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Titans of Tech

February 17, 2023 - 5 minutes

Titans Of Tech: Bozoma Saint John

Trusting the Power of Your Intuition with Bozoma Saint John, CMO at Netflix

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“Sometimes, data is the pill that we take to calm our insecurity about what we intuitively know.”

She’s Chief Marketing Officer at one of the tech unicorns that have revolutionized video streaming: Netflix. Bozoma Saint John is an advocate of intuition for tech innovation. This valuable piece of advice can be applied not only to marketing, but also to design, product, web development and even, let's be crazy, data itself!

A Tech Culture of Leaning On Data to Make Decisions

In her early experiences, Bozoma’s superiors quickly made it clear that to get her ideas across, she would need to rely on data. "Anchor the idea in the data," her boss kept telling her as a mantra. According to him, this would help her predict whether or not her marketing actions would work and then see if they actually were successful. 

This method, starting with a data set to formulate a hypothesis and test it, is very common in both tech and beyond. UX Researcher, UX Designer, Product Manager, and  Growth Marketer jobs rely primarily on observable KPIs to make decisions and refine them

Bozoma took that advice too. She picked a lot of her ideas right there, in the data. Sometimes, she would spot a pattern she would follow. It worked fine for a while.

Does a data-based-strategy often trigger innovation?

The CMO quickly noticed the limitations of drawing only creative insights from data. Indeed, data analyzes things we do know. It’s not designed to innovate and build disruptive products. Bozoma even speaks of “the endless weight of data that keeps us bound so we can’t move forward in the future because we’re so tied to the past.” 

The example the young woman chooses is eloquent: if Henry Ford had asked for the most popular means of transportation of his time instead of creating the Ford T, he would have tried to boost the speed of horses. 

For Bozoma,  “ideas are made off of electricity. They come sharp. They are nonlinear. I kind of feel they are like day dreams. So, with the data, they do not really take off. Intuition gets you there.”

Leaving Room for Intuition Makes You Far More Innovative

When she was just starting out in advertising in the early 2000s, Bozoma took part in a creative brief for Pepsi. All the partners had a data-driven approach. She remembers: “At the time, I was an assistant. Spike had everybody in the office, coming up with ideas. They looked at billboard charts, analyzed the sales.”

She explains that thanks to her inexperience, she came up with  a genius idea. Since she didn't yet trust herself to interpret the data correctly, she drew inspiration from what she knew: MTV. “There had been a hip-hop Hopera movie commercial called ‘Carmen’. I loved it. It starred Beyoncé. This was a disruptive idea. Who really mixes Opera and Hip Hop? It was magical. So, I put up my vote on Beyoncé. Now, of course, everybody would tell you to go all in. At the time, nobody was betting on her. My boss at Spike trusted me anyway. Pepsi made a memorable, successful campaign.”

It is likely that if the campaign had been driven by the competitors' numbers, it would have made less noise because it would have been offbeat, less creative, or unoriginal.

What About Other Tech Jobs?

What do these learnings teach us about other tech professions? 

Well,  it tells us that the most innovative products are built from intuition. It also means truly disruptive ideas rarely come from a data set and that the boldest innovations are most often a small glimmer of wisdom in the mind of someone who doesn't yet know why it should be invented - but knows it should be done. 

Don't make Bozoma say what it didn't say. Analyzing past performance and creating predictive patterns is still useful. What the Netflix CMO is simply saying is that sometimes, taking a step back and listening to your intuition can be a gamechanger. 

Even if that intuition contradicts some numbers. Even if what you propose seems crazy. Even when you can't explain it. 

“Ideas come from our intuition. You can’t really quite quantify this. Sometimes, you can’t even describe it”. 

Most tech companies use data to make every decision. These days, they don’t have the internal competence sometimes, as employees no longer use their intuition on a day-to-day basis.

And if they do, they’re not taken seriously, in a context where numbers are king. "Anchor the idea in the data…" To some extent, this advice provides an interesting methodological anchor. But today, recruiters are also looking for Mad skills, like creativity and intuition!

How to Train Your Intuition

To work on this highly sought after soft skill, Bozoma says to start small. She has been using her intuition like a muscle every day for over 20 years: no wonder she is able to connect with it. 

Every day, I am charged with looking at campaigns that are 15 seconds long, 60 seconds long, 90 seconds long, that will encourage you to watch something that's much longer. Every day. And so, I have to use my intuition to understand whether or not something is going to make you cry immediately, is it going to make you laugh. And I feel like if I feel that, perhaps you do too.

To reconnect with your intuition, it seems that you need to clear your mind and make room for it. Bozoma advocates that “we decrease the dosage of our data. And that we increase the implementation of our intuition." 

You’ll feel great when you're able to prove to yourself that the power of your intuition is actually accurate,” she concludes with a smile.

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