Op-Ed: Mud-Wrestling Hippos–with Data

By Kiran Aditham 

Once again, Simon Mathews, currently chief strategy officer at West Coast shop, Extractable who’ s also worked at the likes of Isobar as well as Molecular on the strategy side during his career, is back with his monthly contribution to this here site. We’ll just let him explain the headline. Take it away, sir.

Every digital design / marketing project has a client. Not the most insightful of statement, I know.

And every client has the senior boss, the final sign off or at least the ‘key’ stakeholder.


Many times this senior stakeholder adds knowledge and value to the project, skillfully guiding the future campaign or digital experience inline with long-term business strategy.

Other times, not so much. This is when we enter the world of the mythical, but oh so real, Hippo (Highest-Paid-Person’s Opinion).

I first encountered a big-game Hippo more than 15 years ago while just a junior strategist working in the background (fetching coffee) on an Asian airline TV campaign. The last step of the mammoth production process was a viewing of the final commercial for the airline’s CEO.  It went well. He loved it. Then, this gem of a quote, “It would be better with harp music.”  I’ve never seen an executive creative director quite so speechless.

Today, with digital experiences we merge creative spark and data insight. And it’s this data that makes the challenges of the Hippo more obvious, but may also give us a path to success in the mud-wrestling arena.

Last year, Extractable commissioned Forrester Consulting to research how companies used data in the their digital design process, and whether using data improved outcomes of those digital experience (spoiler: It did).  One question in the survey asked, “What are the biggest pain points with your existing website design process?”

The biggest single response, 37% of the firms, reported that “Key stakeholders don’t take into consideration the data we uncover.”  This is shocking, and an indication of one of two things, the Hippo in action, or the team not drawing a strong enough argument from the data to convince the Hippo. Or, in some cases, both.

The other answers to the question were also quite insightful, with 34% saying they “Gathered data but did not use it,” and 28% reporting, “We don’t have the right data to make decisions.”

Hippos, by definition, tend to be more senior in an organization, and hence (generalizing here) tend to be a bit older. They also tend to be in a more general management role and no longer a practitioner of either digital or the core business of the company.  As such their opinions tend to based on: something formative to their career, but in the past; personal use of digital experiences, “I bank online…” or a purely personal emotive or aesthetic reaction.

And this is our opportunity to wrestle the Hippo. To create a decision-making process that is not personal, but one connecting data directly to future business impact of the experience and then connecting the design to that future success.

Some tools and tips that have worked for us in the past:

– Leverage data to map opportunities and hence a potential forecast of the uptick in whatever key metric that the Hippo is measured on. If they are head of sales, this experience will create new leads, for example. Anything that can show actual dollar forecasts is the most powerful. Once we connect the experience to dollars, subjective opinions fade away. (As long as the data is sound!)
–   Connect design elements to data. Show how key personas are demanding certain types of features, or design elements. For example, a ranked list of features that came from quantitative user research is hard to argue with.
–  Show customers. User testing or user concept testing can be very powerful.  In one recent case we showed a series of videos of the Hippo’s real customers using a new feature (that the Hippo did not think was useful). The fact that every user (unprompted) loved the feature and expressly said they would “buy more” from the client because of it, pushed the Hippo, from Hippo to project advocate.

Hippos are part of the landscape we navigate every day. Data can be our weapon to help push them to extinction. (The client Hippo, not the real kind, of course!)

The full version of the Forrester report “Data Driven Design” can be found at our website here.