The democratization of data and investment bankers

"I used to be like a magician. Pulling out smart things from analysis like rabbits from a hat. Now? Well...what’s the opposite of a magician? Because I’m that. We’re all that.”

A vice chairman of a bulge bracket investment bank said this to me two years ago, and the statement continues to resonate. Not because I still don’t know what the opposite of a magician is (a muggle? A nongician?) but because of the emphatic use of “that”.

By all, he meant investment bankers. By that he meant we’re no longer the only ones able to conjure magic from data.

Data has been democratized.

Twenty years ago, prepping for client meetings meant diligently collecting data from a microfiche and physical newspapers, and then painstakingly typing it into Lotus 1-2-3. Hours later, hey presto, a share price chart. Today painstaking chart creation still exists, but data is everywhere and accessible to everyone, leveling the information playing field. Share price charts are no longer enough to satisfy your clients, and, because of the ubiquity of data, they likely know more than you.

There are no more easy wins with data.

So how can we put the abracadabra back into our pitches?

1. Offer Better Analytics

Just because more data is available, doesn’t mean clients are better prepared to crunch and interpret it. There are limitless ways to slice and dice data for predictive purposes, creating opportunities to either become one with our inner data scientist or to create a new class of banker: Data science bankers. We’ve all heard the rumors of the banks beginning this process!

2. Create Better Visualizations

A picture is worth a thousand words. Which is why a pitchbook uses so many charts and exhibits. Unfortunately, the types of visualizations comprising today’s typical pitchbook content are stuck in the 1980s. They often only show a single dimension of information and lack any additional perspective or intelligence. Charts should be designed so the insight jumps out, rather than forcing the viewer to cobble together the story in multiple steps. We need to look outside investment banking for inspiration on how to extend the simple pie, bar, and line charts that pervade presentation materials today. They need to be reconfigured to support the quantum and complexity of data needed for us to deliver the insights our clients require.

3. Tell Succinct and Powerful Stories

Pitchbooks can be 100+ page monsters. But the democratization of data creates an opportunity to tell a shorter, more nuanced story. In essence, bankers should act as a data curator, not a data dumper. To do this, investment bankers need to know the minimum amount of information required to communicate the story they want to tell, using multi-layered, rich visuals. Switching out a basic vanilla chart that shows one thing for a more complex one provides more to talk about and, in the mind of the client, cements your value as a trusted advisor.

Once the democratization of a commodity begins, it doesn’t stop. We’ve seen this with print media vs. the internet, online booking services and travel agents, and the current fight between cable companies and online streaming sites such as Netflix and Hulu. Like any system revolution, a democratization calls for a re-examination of how to use MS Excel in a new paradigm. For investment banking and data, this means adapting and embracing new data-based skills to ensure client meetings don’t become an elaborate and useless set of smoke and mirrors.

I want to hear your (anonymous) client stories. Have you been “outdata-ed” by a client? Or have you adapted your team’s skills to remain trusted advisors to clients? Let me know at