, California based nonprofit institution, a small art museum. Talk about small budget, they had a really small budget, but with that tiny little budget, we did museum visitor intercepts, qualitative one on ones with employees, qualitative one on ones with donors and supporters, and a mailed survey. 


And we were able through those various means to not only drive up membership, because they didn’t charge admission, so they survived on philanthropy and supporter memberships. We were able to drive up memberships, we’re able to drive up member loyalty, we were able to convince the client to come up with special programs, special nights for young people. 


To your very, very earlier point, we were able to segment their member base into highly refined segments. So it’s not about the budget. When you say barriers to what are the barriers to insights, budget is not one of them. Does not have to be one of them. What has to be there is a belief that the client may not really know the customer as well as they think they do. And an agency that’s willing to stand up and say we understand the need for speed, we understand the need for delivery. 


But please give us the benefit of time to understand better what’s going on in the mind of your customer. So the barriers are all, you can overcome all of them. The key is do not be seduced by data, because it’s everywhere. But as somebody once said to me in information as a commodity, insights are precious. And I believe that’s true.


Steffen: You still need to interpret the data. You need to pull the right information out of it. If you just take data for face value, you haven’t gained anything. And I mean, you talk about obviously a client somewhat presumptuous, saying we know our customers. As you said rightly, they might not know all of their customers, right? There might be target groups, they just don’t know yet, because they haven’t engaged with them. And, you know, one job of the agency is identifying additional groups that can help the company to grow, because at some point, if they can’t extend their target audience, then they will stagnate from a growth perspective.


Bill: Well, you see it in your experience in digital especially. I mean, it’s so easy to run personalized, customized, concurrent messaging. I mean, the one thing the tools have given us is this incredible toolkit to work from that tends to be underutilized because so often we’re dealing with let’s blast out a message and you say you don’t have to blast out a message. 


We can speak very personally with Steffen, we can speak very personally with Bill, and know exactly what’s on their minds and their purchase behaviors. And why don’t we? The issue is well, time, money, people, it’s culture, whatever. So I don’t know if it’s barriers, but there’s a huge opportunity for clients and prospects to think in different ways. 


And hopefully, I believe they’re doing that. I believe, the younger cohort in advertising today are so familiar with and so comfortable with all these tools that perhaps they’re using to their fullest extent. But I do hope that same younger cohort understands it’s still data until you apply some judgment and turn it into insights and information.


Steffen: Yeah, you just started talking about tools. And so there’s so many new tools available for marketers for descriptive and predictive marketing. Has the science improved? And if so, how?


Bill: Has the science improved, did you say? 


Steffen: Yeah.


Bill: Oh, yeah, I think yeah, I think so. And I think it’s improved to the extent if you have the capabilities on staff to work with predictive and descriptive. First of all, to accumulate information is so much easier. To archive and curate, takes some experience and some staff work. And then to apply it is where things tend to break down. But the science of gathering, curating, and applying information is huge. 


And I think what happens so often is that in our drive to move forward, we stopped to go back. We’re always ingesting new information, it’s like a big human mall, we go out and gather all this information. We have to go back and be able to interpret it, and to use it. So yeah, I mean, I think the science of information management is huge. And this may be where some of the advantage agencies has, used to have, has slipped. 


Because it takes an investment. Agencies are not working on the old commission structures they used to. The margins are very tight. And being able to have a staff capability to manage all this is tough on an agency. So often, that duty is abrogated to the client, and therefore the client ends up knowing more than the agency. The agency is in position of saying, would you mind sharing your information with us? 


And so as a result, you know, you lose some of the positioning that you would have if you owned that data. So I think it’s important for agencies to find ways. We use a proprietary quantitative tool, where we can go out and ask respondents from time to time questions of interest to marketers. So to the degree we can be seen as a source of information, rather than just an agency that repurposed existing information, or an agency that uses client information, we have to bring a dish to pass to the party. 


Now, if you don’t have your own information, that you’re just surviving based on what clients tell you. And what is that? So I don’t know if I answered your question. But yes, to the specifically course, science of information has improved dramatically, as have the tools.


Steffen: Now, as we established earlier, there’s obviously now a huge amount of data available. And the data is also easily accessible. I mean, not like 20, 30 years ago, where probably getting the information together probably took quite a bit more time than these days. Is there anything in regards to data that hasn’t changed over the years?


Bill: Yeah, as I mentioned earlier, the mystery that we call the consumer who tells us one thing it does quite another. The cost to gather it has gone down to some degree but the value has gone up. So I guess in that case, that has changed. And I think what hasn’t changed to some degree is the importance that creative and media people put on the need for insights. They’ve always been hungry for guidance. 


And I don’t mean guidance in terms of telling me what I should write or say or buy. Guidance in terms of tell me what will move, tell me where the head set of a consumer is today so I can make an impact. Writing a brief has never been treated so carelessly, and yet so important than it is today. We talk about it as if you know, okay, well send me a brief, or the creative department needs a brief. 


