How Blue Jays’ defeat is a wake-up call for marketers

—The team’s blind faith in analytics provides a cautionary tale about data-driven communications, says Noel O’Dea—

The Toronto Blue Jays’ fight to win what would become the decisive game of their American League Wild Card game with the Minnesota Twins was doomed.

Not because of their pitching, which was among the best in baseball. Nor their defence, which was equally stellar. And not their offence, which, although sputtering, was still loaded with promise.

No, it was data analytics that sunk the Jays.

According to reports, the Jays’ brass had tumbled the numbers ahead of time and decided that when right-handed starter Jose Berrios reached a certain point in the do-or-die game (which turned out to the fourth inning), he would be replaced by a left-handed reliever because of the profile of left-handed batters due up in the Twins’ line-up.

It was a pure data play. And one I believe should serve as a cautionary tale for marketers obsessed with data-driven communications.

At the appointed time in that fateful game, Blue Jays manager John Schneider yanked Berrios after just 47 pitches.

The only problem was that Berrios was having perhaps the best game of his career. No runs. He was totally on his game. With only three hits allowed, he had something special going on. He was totally in command.

Maybe the fact that Berrios had spent almost six years with the Minnesota Twins before coming to the Jays had something to do with his stellar performance on the mound… an emotional thing that the data analytics and algorithms likely could not detect or consider.

But big data was not to be denied.

With no regard to nuance, subtlety, emotions, or the truth of what was really happening in the game, data made its pre-judgement, and the manager obediently acquiesced.

The result? A colossal disaster. The momentum which the Blue Jays had built to that point in the game was immediately extinguished. The balloon popped. All was lost.

What a stupendous screw-up. And what a great lesson for marketers.

How often will the seductive sirens of data analytics pilot our marketing and advertising campaigns onto the deadly shoals of consumer indifference, rejection, and failure?

Will today’s infatuation with data lead us to repeat the failure of New Coke? Crystal Pepsi? Or the now infamous Kendall Jenner TV spot—such a marketing disaster that it led PepsiCo president Brad Jakeman to step down, saying the TV campaign was “the most gut-wrenching experience of my career.”

Data clearly has an important and perhaps even crucial role in marketing. We need that flashlight for the dark corners. But data alone is not enough. To paraphrase from the mom in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, data is not the saviour, it’s a very naughty boy.”

Capitulating to data and analytics is as foolish as ignoring them. The tail wagging the dog. Famously, Apple’s “1984” TV spot that launched the Mac ignored data and best practices, and was researched so poorly that the agency hid the test results from the client before it ran.

As for me, I trust human intelligence, intuitive judgment, and experience every time. While big data may help point you in the direction of the altar, humanity and emotion are what persuade your customer to say, “I do.”

Noel O’Dea is founder and chief storyteller at Target, the independent creative agency based in St. John’s, Newfoundland since 1980. He was inducted into the Marketing Hall of Legends in 2023.