Peter Zandan and the Power of Data – Interview with the Presidents’ Circle of the National Academies

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What new Circle member Peter Zandan likes most about marketing and communications is that, at its heart, it’s about data—and data is a great way of knowing.  After earning a PhD in the social sciences in the early 80s, Peter put his knowledge to work on the emerging personal technology revolution.  As founder and CEO of IntelliQuest, a publicly-traded information firm, Peter provided clients such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs with data about consumer behavior, gathered through some of the first electronic surveys.  Now, as Global Vice Chair of Hill+Knowlton Strategies, a worldwide communications firm with 89 offices in 52 countries, Peter is watching the latest communications revolution unfold. Inspired in part by his connections to the Academies, he is working to bridge the business and science communities and investing in new applications that enable better use of data.

What first brought you to the Academies?

Would you believe it was climate change?   I got connected in about 2009 when Congress asked the Academies to conduct a set of studies on what to do about climate change—what came to be known as America’s Climate Choices.  At Davis Masten’s suggestion, I was asked to become part of the study’s main committee to help direct the communications effort.

How was your experience on the America’s Climate Choices committee?

It was interesting.  I was very excited to use my expertise to help the committee set up communications goals for the study.  Most of them were scientists, who happen to have a lot in common with the high-tech leaders I had served during my career.  As the study began, I developed a communications plan that included a brief analysis of the Academies’ strengths and weaknesses, a list of target audiences, and strategies and tactics for reaching the audiences. I excitedly shared the plan with the committee and was stunned by their reaction—which ranged from ambivalent to hostile.  I think they were afraid that broad communications was equivalent to advocacy, which is something that the Academies, particularly on the topic of climate change, needs to avoid.  In the end, I think we did a sufficient job of communicating broadly while avoiding advocacy.

What brings you to the Presidents’ Circle?

I’ve stayed connected to the Academies, because I believe in its tremendous potential to serve the nation.  But, like any other organization, the Academies has to be open to skillsets outside the science community.  The Presidents’ Circle provides a wonderful way for people like me to connect with the scientific community and offer my skillset.

How did you get started in your career?

I was always interested in what motivates human behavior.  I thought I wanted to do evaluation work for the United Nations, to measure what was most effective in changing behavior.  When I completed my PhD, I realized I had an opportunity to apply what I knew to the emerging world of personal technology, when companies like Apple and Microsoft were just getting started. I started IntelliQuest Information, Inc., which I later took public, to analyze how people were using personal technology and incorporating it into their lives.  What was so interesting about the technology world in the 1980s was that companies were very good at product development but were not so good at tuning in to marketplace needs.  I was able to inform business efforts by providing consumer information that I gathered through some of the first electronic surveys.  Before the internet, we had to send surveys through the mail on floppy disks and, because of the novelty, almost 100% of people responded.

You worked directly with Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.  What did you learn from them?

I was amazed by their curiosity, their vision, and how argumentative they were.  I came to realize that those three factors represent brilliance in a business person. Bill Gates argued with me that everyone would one day have a personal computer on their desk. The numbers I presented to him at the time did not confirm that need.  It was the same with Steve Jobs.  He thought design and the human interface trumped technology performance, even though my numbers showed that performance would be most important. Both of them turned out to be right, of course, and that taught me that data, although very useful to informing decisions, can never be a substitute for vision and imagination.  Some of my most memorable professional experiences are being proven wrong by folks of that caliber.

What are the opportunities in marketing and communications today?

Communications is going through a radical, social media driven transformation, as everyone knows.  The communications world is getting much flatter and faster.  There will be further radical transformation, and the Millennials (the generation born between 1977 and the early 2000s) will lead the way.  I’m awed by the statement that, “every day, 10,000 Baby Boomers turn 65, and every day, 10,000 Millennials turn 21.”  The Millennials are defined by their comfort with technology, and they will take things to places that previous generations could not even begin to imagine.

Do Baby Boomers (and older) have a role in this new paradigm?

We obviously have experience and sometimes even wisdom, and human nature hasn’t changed.  What’s interesting is that, while the Baby Boomers revolted against the values of the previous generation, the Millennials don’t revolt.  They listen to and appreciate experience, so we still have a role.

What advice would you give to the Academies in pursuing its communications goals?

I would advise them to keep connecting outside of the scientific community.  As the world gets more sophisticated, it’s also getting more siloed. I worry that the science community will become even more isolated.  The Presidents’ Circle offers some of those connections.  In Austin, I’ve spent time bridging the Austin business community with the technology community and also local universities through meetings, conferences, and other activities.  We need to do more of that.

What role do you see for data in this new world?

Data can make people, communities and nations much smarter. I’m doing angel (early stage) investing in companies that are using data in novel ways.  For example, I’ve invested in Klout, which reveals people’s influence, in Next Big Sound, which predicts what music will be popular, and in Trust Radius, which shares information about what technology to buy.  A broader focus on data is also a great basis for Citizen Science, which I think is really exciting.

What excites you about Citizen Science?

It allows the public to get actively involved in the scientific method, whether they are collecting or using data.  The Quantified Self is a great example. People are quantifying their physical activity, sleeping habits, and eating habits, and adjusting their behavior based on their data and a comparison of aggregate data from others.  I think the possibilities for similar applications are endless.

What’s the most interesting or surprising thing you ever learned from your career?

How few of our leaders successfully combine data and imagination, but those that do can change the world.

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