Listen to the full episode on marketing data and analytics below, or wherever you listen to podcasts!

Our guest for April’s episode is Susan Cunningham, Executive Director, Managing Partner of Marketing Intelligence and Data Science at Wavemaker. Susan has over 20 years of agency experience in global account management, analytics, data and audience strategy, primary research, and media measurement. She has developed these skills across many industries, including tech, gaming, fintech, travel, and CPG, at creative and data focused firms. Susan is based in San Francisco and holds a Masters Degree in Counseling Psychology.

In our discussion, we cover many topics including: Susan’s career journey, the ever-changing landscape of marketing analytics, career advice, and how to use non-linear thinking to your advantage in applied analytics.

Interview Transcript


[Anna]: Thank you for tuning in to the Real Intelligence podcast. You’re on today with Katia Sausys, SVP of Business Intelligence at RXA and Anna Schultz, Marketing Coordinator at RXA.

Our guest today is Susan Cunningham, Executive Director, Managing Partner of Marketing Intelligence and Data Science at Wavemaker. Susan has over twenty years of agency experience in global account management, analytics, data and audience strategy, primary research, and media measurement. She has developed these skills across many industries, including tech, gaming, fintech, travel, and CPG,nat creative and data-focused firms. Susan is based in San Francisco and holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology.

Susan has experience with quantitative and qualitative research methodologies, consumer segmentation, creative testing and complicated measurementmand effectiveness evaluation for actionable marketing optimization. She brings these skills to her current role where she leads the marketing intelligence and data science team for Wavemaker across all West Coast accounts. Welcome to the show Susan!

[Susan]: Thank you.

[Katia]: Welcome!

Creativity and the Nonlinear Process in Analytics

[Anna]: Absolutely. We’re really grateful that you took the time to talk with us today. We like to start off the podcast by getting to know the real you. So, I have a few questions that we might not find the answers to in your professional bio. The first one being, do you have any fun hobbies or talents that people might not know about?

[Susan]: I mean, I paint quite a bit. You can see a couple, one of, actually two of mine right there. Yeah. I paint quite a bit. I, um, I think that’s probably my biggest one that I do on the side. Yeah. Read a lot of books, but mostly painting. It’s my fun hobby that I love.

[Anna]: That’s awesome. Do you feel like you have a favorite artist or artists that you draw inspiration from? Or do you just kinda…

[Susan]: Yeah. I love Richard Diebenkorn. He’s a, he’s an artist who spent quite a bit of time in the Bay Area, a lot of time in California. He does, kind of, like, big color field paintings, quite a lot. And he also has some beautiful abstract expressionist kind of work that I really, really love. So I love… I love his style. I love his whole genre. Elmer Bischoff as well. Those guys are couple of my favorites.

[Anna]: Awesome. I’ll have to look those up. And do you feel like having art, and that creative outlet helps you with your role at all? Or do you feel any of those skills translate into your role? Or is it just something you do to kinda get away from it all?

[Susan]: Yeah. I think so. I think that I, I would definitely not say I’m a fully left-brained person by any means. I feel like I’m much more, you know, sort of, center-of-the-brain is the way I like to think of myself. I feel like in the, you know, with so much data and so many numbers and so, you know, always being inundated with kind of information and chunks of, chunks of data. What I find useful is being able to try to pull all that together, find the patterns, and tell the story. And that to me is a much more, kind of, right brain sort of, you’re looking for those connections.

And I think art and creativity is a way to make those connections and to then tell the story. And also sometimes to work not linearly. Because a lot of times, I find myself thinking, and hopefully a lot of my team is doing this too. Thinking about what is the end goal? Who is the audience? Where am I trying to go? So that I then can bump along the way on the journey, or, you know, pull disparate pieces together to ultimately get to where I’m going.

But I think it’s a very non-linear process. I think sometimes in numbers and data, I think it attracts, the field sort of attracts a lot of people who like a linear process. But I don’t find that to be the best. And certainly in the agency world in which I worked for so long, you need to be kind of able to live in the unknowns and the unclear, lack of clarity, and also just to work sort of more in that nonlinear fashion, is what I found to be more helpful.

