The Data Chief | Episode 7

Wunderman Thompson Data's Jacques van Niekerk on culture, innovation, and diversity

Jacques van Niekerk

Global CEO

Wunderman Thompson Data

Current EpisodeEP7: Wunderman Thompson Data's Jacques van Niekerk on culture, innovation, and diversity

Episode Overview

Joining Cindi today is Jacques van Niekerk, the Global CEO of Wunderman Thompson Data. On this episode, Jacques and Cindi discuss why data is not the new oil, as many in the industry have proclaimed, but instead should be thought of as ‘the new oxygen’ for businesses. They also explore what it means to focus on your customers’ terms over your own, how fostering a culture of curiosity inspires innovation and keeps you ahead of competition, and how encouraging diversity of thought within your organization can lead to unexplored and untapped markets.

Key Takeaways:

  • Data is not the new oil — it’s oxygen. If you don’t take your first-party customer data seriously, your organization runs the risk of asphyxiating before you’re even aware of the danger.
  • Foster diversity of thought and a culture of curiosity. You never know what potential markets you’re leaving untapped by excluding unexplored, overlooked, and neglected demographics you could otherwise be serving, or the new ways you can examine and expand upon existing data by viewing it through a new lens.
  • Want to stay personally relevant? Focus on your customers’ terms, not yours, and you’ll build experiences that generate a lifetime of loyalty.

Key Quotes:

[On South Africa winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup] It was an amazing moment in time. I was there. It was a wonderful moment of unification for the country as well, which actually is quite poignant given everything that’s going on. You notice the transition from a minority rule and an oppressive apartheid government into a democratic South Africa. And it was a peaceful transition when we were at the brink of civil war almost. So it was very poignant and the Rugby World Cup kind of was the epitome of the nation coming together. So, you know, our national team played for more than just the world cup at that point, they played to try and unify the nation.
I think empathy and tolerance [for recent protests] is critical. … We do a lot of work around understanding human behavior and trying to give our clients as much human insight as we can. … Often we look at what makes us different than what divides us as opposed to what makes us the same and what are the common entities to bring us together. So we try hard to do that. We do a lot of qualitative research as well, to really help our clients try to understand so that they function and culture properly and that they are not seen to be tone-deaf or have inappropriate positions at this point in time.
Wunderman Thompson [is] the marriage of two iconic names in the world of advertising. Wunderman was founded by Lester Wunderman, who literally wrote the book on direct marketing and database marketing. And then Thompson is J. Walter Thompson, who founded the very first advertising agency in Manhattan 125 years ago. So the merger of these two entities and one Wunderman Thompson gave us an opportunity to reimagine what does a marketing and advertising agency look like for the 21st century? And we thought it through completely from the values, how we run, what we want to represent in the world, and it’s run by an amazing CEO. Her name is Mel Edwards. The whole executive team is very diverse, diversity of thought, diversity of people.
The strategies and the way we’ve applied marketing three, four, five years ago was out of date last year. And if you think about how behavior has just changed this year alone, because of COVID-19, because of what’s happening in culture, whether it was in Hong Kong and the United States, you need to move so fast in terms of how you apply data and look at data.
The anxiety index is something we’ve done just over 20 years now. … It came out of the original tensions that emanated around the Gulf War. And our research team realized that we need to understand how people are feeling a little bit more closely. So we started doing that through surveys … we now do these surveys on a regular basis to track anxiety levels. And whenever we see a moment in culture or in society that we anticipate, and we can see it, that people are anxious, we measure it again. And we keep that data longitudinally. So we’ve tracked it since the Gulf war 20-odd years ago, we’ve tracked it through different cycles, whether it was the SARS pandemic, Ebola, we’ve tracked it through financial crises, we’ve tracked it through 9/11 to check what’s happening, and it’s quantified market research. … But the thing is, we’ve done this over time, so it gives us a very good understanding of how people feel.
My chief research officer says … Americans have a capacity to deal with one anxiety at a time, but at the moment, we’re in a perfect storm of you have anxiety around health and the pandemic, there’s anxiety around the economy. And then there’s this social-political anxiety that’s playing out right now. And it’s an election year. So we’re in completely uncharted territory where we’re seeing three anxieties that we would usually track individually coming together in one place. And all the data’s off the charts, just spiking in terms of what we’re seeing. And it’s counterintuitive. People who are actually the most anxious right now are young people — it’s the youth. You’d think it’s elderly people who might worry about their health or it’s middle age [people] with young children, but it’s the younger generation. It’s college graduates and 18- to 24-year-olds because they feel that they’re inheriting this world right now.
If you’re only using data in one channel or in a couple of channels and you don’t orchestrate and bring it together around the customer experience, you’re about to be disrupted by somebody who’s either doing it better or is coming at you and is going to improve on that custom experience using data and insights and a kind of a more progressive way than you are.
If you have a culture of curiosity, the other things that we often talk about follows: experimentation, more advanced analytics, getting into cognitive sciences, or applied behavioral sciences. But if you do not have a culture of curiosity, you’re just not going to get there. And curiosity, I think will lead naturally to an organization that says, ‘Let’s test and learn. Every failure is a learning.’
Your customer doesn’t live in a swimming lane and neither should your organization. So there are very few organizations who’ve truly organized the entire company around the customer. They either design around technology, or they design around the business units, or they design around the operating model. They don’t truly design around the customer.
Data is one of the most critical strategic assets available to [clients], and it’s often completely under leveraged. … If you want a proper consent framework and a proper consent-based relationship with your client and in this world of privacy and respect, you kind of have to stay on top of your first-party data, because if you don’t, the situation gets worse a lot quicker because you lose touch with your customers.
[We tell] our clients, ‘Look, your customer first-party data is the most important asset you have as a marketing organization, and you have to a) keep it fresh, and b) you have to keep investing in it and you have to keep modeling it and you have to keep experimenting in it because that’s where all the learnings and the innovation happen.
I refer to data as oxygen. If it’s in the room and you’re well-ventilated, you don’t even know it’s there. If you start taking oxygen out of the room, you won’t notice it initially. You can still move around. Your company will still function, but slowly or surely, you’re going to start slowing down and you’re going to be sluggish. And either somebody is going to come and overtake you, or, save you, acquire your business, or your business is going to die. And if you don’t understand your first-party customer data, if you don’t take it seriously, you’re starving your organization of oxygen. You’re just not aware of it.
[On the industry’s popular tagline that “data is the new oil ]: The problem with oil is it’s commodity. And if I have to use the oil and energies, you can find data, you can refine data, you can move it upstream, downstream. That’s not respectful from my world. … and the last thing we all want is an oil spill, right? Which is a data spill, which is a hack, a breach, inappropriate use. You could argue micro-targeting done badly … is almost like a little bit of an oil spill. It’s like going to the full-serve gas station and they’re spraying fuel all over your vehicle. ‘The data is oil’ obviously has helped the industry, but for our application around the customer and for marketers and brands, I like to be a little bit more respectful and thoughtful about data more as oxygen. It should be behind the scenes. It should be applied respectfully. Just because we can weaponize through technology and data it doesn’t mean we should be retargeting people all the time and do micro-targeting.
If you really want to be personally relevant, do it on the customer’s terms, not on yours.
This is an amazing time to be a person in marketing data; I was always a bit worried about the rise of big data, because I could see our clients are just struggling with the data they already had. But we’ve done some amazing things where we’ll use unstructured data from social channels and from keyword search trend data. … [mapping] it with things like weather data, pollution, pollen data, to get new insights for our clients in terms of potential demand for their products and do more in real-time, demand-based forecasting off the back of that.
[On the value of diversity of thought]: We’ve essentially set up an inclusivity practice within Wunderman Thompson, which is doing some phenomenal work. … They worked with Tommy Hilfiger to develop Tommy Adaptive clothing for people who are not able-bodied. To design clothing that looks good, feels good, but is easy to wear, nobody’s ever looked at that group and said, ‘This is a huge business opportunity and it’s actually in our interest to speak with these people.’ … That got us really thinking about … bias and data, and a lot of clients are so at risk of just using the data they’ve always had in a specific way, and they could miss a whole market segment. … That market segment’s worth billions. So be thoughtful about how you think about that segment; engage them and do it on their terms and go after that market.


