On May 25, 1720, “Le Grand St. Antoine”, a Dutch merchant ship coming from the Levant, reached Marseille, bringing to shore a cargo of rodent-infested silk and triggering Europe’s last major plague outbreak. This killed around 120,000 people in the Provence region.

As the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) goes live on 25 May 2018, the 298th anniversary of the Grand St. Antoine hapless landing, many are concerned that the new EU regulation will unleash equally catastrophic consequences, not just upon Marseille this time, but across the whole continent and potentially beyond.

GDPR has been interpreted in a sometimes alarmist way by many observersexperts as well as end-user organisations, who are concerned at their collective state of unpreparedness. There is now, it’s true, only five months to go. And according to a recent research, only about 35% of European businesses believe they are GDPR-compliant at this stage.

A particular issue is universality. Put in practical terms, this clause of the GDPR goes a bit like a pub quiz question, a popular British activity around Christmas.

What do…

have in common?

Answer: They all are ‘EU data subjects’. And from 25 May 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation will safeguard the privacy of Martin’s, Pernille’s and Françoise’s personal data, anywhere in the world, regardless of where the data is held or the legal domicile of the organisation holding it is.

If you are a US-based business, that’s unquestionably challenging. In a survey released in June 2017, 99% of privacy professionals there admitted to needing additional help in preparing for the GDPR.

Depending on the estimates, GDPR will make somewhere between 50% and 75% of customer data unusable in its current form, creating a risk of operational paralysis for sales, marketing and customer services teams.

However, turn the accepted thinking (“more data is good”) on its head, and GDPR becomes a great gift for marketers, especially in the B2B space. This is why.

B2B marketing teams are often driven by their business colleagues, particularly in sales, to carry out what is increasingly becoming known as whack-a-mole’ marketing. If it moves, you’ve got to hit it. Tasked to grow the pipeline or the revenue of the company in the coming quarter, marketers design and execute campaign after campaign. At the ITSMA Marketing Vision annual conference in November 2016, one presentation quoted a B2B marketing team boasting to have “ran 1,534 campaigns last year”.

There are two issues with this.

  • First, we have not really moved on from the adage coined by John Wanamaker over a century ago: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” In December 2016, a Nielsen survey of France, Germany, Italy and the UK showed that 48% of online adverts do not reach the right people.
  • Second, the data held by companies on their B2B customers is of variable quality. In a recent discussion with a telecom operator’s data team, it transpired that the company held emails for only half of its business customer base. 42% of B2B marketers believe that a lack of quality contact data is the single biggest barrier to lead generation. Doing more campaigns or gathering more data indiscriminately will not help this.

The preparation for GDPR enforces a time window for the marketing team to pause in order to refresh its database, while keeping the sales people at bay. Ostensibly, this pause will serve to gain consent from the customers and prospects to receive further contact from you, making that contact – and any subsequent data processing – compliant with GDPR. Fundamentally though, it is the moment to re-assess the propensity of a customer to engage with you as a brand, and, in the process, to clear up your database of obsolete records.

Would you rather have clients that welcome future interactions, even if that’s only 25% – or frankly even 10% – of your current database? Or continue with a scattergun approach that will be in breach of your legal obligation?

At a personal level, the latter is perhaps not as bad as finding yourself on the quay in Marseille harbour where the Grand St Antoine moored in 1720, but is in no way a desirable outcome for any corporation.