So yes. I do think it helps a lot.

[Anna]: That’s great. Yeah. Our CEO always says that the secret of data science is it’s more of an art than a science. So I feel like that very much plays into that.

[Susan]: Yeah. I think that’s true… I think people are very uncomfortable with that idea because I think everyone really likes, well I shouldn’t say everyone, but it feels as though. There’s a lot more comfort in, you know, the known and the sort of very black and white, you know, sort of like… When am I trying to say, like, the zeros and ones, you know, it’s either this or that.

But in reality, there are so many ways, and those of us who’ve worked with data and numbers before. I mean there’s so many ways to craft the story, to pull the pieces you want and ignore the ones you don’t. You know, it’s not, it’s not always. It is… There’s a lot of art in it. And there’s a lot of heart, there can be a lot of heart in it, I think too because it’s also about… What is that story you’re trying to tell? What is it that you’re trying to understand? Rather than just, you know, here’s the number. So…

[Katia]: Exactly. Put reality to it. When we were wondering how to name our podcast, we played with the idea of artificial versus real intelligence. That’s how it came about.

[Susan]: That’s fantastic. I love that. And there’s so much AI now. I mean, everything is AI, all the models are AI-based. So I mean, it’s all just, you know…

[Katia]: it’s the buzzword

[Susan]: Isn’t it interesting? Yeah. It’s the latest buzz word. One of the latest.

[Anna]: Absolutely. I completely agree with all of that. And I think it’s something that’s not talked about as much, which is really, you know, interesting to hear that perspective from someone who’s been in that industry for so long.

[Susan]: Yeah. Yeah.

Susan’s Career Journey

[Anna]: And now before I turn over to Katia to get into kind of the more meat-and-potatoes of the interview. Can you, in your own words, kind of walk us through your career journey and how you got to where you are today?

[Susan]: Sure. I was actually just telling somebody this story the other day because I feel like kids now have this… It feels like… It seems like there’s a lot of pressure on them to really know what they wanna do in a way that I don’t think I experienced in my years. I mean, there was some pressure. you know, what are you gonna do? But it it didn’t feel like I had to actually know. It felt like I could kinda figure it out. And it seems to me that there’s a lot more pressure on kids now. So I feel like my…

You know, I went to college. I got a bachelor’s degree in counseling… Sorry, communication studies. And really because I like watching TV, that is God’s honest truth. And then I was like, I don’t know what I wanna do. Maybe I’ll be on the news. I’ll be a reporter because I like watching TV. Like, that was it. That was my big decision.

So I ended up as an intern at CNN in Washington DC at the time, and this will age, date me, but I… It was during the Iran-Contra hearings. So Oli North and Fawn… whatever her name was, the admin who shredded the documents. Anyway, it was an exciting time to be there.

But what I learned is that, this a sidebar story, but what I learned is that TV production is much like film production, which is slow and like, you drive everywhere, you get a two-minute shot and it takes forever to, like, get that shot. And so anyway I kind of then was thinking to myself. I’m not sure this is right.

Ended up back in the Bay Area, worked for a local TV station. Again, thinking well I like TV. And I ended up literally falling into a job where I was like a research analyst. And at the time, it was about creating sales docs for… for the sales team to go out and sell our programs, ads within our programs. And I liked it.

What I found is that, like, I could see the pattern in the numbers, and I could tell a story with the numbers, more importantly. And I think that was amazing training. And I then stayed in radio and then cable because it was all about taking the numbers and crafting the story that would help the sales people sell that air time. And that, it was an incredible foundation.

And then, you know, the… I go to grad school, I get my counseling psych degree, I also find that people are really tricky when you sit with them one on one in counseling, because talk about not black and white. It is all gray, all the time. And that was very interesting and very, very helpful and I learned a lot of stuff in Grad school about listening to people, and allowing space for what’s next, and things like that.