Or you know, Mr. Client before we, or Mrs. Client, before we start, I’ll need a brief. Well, that’s an important request. It’s treated with less respect than it should be treated. It deserves to be the starting point. It deserves to be a meeting in and of itself. It deserves clients to say I don’t agree with that. 


It deserves the creative department to push back and say this is not fruitful enough for me, this is not helping me. And so I would argue that what hasn’t changed is that need for a nugget, an insight, an idea that comes in a brief. And, and no one, in my opinion and experience lately is spending enough time on a brief. I just don’t think that’s happening. 


And I have to be honest, in our own case, sometimes that slips through. We get in a mode to deliver. And we operate based on assumption. We operate based on best information, but not maybe the most complete information. And so I would say, let’s all go back and revisit the importance of a brief because that’s gotten lost somehow in the shuffle.


Steffen: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, here at Symphonic Digital, we don’t start anything until we have the briefing document that drives the teams filled in completely, right. Because other than that, you start off with incomplete information, which basically sets the campaign up, most likely on the wrong foot, you know. And who pays for it is the client at the end of the day. 


Because you’re wasting media dollars, or planning dollars, or whatever it is, and the client will be unhappy. So for the sake of an agency, you want to make sure that you have a complete set of information as it relates to the campaign that you’re supposed to be setting up and managing. Because otherwise, you just shoot yourself in the foot.


Bill: Yeah, I totally agree. And it saves the client money, it saves the agency money, it turns out a better product. And at the risk of being cliche to use that quote, a briefing is not an event, it’s a process. And so I would expect the client would push back and say, or a creative department or a media department to say, either yes, for these three reasons, I think this is a good brief.  


Or for these three reasons, I think you better go back and do it again. Because it’s too weak. So you’re absolutely right. If without that as a starting point, what you’re ending up doing is fulfilling a client request, you’re not filling what, you’re not really doing what’s best for the client.


Steffen: Yeah. So before we come to an end today, you know the topic was separate consumer information from insights. Do you have any last words on insights in general?


Bill: Yeah, they are often hard to find. They require, yes, they do require data, information, and intelligence. All those things. But they do require whoever’s responsible for them. And we’re all in an agency responsible in our own ways. Require us to kick back for a moment and think in the minds of who we’re trying to talk to. 


So if I’ve got clickstream data, if I’ve got all the other information I can get from Google Analytics, and whatever source, that doesn’t answer the question of why. It just gets you into what and to how. So I think that it does require us to become psychologists and psychiatrists, and to try to interpret what caused someone to do what they did. And what likelihood is there that if that same set of behaviors is shared across the segment. 


So I think that’s where the idea of segmentation in our experience at the agency, at The Miller Group is so helpful, because now I’m dealing with a cohort, whether it’s a demographic segment or a psychographic segment, where I can say, okay, now I’m looking at shared values across a smaller unit. And what is it that they’re doing? Because they’re all doing it. 


So what is it that’s driving them to do that? Now I have the confidence of saying there’s numbers behind it. So I’ve got 60% of a group of people who are 25 to 44 doing this with nesting, with mortgages, with house buying, with car buying, with food buying, with ordering out rather than going to a grocery store. Now I have the confidence of saying, I think I know why they’re doing that. And I think what makes our client different in that regard, is that they can solve this particular need better than somebody else. 


So it’s a long way around saying that, that I mentioned earlier, this notion within the insights and with intelligence of there being bias. And it’s a good bias, because it’s a bias that comes hopefully, from experience and judgment, to say I see the data, I see it. But now this is what it means. And I think we’re all looking for meaning from the data.


Steffen: Perfect. Great last word, Bill. Bill, thank you so much for joining me on the Performance Delivered podcast and sharing your knowledge on how to separate consumer information from insights. Now, if people want to find out more about you, about The Miller Group, how can they get in touch?


Bill: Well, The Miller Group is We’re, as you said at the opening, a woman-founded, woman-run agency that’s big on sustainability. For me, having come from a background of large multinational agencies, it’s refreshing to get closer to the point of sale. And when you’re a medium, small sized agency, and you’re dealing with clients that are often entrepreneurial, often trailing brands, not dominant brands, you get a full measure of what it’s like to be a fighter. And to make more of what you can with as little as you’ve got. 


So, we are a full service agency and what clients often say about us, and this will be my only plug of the day, is that we’re a 360 degree marketing agency. That if I’m a small or medium sized client, I can get services across the board, from research to planning, to production to media, to creative. So we’re big on creative and always on the hunt for new relationships.


Steffen: Perfect. Well, thanks, everyone for listening. If you like the Performance Delivered podcasts, please subscribe to us and leave us a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast application. If you want to find out more about Symphonic Digital, you can visit us at or follow us on Twitter at Symphonic HQ. Thanks again and see you next time.


Voiceover: Performance Delivered is sponsored by Symphonic Digital. Discover audience-focused and data-driven digital marketing solutions for small and medium businesses at