Jacques van Niekerk is the Global CEO of Wunderman Thompson Data, where he is responsible for leveraging his unique experience building global marketing, media, data, and technology businesses to develop and expand the agency’s vision for delivering comprehensive global data platforms, products, analytics, data sciences, and consulting solutions.

Prior to Wunderman Thompson, Jacques was the CEO of Wunderman Data. He has always been considered a pioneer in the digital marketing space, as one of the founders of Acceleration, the premier marketing technology consultancy that helps brands harness the power of marketing technology to maximize growth and enhance the consumer brand experience. Acceleration became part of WPP Digital in 2012 and Wunderman in 2016.

Jacques began his career at Ster-Kinekor, the largest cinema group in his native South Africa. While there, he developed marketing strategies for international film studios such as Miramax and Castle Rock. He then worked as marketing manager at M-Net (part of the Naspers Group) before managing the marketing launch of South Africa’s first free-to-air broadcaster,

A frequent public speaker, Jacques shares his unique point of view at global industry events and conferences from groups including Forrester, MarTechEurope, CES, and Adobe Summit. He also keynoted Samplecon, the premier market research conference. Jacques has been published in AdWeek, AdForum, Ad Age, AdExchanger, The Wall Street Journal, the Confessions of a Marketer podcast, and more.

He previously served as a board member and trustee of Afrika Tikkun, a nonprofit organization that provides education, health, and social services to underprivileged communities in South Africa.

He lives in Connecticut, and is a husband, and father to two incredibly inquisitive children.