And yet, the Internet was starting to take off and I was thinking gosh, I feel like I’m missing something and I really kinda of missed numbers and research and telling a story with data. And so I fell back into the agency world in one of the very earliest .com agencies, called iXL. And I was there for a little while, kind of bumped around the .com boom. Katia and I got to work together at an agency also.

And then I just… I’ve been in the agency world for so many years now, which is ironic because seriously in my very first, very first agency at iXL, I thought I am never doing an agency job again because you basically have two jobs where you’re doing the work, and then you’re also managing the clients, which is like a separate job.

So I just thought this is it. This is my last agency, and then meanwhile, you know, twenty years later, I’m still in the agency space because there’s so much I do love about it. So that’s the arc, the trajectory.

[Katia]: Awesome. Thank you. Yes. I do remember fondly our time at Modern Media, eventually Digitas, where we would brainstorm solutions to analytical problems, and measurement challenges with Andrew Hoebrichts, our lead at the time who was so passionate about it, remember?

[Susan]: He was, oh my gosh, yes.

The Changing Landscape of Marketing Analytics

[Katia]: I think that one of the most important questions that we women, humans in data get asked, is how can I prove that my marketing budget was not wasted? That my marketing efforts work? What in your experience are the most challenging aspects of answering that question? Is it the data that we need to collect, is it the way we collect it? Is it even how we frame our questions?

[Susan]: I think it is… I think it’s the data we collect. I think it’s also the fragmented nature of where the data is coming from. I think, you know, when you and I were in our agency life, it was pretty relatively straightforward. I feel like there were a lot fewer digital channels. The data was a lot more sort of fluid. It was very basic. It seems very basic to me at the time. I mean, I remember looking at, like…

[Katia]: Click-through-rate.

[Susan]: Yeah! It was Click-through-rate, and, like, the view-through-rate. And, like, it was just quite simple, you know? And now I think both the measurement solutions have gotten more abundant and maybe more complicated.

And then you have data coming from, you know, in some cases the walled gardens; but then you can only get this part of the data. Or you can see this part of the view, but not the entire thing. So I think the complication comes from trying to piece together this sort of Jigsaw puzzle of data and measurement solutions.

And then the other thing I have found multiple times lately, is that clients sort of have these, you know, in the old days of kinda like brand media, right? It was like, we want awareness, and we want consideration, and we’ll measure it a certain way. Or it’s like all about sales and then you’re measuring it there.

Now what I’m finding is happening is that most of my clients who, even though they’re running brand campaigns and they may have their performance media running in-house. They kind of want it all. So they want us to be running the brand campaign, tracking awareness, consideration, tracking… You know…

Then all the sudden it becomes a traffic-driving campaign. Well, if it’s traffic driving, we might do different tactics with the different platforms. And also measure it slightly differently. And why do we care then, about awareness? So what I find getting more and more complicated is also the sort of shifting objectives, or multiple objectives of the client, also. So the story gets complicated and confusing, I think is what’s going on.

[Katia]: So you need to pin the clients and have them in blood and sweat and tears to sign what the business objectives are.

[Susan]: Exactly.

[Katia]: Because you’ll be account.. you know, be held accountable.

[Susan]: Yep. I mean, I literally was just looking at a rap report with some team members and it was… You know, it’s tricky, because you’re… You have a campaign where the goal really… You know, the stated objective is awareness and, you know, some shift in a couple other metrics. But then ultimately, what they still ask about is how much traffic got driven. So…

But it’s two sort of different things. And I think our investment teams, it’s hard for them too because they’re trying to sort of deal with multiple objectives within one channel or one partner, and it’s… It just… It makes the story convoluted, and it makes it hard for my team to ultimately sometimes tell the story in a clear way.

[Katia]: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Is, are there, is there any topic that people come to you, most about?

[Susan]: Yeah. I think the thing I hear more and more and more because more clients have their performance media in-house, or their acquisition media in-house, and they will… And I have this for a number of clients, a number of clients will have their brand or awareness media through an agency like ours.

