There’s an intriguing little show you’ve probably never heard of on Netflix that might be worth checking out. It’s called Travelers and it’s a Canadian produced Sci-Fi show that ran from 2016 to 2018. The only face in it you’re probably recognize is Eric McCormack, the Will from Will and Grace. He also happens to be the producer of the series.
The premise is this – special operatives from the future (the “travelers”) – travel back in time to the present to prevent the collapse of society. They essential “body snatch” everyday people from our present at the exact moment of their death and use their lives as a cover to fulfill their mission.
And that’s not even the interesting part.
The real intrigue of the show comes from the everyday conflicts which come from an imperfect shoe horning of a stranger into the target’s real-world experience. The show runners do a masterful job of weaving this into their storylines: the joy of eating a hamburger, your stomach turning at the thought of drinking actual milk from a cow, calling your “wife” her real name when you haven’t called her that in all the time you’ve known her. And it’s in this that I discovered an unexpected parallel to our current approach to marketing.
This is a bit of a detour, so bear with me.
In the future, the research team compiles as much as they can about each of the people they’re going to “borrow” for their operatives. The profiles are compiled from social media, public records and everything they can discover from the data available.
But when the “traveler” actually takes over their life, there are no end of surprises and challenges – made up of all the trivial stuff that didn’t make it into the data profile.
You probably see where I’m going with this. When we rely solely on data to try to understand our customers or prospects, there will always be surprises. You can only learn these little quirks and nuances by diving into their lives.
That’s what A.G. Lafley, CEO of Proctor and Gamble from 2000 to 2010 and then again from 20153 to 2015, knew. In a profile on Lafley which Forbes did in 2002, writer Luisa Kroll said,
“Like the monarch in Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs’ Court, Lafley often makes house calls incognito to find out what’s the minds of his subjects. ‘Too much time was being spent inside Procter & Gamble and not enough outside,’ says Lafley who took over during a turbulent period two years ago. ‘I am a broken record when it comes to saying, ‘We have to focus on the customer.'”
It wasn’t a bad way to run a business. Under Lafley’s guidance, P&G doubled their market cap, making them one of the 10 most valuable companies in the world.
Humans are messy and organic. Data isn’t. Data demands to be categorized, organized and columnized. When we deal with data, we necessarily have to treat it like data. And when we do that, we’re going to miss some stuff – probably a lot of stuff. And almost all of it will be the stuff of our lives, the things that drive behavior, the sparks that light our emotions.
It requires two different ways of thinking. Data sits in our prefrontal lobes, demanding the brain to be relentlessly rational. Data reduces behavior to bits and bytes, to be manipulated by algorithms into plotted trendlines and linear graphs. In fact, automation today can totally remove we humans from the process. Data and A.I. work together to pull the levers and push the buttons on our advertising strategies. We just watch the dashboard.
But there’s another way of thinking – one that skulks down in the brain’s subcortical basement, jammed in the corner between the amygdala and the ventral striatum. It’s here where we stack all the stuff that makes us human; all the quirks and emotions, all our manias and motivations. This stuff is not rational, it’s not logical, it’s just life.
That’s the stuff A.G. Lafley found when he walked out the front door of Proctor and Gamble’s headquarters in Cincinnati and into the homes of their customers. And that’s the stuff the showrunners of Travelers had the insight to include in their narratives.
It’s the stuff that can make us sensational or stupid – often at the same time.