Q&A: Steve LaValle, Merkle EVP of client and advisory services

Merkle hired Steve LaValle as EVP of client and advisory services on April 26. In this role he’ll lead the client services teams, account managers and consulting professionals across all industries served by Merkle. LaValle has more than 24 years of experience in direct marketing and CRM consulting, including his most recent role at IBM where he served as global leader of business analytics and optimization strategy services. He spoke with Direct Marketing News about the art and science of effective marketing.

Direct Marketing News (DMN): You cited Merkle’s “advanced analytics capabilities” as one of the reasons you decided to join the company. What do you think the next five years will bring to the analytics industry and how will analytics continue to help marketers improve their campaigns?

Steve LaValle (Merkle): We’re looking at the continued expansion of data sets for predictive purposes. Additional data collection affects our ability to model behaviors and patterns. This is radically increasing. Marketers now have the modeling expertise and marketing expertise, which is a fantastic platform to build upon to take advantage of new data sources. Agencies can work with marketers to add science to decisions that were previously made based on year-over-year predictions. We can optimize the media mix looking at specific segments companies want to target and the media those segments most likely engage in to reallocate budgets and select vehicles. We can eliminate less productive media. There’s an abundance of opportunities to take this greater information and put it to work.

DMN: Do you think privacy legislation will get in the way of data collection?

LaValle: Privacy is not going to get in the way. It’ll establish the rails within where we have to operate. Protection of personal information is absolutely critical and a top priority for our organization. The use of aggregated information to identify broad sets of needs within segments is valuable to organizations and consumers because companies are better able to target at lower costs. We have to have the rules established around protecting the privacy of people. Legislation may help by setting a standard of care.

DMN: Merkle prides itself on being both a creative agency as well as a database agency. How do these two crafts feed into each other? Does one ultimately trump the other?

LaValle: Creative agencies use facts to make decisions. They always have. There have been different ways to generate that information. We’re not bringing together two things that have never come together before. We help the creative teams understand who they’re reaching out to in order to better tailor the messaging. I see them as parts of the same body. Are your arms more important than your legs? Is one ingredient more important than another ingredient in baking a cake?

DMN: Can you define what a consultative approach to building customer relationships means to Merkle? It sounds simple, but there are so many different ways a consultant can help foster relationships between brands and consumers that I think it’s important to detail Merkle’s definition.

LaValle: When we talk about a consultative approach we’re describing how we engage with our clients to help them achieve their results. It’s about being customer-focused about their approach to the market. What are your business needs? We help you understand how those needs translate to customer strategies and operations strategies. [When it comes to the end-customer] we’re just order-takers. We and our clients do what [customer activities] tell us to do [in the market]. We find most of our clients value that we have a point of view and that we engage with them in a productive way to advance their goals. Data and getting facts are important parts of setting strategy. No one is able to describe 100% of anything. That’s where you need expertise. The more you do that the better able you are to help clients understand the facts and leverage their businesses to a particular outcome. What are your customers looking for from you? What is the honest assessment of that?

DMN: Yesterday Facebook launched it Deals program, which is basically a social version of Groupon. With social networks and daily deal sites gaining increased popularity, do you think it’ll be harder for brands to gain customer loyalty as consumers will rely more on one another to make buying decisions?

LaValle: In the past, brands were able to declare their brand experience through advertising and messaging. There were very few ways to hold organizations accountable. With the rise in consumer-to-consumer messaging, where one consumer can very easily correct your statements in the brand promise, it’s changing the game for organizations in that they now have to have a more acutely tuned business operation. The gap between the promise and the reality is going to close because if you make a promise and every customer is tweeting that it isn’t true, your promise sounds insincere and no one will believe it.

DMN: You went to Wharton and Harvard. When UPenn plays Harvard who do you root for?

LaValle: The football team is affiliated to where you went to undergrad so I clearly root for Penn.

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