Predicting the Future of Marketing
Data and A.I. will only take you so far, says Citi’s Murli Buluswar, ’01. The future of business belongs to practical and well-rounded innovators.
- March 21, 2022
As head of analytics, Murli Buluswar, ’01, is constantly applying the lens of information to help drive smarter decision-making and business innovation at the multinational financial services corporation Citi. Having also enjoyed a storied career as chief science officer for the global insurance organization AIG and vice president of insight and innovation for Farmers Insurance, he certainly knows his way around market research reports, machine-learning tools, and A.I.-powered analytics.
Yet, as a hands-on business practitioner, lifelong innovator, and member of the steering committee for Booth’s Kilts Center for Marketing, Buluswar will also be the first to tell you: finding success in a fast-changing world isn’t strictly about trying to reduce uncertainty and risk to lines on a spreadsheet. He argues that the future of business belongs to those who become not only more data literate, but also more capable of applying the insights that data provides in practical and informed everyday contexts.
Booth: You’ve spent over 20 years helping organizations separate the signal from the noise. How did your time at Booth give you the skills needed to do so?
Buluswar: First, it gave me deeper intellectual clarity. In other words, it taught me to be very fact based in my decision-making, and to use data to drive more intelligence in my decision-making process across business sectors.
Second, it taught me to be both passionate and dispassionate. Being passionate is caring about what you do, bringing positive energy to it, and valuing the power of your ideas. Being dispassionate to me means having a starting hypothesis, but also being willing to change your mind to let facts and data guide your decision-making process.
Lastly, it gave me the confidence to trust and assert what I do know, and to be comfortable asking questions and recognizing what I don’t know. This yin and yang of confidence and humility has been a core tenet of my life since my Booth days.
Booth: How does your business and marketing training apply across industries?
Buluswar: My training reminds me that no matter how finely tuned or sophisticated a business is, there are always new opportunities to get ahead by studying challenges through different lenses of innovation. I have come to appreciate that while the nuances of a problem might be unique to a firm or an industry, analog challenges from elsewhere are also equally powerful in drawing parallels. The ability to draw connections while valuing the uniqueness of a situation is critical in problem solving.
Often, in large organizations, we put obstacles ahead of opportunities and convince ourselves that because of them, something isn’t achievable. No matter the size of the impediment that we’re facing, it’s solvable—and we can solve it by collaborating, expanding our framing of a problem, and being more creative in thinking through what’s possible.
“In a world of increasingly personalized promotions, it’s more important than ever that you understand customers’ needs and apply deeper empathy in the right context.”
Booth: Why is the future of data science about more than just crunching numbers?
Buluswar: There’s too much of a dichotomy between qualitative research and analytical insights. In my view, consumer insights and advanced analytics tools are good at predicting outcomes. But they’re not necessarily as good at influencing outcomes.
The next frontier of data science will be gaining a deeper understanding into how and why people make decisions. The ability to positively influence behavior through multi-disciplinary thinking has gained momentum in the last decade, and will be the next chapter in the coming years.
There’s a wealth of qualitative research that I think can be very instructive on this front—as can cognitive and behavioral science. Machine-learning and advanced analytics tools are becoming increasingly commoditized.
Booth: How do research and analytics continue to influence modern marketing?
Buluswar: At its core, marketing is about developing faster, timely, and contextual relevance with customers. In order for firms to develop this level of engagement, they will have to draw real-time meaning from every interaction and transaction, and then reflect that intelligence dynamically back to their customers through their communications and offerings. This vision is simply unachievable without the power of auto-machine learning and, more broadly, artificial intellgence. I don’t see the study and practice of marketing in today’s world being particularly relevant without deep knowledge of scaled data-driven intelligence.
Booth: Why is data science becoming an increasingly in-demand skill?
Buluswar: Keep in mind that the definition of data today is much broader than before. There aren’t too many unicorns being created these days that don’t have advanced analytics in their DNA. Not everyone needs to be a technician, but every leader worth their salt must be fluent in analytics and should have the capability to engage somewhat deeply in data insights.
Many firms are powerfully scaling the degree of their analytical sophistication by investing in real-time data, enabling machine learning analytics, and asking deeper questions to interrogate unstructured data—all in service of solving critical business problems. For example, my team is looking at applying computer vision to images, learning to interpret human conversations on a real-time basis, and monitoring customers’ actions when they log into websites and mobile apps, just to name a few data-driven projects. Data is abundant. The ability to ask and answer deeper questions powered by sophisticated insights is still a work in progress in mature firms.
Booth: You’ve watched the field of marketing change by leaps and bounds. How will it continue to shift and evolve in coming years?
Buluswar: Tomorrow’s most successful marketing practitioners will have a better understanding of human behavior. In a world of increasingly personalized promotions, it’s more important than ever that you understand customers’ needs and apply deeper empathy in the right context. That’s a different problem statement than asking: How do you get your customer to buy more of your product?
I don’t believe anyone could practice marketing effectively without having a strong foundation in data and analytics, behavioral sciences, and technology. The role of a marketer will skew more technical than before. Customer expectations continue to rise across sectors. Marketers who signal to their customers that they understand them and reflect that empathy in how they engage with them will rise to the top. Those who have a product-push focus will struggle to be relevant. The future is simultaneously both exciting and daunting!
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