Beyond Data: Why ‘Grit’ May Matter More

This past month, I was reminded how vital it is to have grit to achieve success, that is “true grit.” The sports world gave us an improbable U.S. Men’s College Basketball champion in the UConn (University of Connecticut) Huskies. Only one lower-seeded team in the history of the NCAA men’s tournament—Villanova in 1985—has reached the March Madness pinnacle. UConn achieved this success against all odds

This past month, I was reminded how vital it is to have grit to achieve success, that is “true grit.”

The sports world gave us an improbable U.S. Men’s College Basketball champion in the UConn (University of Connecticut) Huskies. Only one lower-seeded team in the history of the NCAA men’s tournament—Villanova in 1985—has reached the March Madness pinnacle. (Ironically, UConn also produced a most probable champion, too, in women’s college basketball this year.)

UConn achieved this success against all odds—well 100:1 odds anyway.

Statistically, UConn didn’t have a chance … the team was 144th in the country in points scored, 146th in offensive rebounds, 179th in assists and 142nd in field goal percentage. Defensively, they fared better—31st in points allowed, 75th in defensive rebounds, 8th in blocks and 80th in steals. Of the six games it played in the tourney, it was an underdog in the last five. Collectively, the data revealed a team that was hardly top-tier basketball.

After two years of tumult, its Hall of Fame coach was gone, its big stars had bolted under a one-year tournament ban issued by the NCAA—and nearly every power conference in the country said “no, we’ll pass” on UConn membership. The team was stuck in a conference no one wants or respects (well, maybe, now they do). Its last game of the regular season, UConn was beaten by more than 30 points.

No wonder only 0.3 percent of the tournament brackets filled out by fans picked UConn to win it all—and you have to wonder if any of the UConn picks were from outside the state of Connecticut.

But the data lied.

Or, more accurately, the data—the available data—could not tell the whole story or even produce insight that would predict success.

Something magical and intangible—something that cannot be measured in data—”caused” the Huskies to prevail. I call it grit. A young coach, a senior-led team, capable basketball play, a sense for the game and a steadfast faith that they would achieve the summit against all expectations (except their own)—all these intangibles willed UConn to the height of success. It wasn’t fundamentally pretty basketball, but it was a beautiful result—leveraging the “madness” of March Madness.

So perhaps Denny Hatch has a point in his beef with the term data-driven marketing, which deserves amplification, even as I embrace that term.

Yes, today’s integrated marketing is increasingly data- and analytics-driven, but it also needs the coaches, mentors, teamwork, vision and creative execution that makes for marketing genius—and breakthrough results. Data and analytics can’t do it alone—and sometimes the data tell stories that just aren’t true. Beyond the marketing dashboards and analytics prowess, you also have to have believers who know how to prepare for the game, no matter who or what the competition, or the daunting circumstances. In fact, having the latter (grit) may mean more than the former (data and insight).

Just look at the Huskies, the reigning national champions.

P.S. Speaking of marketing genius and championships, it’s that time of year where each brand, each agency, gets to put forward its own measure of success—its reach for the ultimate team award, showcasing innovative strategy, brilliant creative and the measurable results that exemplifies delight in clients and customers. The Direct Marketing Association International ECHO Awards has announced its call for entries—and the deadline is May 23. Win one, two, three or more, and show us your grit!

Signed,

Chet Dalzell
Alumnus
University of Connecticut
College of Liberal Arts & Sciences
Journalism