What Adobe can learn from Rob Ford

I live in the city where our highest elected official is referred to on evening newscasts as “the crack mayor of Toronto”. He has a particular habit of making incredibly bad decisions, and when finding himself in a deep hole responds by finding a bigger shovel and digging faster. This isn’t exactly the guidance I’m advocating for Adobe, but I think there is a lesson here for one of the Adobe products I use every day.

Adobe’s Omniture analytics software is an industry standard, it’s been the core analytics tool for both of the big media companies I’ve worked for. As you’d expect of an enterprise analytics platform, it ain’t cheap. In the past couple of years much smaller companies like Parsely and Chartbeat have introduced real-time analytics platforms that aimed to win customers with features Omniture and Webtrends didn’t offer (like real-time). With a typical Omniture package running a healthy 6 figures annually, budget-conscious companies are looking to the smaller, hungrier and more agile analytics start ups for alternatives.

Here’s where Rob Ford comes in. Omniture has an Excel plugin called Report Builder, and Report Builder is Omniture’s crack cocaine. With the report builder plugin installed in Excel, you can add an Omniture data call to any Excel cell. Its incredibly powerful, in part because it it empowers users to build reporting tools in Excel. Omniture is great at pulling raw data, but their custom report tools are alien to most of us.

Every weekday morning, I open an excel sheet that I built with report builder, and add yesterday’s date into the input cell. Then I hit ‘refresh data’ and within a minute I have a page views and unique visitor report for the Globe and Mail’s main desktop site, mobile web, and every individual mobile app, plus video starts on every platform. Because it’s Excel, if I want a rough engagement metric for each platform, I can add a simple UV / PV calculation in seconds. You can also modify the data calls to reference individual Omniture segments, so I can target just users in British Columbia or only registered users.


Here’s a block of data in excel that shows weekly pageview data for the past 14 weeks for each of the Globe’s main digital properties. The first data column is built with Report Builder and the rest is a simple copy/paste referencing the top date row. Using Excel references, I just add a new end date to the master cell (top left) and the date ranges update automatically, and then one click to refresh all the Omniture calls.

Best of all, once you have all of this dynamic data in an excel spreadsheet you can manipulate it in all sorts of ways. You can build fancy charts and trend lines to visualize the data, or create simple calculations (e.g. live video starts vs video 50% complete) to track gains or performance issues against historical averages. And whenever you want to update it, just update the report end date and hit the refresh button. Once you get familiar with report builder (assuming reasonable Excel skills) you can put together a pretty sophisticated spreadsheet in an hour or two, and it can be opened and updated by anyone else in your company that also has Report Builder. Jump to the bottom of the post for an example of a detailed Excel report I put together with this Report Builder data.

However, a single seat license for Report Builder costs a few thousand dollars per year. I’m one of the lucky few at the Globe to have one. I can send around static Excel reports but the recipients can’t update the data or modify them on their own. And THAT is Adobe’s strategic mistake. Leveraging the ubiquity of Excel and the ability to quickly build a dynamic, reusable reports adds a huge level of usability – and reliance – on the Omniture platform.

If Adobe made report builder available for free, a sizeable part of the company would be hooked on it in short order. And as Rob Ford has very publicly demonstrated, once you are hooked on something, you tend to make irrational decisions. Adobe is no longer competing with equally pricey enterprise analytics platforms like WebTrends, it’s competing with new players. These startups cost a fraction of what the big guys charge, they innovate faster, focus on real-time data and address traditional pain points like integration

By and large most clients don’t share their internal analytics outside the company, and only comScore and ad serving data have a direct revenue impact. If your favourite media site or one of your competitors changes their analytics platform would you notice? Would you care? For a company looking to trim costs, a 6-figure analytics budget is an big target. Unless, that is, you’re not thinking rationally because a big part of the company is addicted to the product. As the crack-smoking mayor of Toronto continues to demonstrate, addiction and irrational behaviour go hand in hand.