And more and more, there’s a call for – help me understand what this media that you’re running out in the agency world is doing to my bottom line. Help me, like, get really have, almost like a direct connection, and this kinda of goes back to what we were talking about earlier, that sometimes it’s not a perfect linkage. It’s a little bit loose. Right? And it either has to be modeled, or you have to use some other you know, means of measuring or making that connection that’s not a hundred percent clear.

[Katia]: Some other signals. Yeah.

[Susan]: Yes. And everyone wants the very clear, like, if this then that, and it’s just, it’s much more broken up than that. That’s the biggest thing.

[Katia]: And that’s where you get your paints out and you try to put some art to it.

[Susan]: That’s right. Then I start painting. I’m sorry. I’m not able to help you at the moment.

But it does it… What it means then is because it’s so… That is a complex question. I mean, on one hand, it can be simple if you say, let’s just do MMM or one of the more modern versions of MMM, like Robin, which is a meta solution or we have some agile MMM solutions in-house. You know, if they’re willing to do that.

But because the performance media is handled by the client most often, if you’re also then suddenly bringing together teams of people and get… It almost becomes an organizational challenge then, on top of even just the data challenge. Because you’re wrangling or working with someone to help get the data from the client, this performance media data.

Then you’re trying to get the, you know, the external data from all the various platforms and all of that, and then create the models to bridge the gap. And it’s just, it’s not… I will say I’ve not found it a simple question.

[Katia]: Absolutely. Becomes a, a different project. It’s not a data project anymore. It’s, yeah. It’s organizational and lots of other skills are needed. Thank you. Yeah. Totally resonate with that.

Advice for Pursuing a Career in Marketing Analytics

[Katia]: So tell us… Because I’m sure there are a lot of people, women who are early in their careers, are probably going to listen or get to this podcast eventually. Do you have any advice for them?

[Susan]: I mean, what I always say… I mean, I say this to my team because they tend to be a lot of very young people. It’s sort of interesting working in the agency world. I mean, you don’t have to be very old to be the oldest person in the room sometimes, it seems like.

Yeah. I think what I always tell them is, you know, it’s great to have a goal and a trajectory. And also don’t be afraid if something comes along that intrigues you and seems interesting, you know, a project, a career path, an interview. Why not pursue it? You have, you have nothing to lose.

And I always say, like, the other thing is, it’s okay not to know the answer to questions. In fact, it’s very good to ask those questions. I mean, we all hear that all the time. We’ve all heard that all time from, you know, our past bosses and, you know, leaders say that all the time. But I really do try to encourage the team to feel like they can ask me anything or ask each other too, you know. Ask your peers, if you’re not comfortable asking your boss. Just make sure you’re asking the question and don’t assume that, you know, everyone knows.

And the other thing is, like, take every interview that comes your way. Take everybody who reaches out to you for an informational. Do it. You never know what you’re gonna come up with. You know, you never know.

And I will say that I think the last, gosh… It’s been a long time since I’ve actually, like, applied for a job. I feel like all of my, most of my recent interviews, maybe Katia since the way back days when you and I worked together, were kinda like somebody who knew somebody who knew about me. They called me and then I was on the phone with them. And even though many times I was not necessarily looking or ready to leave my job, whatever the conversation was, it was intriguing enough that it felt like I was… I was good. Sure. Let’s do it. Let’s see what this is.

So it’s been an amazing and interesting ride, and I encourage people to just be open to that. And not feel like they have to do something for a certain length of time, necessarily.

[Katia]: Mhm, great advice. Thank you. I mean, I’ve been lucky to have great bosses so far. I certainly shared one with you. Did you have any mentors in your career, that you can call mentors?

[Susan]: You know, It… That’s a really good question. Sadly, well I’ve had some bosses who have been really good mentors. I worked with a woman named Michelle, and she was my boss when I was at Cara. I was at an agency called Cara for many years and she was an amazing boss, an amazing mentor. Really a wonderful advocate for me, for our department.

