His Car Dealership Work, Resolve Led to Founding of Driven Data

In a WardsAuto Q&A, Jon Berna talks about new-age marketing, its challenges and restrictions, and potential life in a cookie-less world.

Steve Finlay, Senior Editor

July 23, 2021

7 Min Read
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“Over time, we were starting to get everything pretty much dialed in,” Berna says.

Do you want a cookie? Many people don’t; not the digital tracking kind, anyway.

That’s because some marketers misuse cookies, says Jon Berna, founder and CEO of Driven Data, an auto-retailing software provider and online marketing agency. 

“In 2017, I imagined this day would come, where users were not going to accept being tracked through a trail of cookies all over the internet, and advertisers were going to be behind the eight ball, not having an innovative solution that could talk to multiple data sources and scale and adapt to changing environments,” he says.

Berna says his company uses a proprietary universal architecture and an open integration platform to address the potential advertising dilemma of life in a cookie-less world, as regulators clamp down on certain types of data tracking. 

Driven Data blends third-party marketing data with dealers’ first-party customer information to deliver real-time hyper-personalized marketing, says Berna, who describes it as an auto-retailing industry first.

Founded in 2013, Driven Data has grown from 12 to 50 employees over the past 18 months.

In a WardsAuto Q&A, Berna talks about new-age marketing, its challenges and restrictions, and how a stint in the military pointed him in a digital direction. Here is an edited version of the interview.

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Jon berna (2) (002)

Wards:  How did Driven Data come about? 

Berna: There’s a personal story that prepared me to take on this insane challenge of integrating things that had never been integrated before in automotive.

The Navy was my first stop. One of the most important aspects of aviation is that you can’t wait for things to break. When you are 18 years old that’s impactful. It was for me. That’s not how it usually works in business; you usually wait for things to break before you take action.

That further expanded when I got into online education working at Six Sigma. 

Wards: What did you do in the Navy? 

Berna: I worked on helicopter avionics (i.e. communications, navigation and the management of multiple systems).

At Six Sigma, I got involved in managing integrations, analytics and business intelligence. I got to see what’s possible with data. Today, we take complete online education for granted, but that was the mid-2000s, and what we were doing was cutting-edge.

I didn’t go to college, and an issue of working for a college-oriented workplace is that at a certain point, you have to have a degree. I thought, “I’m not going back to school.”  

Instead, I decided to get into automotive, the industry of second chances to a certain extent. 

The first dealership I started at, Libertyville Chevrolet in Libertyville, IL (north of Chicago), was during the financial crisis of 2008-09. That was a gauntlet. 

Wards: This was around the time U.S. auto sales fell from about 16 million to 10 million a year in a two-year span. What did you do at the dealership? 

Berna: I was the BDC (business development center) manager, the used-car manager – and everything else. When a dealership is in chaos (like virtually all of them were at the time), you do every job. We were answering the phone, “Libertyville Chevrolet, we’re here to stay.”

I got the full dealership experience.  I wanted to see if I could do it at a bigger place with more scale. So, I became the e-commerce director at the Hubler Group in Indianapolis.

Brad Hubler is a fantastic dealer. He said, “I want you to build a big centralized process for communications and marketing for all 10 of our stores.” He gave me the autonomy and budget, and said, “Go.”

That’s where I saw how big the problem was, the sprawling data. You have 12 locations and CRM (customer-relationship-management software), DMS (dealership management system), inventory, marketing and all these things at each location. And you are trying to aggregate it in one place. That didn’t exist back then. 

It was hard to do. But I became confident I knew all of the moving parts. That’s when the idea burned in my brain: I had to figure out a way to do this at scale for other dealerships and create a business, because the problem was so huge across auto retailing. 

Wards: So, the issue was creating something that could manage and centralize lots of data from various sources? 

Berna: Yes, I wanted to create an analytics platform that was agnostic. The big CRM and DMS data providers don’t integrate with each other in a dealer’s system, and never wanted to. That may make business sense, but it’s not great for dealerships.

Dealers want to mix and match (vendor) software to cater to their needs. Our challenge was to build an integration company first. How do we connect CRM, DMS, inventory, website and marketing data into one universal platform? I had experience doing that. I felt at home working on this problem, although I wasn’t expecting it would be so hard to do. 

We started layering data, building our own specifications as to what we wanted these integrations to look like. Over time, we were starting to get everything pretty much dialed in.  

The issue was that we were showing this to dealerships; an introspective view of their operations. But they weren’t really prepared. For one thing, when you put that sort of power in the hands of leaders, it can create conflict because there’s so much information.   

Wards: How does that create conflict? What’s an example? 

Berna: Well, holding people accountable. And the challenge of knowing it’s a glass house. You can see everything happening at a dealership. When you reverse the data flow, and the leadership has the same level of information as the midlevel managers – which never really happened before – it can create conflict between the two groups.  

I started to realize this first-party data from the CRM and DMS – which is really normal customer information – can be integrated in platforms such as Facebook and Google for marketing. We directly integrate with these platforms in an encrypted way. 

Wards: If you are not using third-party data and only using dealer information, doesn’t that limit a dealership’s marketing efforts, such as conquesting?

Berna: We use third-party data, too. This is a plus, not a minus.  

Wards: Is it hard to explain the technology to dealers? 

Berna: We’ve gotten good at the advertising and marketing process, and have everything working together with the operational data. We know what happens in the stores. That’s a big advantage. We go in with an agenda that’s specific to their needs. It makes it easier to find common ground. 

Wards: You’re not an agency, are you? 

Berna: Yes, we do end-to-end. We manage creative, we do search, social and TV. The marketing can adapt to every point the customer is at. The personalization brings higher relevancy to the customer.  

Wards: You talk about living in a cookie-less world. Are cookies bad? 

Berna: They’re not inherently good or bad.  We’ve seen bad examples. If you visit a website, and they can identify who you are and where you live from that, do you think that’s good?

Wards: Maybe people have come to expect that. There’s a fine line between invasion of privacy and legitimately tracking aggregated, anonymous customer behavior. A lot of consumers know they’re being tracked. How could they not know?

Berna: That is what GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act, which other states also have adapted) are trying to resolve.

With GDPR, you must enable the cookies to work. With CCPA, they just have to tell you they use cookies, and you have a right to remove yourself.

There has to be a way to centralize the standard. Google, Apple and companies like them are saying, “Let’s establish a new standard before we get legislated into a standard we don’t want.” But they’re in a difficult spot where they can’t make anybody happy. It’s less an issue with first-party data.

Wards: Describe the customer data platform you use.

Berna: It’s a CRM on steroids. Take your marketing, CRM and DMS and combine them in a private, secure way, and then build outbound integrations with all of the various marketing platforms.

That’s a different approach. CRM is built to manage tasks in a dealership. DMS is built to manage accounting. They were never designed to do these other things.

Wards: What is hyper-personalized marketing exactly?

Berna: It’s down to one human being. If you just bought a new car, we remove you from marketing (pitches) that urge you to buy a new car. Nobody likes to be pitched something they just bought.

If you hit a point when it’s time for vehicle maintenance, we incorporate service marketing into communications with you. Peoples’ interaction with dealerships ebb and flow, and the marketing must too.

Steve Finlay is a retired WardsAuto senior editor. He can be reached at [email protected].

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