Data Driven Marketing | The 5 Stages of Grief

Data Driven Marketing | The 5 Stages of Grief

Leverage insights and teamwork to reduce the execution time on data driven marketing initiatives

Nick Fawbert

If you’ve ever tried to implement data driven marketing initiatives, you’ll already know that it can be more painful than pulling teeth – but is there anything we can do to oil the wheels of progress?

Embracing the Challenge

Many years ago, I worked closely with the business development team of a leading global web platform.

They had been a confident bunch, standing proud at the end of a long run of successful years.

For the company it was about revenue growth and reinvestment, for the business development team it was about quarterly bonus and the down-payments on holidays, cars and houses.

Until recently it had all been big grins and backslapping. There wasn’t a better place to work… until now that is. Now things had changed.

It was a classic marketing omnishambles.

The world had turned, competitors competed, innovators innovated, but this team were trying to do the same thing they had successfully done 3 years ago and were #failing.

The classic recovery model is simply to do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

But that meant research, and measurement and data, and that’s where things began to go wrong, because the team didn’t want to get involved with data at all!

We needed to find a way out of this situation quickly.

The Kubler-Ross Model

When teams come face to face with data driven decision making, it’s like a loss of innocence.

The blunt tool of measurement metrics reveals more than just the successes, it also reveals the failures in sharp relief.

For team members, the very real risk of revealing hidden flaws is often magnified far beyond the perceived gains that may be realised through new processes. The chance of damaging a (supposedly) pristine reputation can trigger an extreme form of loss aversion.

And as the grief sets in over the loss of innocence, that’s when the problems start.

In hindsight we could have done a better job of handling it, had we known what we would be getting in to.

Fortunately, now we know, and what we learned had much in common with the Kubler-Ross model for the 5 Stages of Grief.

If you’re starting to commit to data driven business decisions, it’s a model that may have meaning for you too…

This tutorial is part of our Asia Pacific workshop series covering how effective marketing is empowered by data driven decision making.

You can find out more about our Data Driven Decision Making Workshops here.

The 5 Stages of Grief

Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was much criticised for the 5 Stages of Grief, a model which depicted personal reactions to life changing events.

Critics felt that there was lack of empirical evidence and research to support the model.

It’s a criticism applies as much to the implementation of data driven decision making, but the model works for us because it gave us a framework to anticipate potential outcomes and prepare for them in advance.

It meant that we could list potential behaviours and objection, address them early, and maintain the confidence of the team that we knew what we were doing.

And like all good managers, at the very least the appearance of foresight was 90% of the battle!

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross defined the framework:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The task that fell to us was how to apply that to data driven decision making and manage the change.



A Man for All Seasons’ was a go-to film for us at school when sports were rained off. It deals with the dicey (and occasionally lethal) presumption that silence when dealing with a shocking discovery means acquiescence

The introduction of data driven decision making is invariably a shocking event for inexperienced teams and it’s a habitual management confirmation bias that leads us to assume that silence means the team is happy with the ideas you have outlined.

But this is the first sign of bad news - it’s a shock, and the teams don’t yet know what they’re getting into.

That silence doesn’t mean they’re happy, it just means they haven’t worked it out yet, and the worst is yet to come.

It’s also the trigger for the 5 stages of grief.


“Marketing is an art not a science”

“Data is a diversion not a value creator”

“Bureaucracy is a barrier to creativity”

These kinds of protests signal intransigence. They’re statements of opinion reframed as fact. They offer no supporting evidence, and by stating generalisations they’re not easy to refute.

Getting locked in these conversations offers no clear route to a solution, and often results in isolation and inertia.

Good responses to these protests are designed to create debate and recognise that general assertions rarely meet specific situations. Try to imagine scenarios where those claims may not be accurate, and allow that to introduce context and debate where alternative approaches (involving data) might work better.


“You can’t define my contribution in numbers”

“You can’t quantify my creativity; you’ll devalue my work”

Objections such as these are signs of a step in the right direction.

They show that our team members have moved beyond outright denial to imagine situations in which data could be put into practice.

We shouldn’t be shocked that their interpretation is negative – ‘loss aversion’ means it’s human nature to emphasise the negatives and ignore the positives.

This is a moment to tone down the rhetoric and build empathy and compassion for the team. Reassure them that data isn’t about reducing their contribution to a single data point, but about exploring what works well and getting the chance to do more of it.


“How do you expect us to measure our outcomes”

“What metrics can possibly define the growth of our brand value”

Specific protests regarding the implementation of data demonstrate that the team has now moved into an active role with data implementation, and it’s a cause for celebration.

There’s no excuse for not doing your homework here.

It’s a critical stage, and one where you should be willing to produce examples of marketing metrics that illustrate exactly the issues they are debating how to address.

The key to success is to avoid an authoritarian response and use your own suggestions to kickstart the creative process.

Try splitting teams into smaller working groups and ask them to get together and devise what metrics could apply to specific business goals, and how they would track and report on them.

Ask the team to identify processes in their everyday activity, and the criteria for judging their effective completion.

There’s no such thing as ‘too many’ metrics at this stage – the process of boiling them down into manageable dashboards is for a later date.


“I’ve emailed you what you wanted”

“Here’s a 20 page PowerPoint detailing the figures you requested”

"This is wasting valuable time"

Exhausted from protests, objections and self-analysis, it’s not unusual for teams to simply capitulate to a data driven environment – but this is not where we need them to be. Carpet bombing spreadsheets is not a recipe for success.

Data is not an end in itself, so we do not want the teams to see data creation as a bureaucratic exercise, but as an opportunity to improve the outcomes of the department.

If your colleagues lapse into regular emailing of data dashboards, send them right back and ask for what the business needs:

  • Analysis
  • Priorities
  • Opportunities
  • Execution plans

Using data as a platform for decision making is the main objective behind the exercise, so encouraging them to apply it to their everyday activity is a shortcut to the results you need.


“Business growth starts here”

When your team are presenting data back to you as the signposts for success, that’s when you know you have achieved your goals.

The real skill for effective managers at this stage is to avoid complacency.

Try using their metrics and achievements as the basis for incentives, rewards and public recognition.

If you’ve done this right, it’s the team that has delivered the results, so let them know it.

A Salutary Tale

Skipping back for a moment to the web platform that this conversation started with, and you can probably guess the outcome anyway.

Putting figures on it is difficult, but the reality was that data driven decision making for both internal performance and external marketing activities drove 25% - 30% growth per quarter.

The team was never quite the same again. It’s difficult to return to lost innocence, so it was a different kind of happy that the team radiated from those days onwards.

It wasn’t the joy of undeserved success, but the kind of confidence you get from doing a job well and knowing you have created a kind of professionalism of which the rest of the industry will be envious.


There’s several points that should help you get going on your own journey:

  • Define what data means to your business
  • Set key objectives early
  • Detail the activities you want to introduce and the benefits you’ll reap
  • Anticipate objections and prepare your answers
  • Have empathy with your team, they’ve suffered a shock and a loss
  • Engage your team in the process
  • Celebrate your successes

If you need to know more about how we can help you, then get in touch!

Otherwise there’s no time like the present to just get started…

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Nick Fawbert

Nick FawbertNick Fawbert

With 25 years in the media and marketing industry, and almost 20 of those in digital marketing, Nick is one of the most experienced practitioners in the Asia marketing industry. He is Founder and CEO of Mutiny Consulting.

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