But I do… I remember distinctly, I had a moment, early, early in my career, actually my very first job, and there was a woman, and she had this amazing name. And she said to me, sort of in passing, but it so stuck with me, but she was like, you’ll go far in your career. Just, you know, remember who you are and what you know. And I was… And she literally said it to me in passing, but it had such a huge impact.

So, I mean, I guess another piece of advice, and probably I should take this to heart as well. That we all can have such impact on each other and on young people who are coming up in their careers. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of energy or effort or even forethought. I mean, I think she probably said that just willy nilly, and it was like… I mean, here I am however many years later and I still remember it and I’m still so touched by it. So…

[Katia]: Awesome. Thank you.

Susan’s Expertise

[Katia]: And Susan, what is a quality that people admire most about you? I can start you off – you’re a great communicator and a great listener.

[Susan]: Thank you, Katia. I think I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that just people… It’s a very, it’s like a soft skill, soft quality, but people, they enjoy being around me. They feel sort of upbeat, and there’s sort of a lightness to things. And which I think is important.

Gosh, sometimes, I think we take ourselves so seriously. And in the agency world, and I just think, you guys. I mean, it is important. And on behalf of our clients, of course, we wanna be as responsible and as, you know, buttoned up as possible. And also, let’s keep in mind that we are all in advertising and media, and it’s all okay. You know?

So I think, I think sometimes the lightheartedness that I might bring to a lot of situations. I mean, I have been told that I needed to be more serious, especially in new business pitches. But I think that that’s probably, that’s probably one. I mean, you know, our friend Peter Lenn, Katia. I remember him at one time saying to me, Susan everybody likes you. And I was kinda like, they do? You know, but I think I have some likability factor that I, I don’t…

[Katia]: You do. Yeah. You do, admit it. Alright. Last question. Is there one thing you would love to be an expert at?

[Susan]: Oh, god, that’s a great question. Around what I’m doing work-wise?

[Katia]: You can take it anyway you want.

[Susan]: I would say, oh, gosh. Well, an expert I know.

[Katia]: You cannot be an expert in painting, right?

[Susan]: No. I mean, I would say, like, I think if I could crack… If I could have a simple, concise answer to the, how do we understand the impact of this on this? I would love that. To have a more pithy, boxed up answer that isn’t about how complicated it is. I would love that.

Secretly, I would love to be like, a dance choreographer. That would be like… I would love that. Like, I would love that to have that, like, special skill to be able to craft a dance that was movement and action, but it communicated a feeling. I think that’s just beautiful.

[Katia]: It is, it is. You are a storyteller. Thank you Susan.

[Susan]: Yes!

[Anna]: Yeah, thank you, Susan so much for, you know, taking the time to share your career journey, your advice, some things that people might admire about you. I think you’re really likable, this is my first time meeting you, but I can already say I definitely agree with that.

Concluding Thoughts – Don’t Be Intimidated by the Nonlinear Process

Before we log off today, is there anything else that you would wanna say or any advice you wanna leave our listeners with before we close down the recording?

[Susan]: I would say that in the world of data and analytics there’s a lot of intimidation that happens or it can feel very intimidating because it’s complicated and because it’s nonlinear, even though you would think it was. And because it’s fragmented, and there’s not really a lot of easy direct answers, And that’s okay.

Just… I think I would say, like, be okay to have that intimidated feeling, but just know that that’s natural and normal and not to let it stop you if you enjoy the career. Because you’ll just keep learning, and it should be about learning for you, in your career the whole time.

About RXA

RXA is a leading data science consulting company. RXA provides data engineers, data scientists, data strategists, business analysts, and project managers to help organizations at any stage of their data maturity. Our company accelerates analytics road maps, helping customers accomplish in months what would normally take years by providing project-based consulting, long term staff augmentation and direct hire placement staffing services. RXA’s customers also benefit from a suite of software solutions that have been developed in-house, which can be deployed immediately to further accelerate timelines. RXA is proud to be an award-winning partner with leading technology providers including Domo, DataRobot, Alteryx, Tableau and AWS.


Twitter: @RXAio