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Faculty Feature: Meet Michael Bagalman

Michael Bagalman

Faculty Feature: Meet Michael Bagalman

December 14, 2023

by Michael Mahaffey

This article is part of a series highlighting faculty in our online Strategic Communication and Digital Strategy graduate program.

Michael Bagalman is a busy man. As vice president of business intelligence and data science for the Starz networks since 2018 and CEO of Paradox Resolution LLC, a boutique consultancy focused on marketing analytics and data-driven strategy that he founded in 2012, he has his finger on the pulse of how data-driven decision-making can affect communication strategies.

“My job is to acquire and use that data to help decision-makers make better decisions,” he said. “Fundamentally, it’s about applying some math to some data and using the information to try and make better decisions. When you think of it in these conceptual terms, it gets a lot easier.”

In 2019, when a former colleague called and asked him if he would be interested in adding to his already packed schedule by teaching a course in the online strategic communications graduate degree program at OU, it was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

“I started the marketing analytics department at an agency called Publicis in 2005,” he said. “Debbie Yount, who is currently the co-area head for strategic communication at the OU Gaylord College of Journalism, was the CEO at the time. I hadn’t talked to her for a few years when I got the call out of the blue. I was immediately interested.”

Bagalman began teaching a course based on his extensive career combining data science and communication in 2020 as a professor of practice in OU’s Strategic Communication and Digital Strategy online master’s degree program.

“The field I work in and teach is broad,” he said. “You can call it data science or analytics, whatever you want. In my class, I’m teaching working professionals how to think strategically about data, so they understand that anything can be measured in some way that can give you usable data that can then be used to make informed decisions.”

Meaning in Numbers

Bagalman started his journey toward a career in marketing analytics while an undergraduate at Harvard University. As a mathematics major, he became disenchanted with the increasingly theoretical nature of the courses he was taking, but a course in statistics sparked a new interest in pursuing his passion for numbers. He changed his major to applied mathematics and began studying probability, statistics, physics and engineering, ultimately earning his bachelor’s degree in applied math. After earning his master’s degree in the program for statistics and operations research from Princeton, he began his professional career with Bell Laboratories.

During his nearly 30-year career, he has worked with several well-known companies, including AT&T, Fulcrum Analytics, Sony Music, Sony Pictures, Renegade Nation and Deutsch before landing in his current positions with Starz and Paradox. The challenge of translating that experience into a single course was ultimately focused into a simple concept.

“The idea is for my students to understand that anything can be measured in some way that can give you usable data, and that data can then be used to guide decision making.”

When Bagalman began creating his course, JMC 5863 Marketing and Media Analytics, his priority was to ensure his students would not be intimidated by having to work with math or numbers.

“I came in guessing correctly that making people comfortable with using numbers and doing some math was going to be the biggest challenge,” he said. “The idea behind the course is that we live in a world of data, and at pretty much any job, you’re going to have some exposure to data.”

While most students who come through the course have been exposed to a variety of metrics through work or social media, understanding what those metrics are measuring and how to use that data to drive decision-making is something many have little experience with.

“I remind them frequently the mantra for my course is ‘Don’t panic,’” he said. “There is absolutely no one who can master the full breadth of knowledge that we cover in my course. That’s why I talk about getting over the intimidation of math and data and about understanding the concepts.”

Building a Foundation

The first part of the course focuses on understanding basic statistics and data analysis, including how to correctly calculate averages and use spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel. Bagalman then teaches them to build a marketing funnel and calculate the expected ROI (return on investment).

“From the beginning, we work with funnels and spreadsheets to get comfortable with that because everything that follows builds on that foundation,” he said. “As we move through the semester, we move more into advanced analytics, where the idea is less to try to teach them to run a machine-learning algorithm themselves and more to teach them how to work closely with the analytics people whose job might have seemed much more arcane before they had some introduction to it.

“When it comes to more complex or predictive models, like regression analysis, I try to raise awareness of the conceptual issues you can run into, so not only can you work with a data scientist and recognize that you might benefit from a targeting model or forecasting model, but once it is delivered, you know what you can and cannot reliably do with it.”

He believes it is more important to give his students a basic understanding of data science terms and jargon, what they mean and how to use or interpret them, rather than going into detail about how a particular machine learning algorithm works.

“My main goal is not so much to teach them particular nuggets of knowledge,” Bagalman said. “What’s eternal are the general ideas that underlie a lot of this, and if you understand those base foundations, then you can employ them in a lot of different arenas.”

To emphasize this, he provides valuable examples and case studies throughout the semester so that the course will have a personal resonance for every student in the program.

“I have found very often people without a math, computer science or economics background can be intimidated by the perceived complexity of data analysis,” Bagalman said. “The fact is they are very capable of understanding it at a conceptual level and working through a good bit of the mathematics, as well.

“Quite a few people who take the course seem to take to it quite naturally and become more quantitative thinkers. It’s not like they switch from being creative and strategic to someone who is a ‘number cruncher.’ They’re now both.”

Real-Time Results

With classes mostly comprised of working adults, Bagalman was pleasantly surprised to learn his students could immediately apply the concepts he was teaching to their jobs.

“Sometimes when I’m doing one of our live sessions on Zoom, we’ll be talking, and someone in the chat will say, ‘Oh, yeah, we do that at my job’ or ‘I sit down the hall from someone who’s doing this for our company,’ and I can then pause and interact with them and get them to share a little bit of their experience with the rest of the class. And sometimes, I get to learn something, too, which is great.

“I very much value the idea that I’m teaching something that is going to be of use to people as opposed to simply providing theoretical knowledge.”

He believes the practical knowledge his students are gaining and implementing will serve them well in their current jobs and beyond.

“I think the most important thing that comes out of taking this course is the ability to cooperate closely with other people at their jobs,” he said, “whether that’s a data analyst or someone in the finance department or a vendor that is providing reports about something that was done. My students have a solid foundation to ask good questions to translate the results that they see into meaningful communication strategies and tactics as a result of what they have learned from the data.”

Having the ability not just to interpret data that is provided but to think critically about it and ask questions about the data is an essential skill for 21st-century business, Bagalman said.

“Very few organizations these days run on gut instinct, but very few people running them have a real grasp of strategy,” he said. “Go to work in any company, and everybody thinks they’re a big-picture thinker. Most of them are not. I think people who go through this program come out with specific domain knowledge around strategic communications, around how to craft messaging and get that messaging out there. How to do some analytics on that messaging to optimize it.”

He believes earning a master’s degree in strategic communication is not only a near-term career enhancement for his students currently working in the communication industry but also a long-term foundation for them to eventually be able to take leadership positions in their companies and communities.

“I think this program provides a solid foundation for leadership, for being able to lead a team and assume a leadership role in your department, your company or whatever area you’re at,” he said. “What is leadership but being able to think critically and coherently about the big picture and being able to communicate it?

“The skills students are learning to get a message out to a large number of people also comes across in being able to get a message out within your company or to your team or to an individual.”

A Teacher and a Student

Bagalman considers himself fortunate to have been asked to teach in the strategic communication program at OU because it has allowed him to look at his profession from a new perspective.

“My favorite thing is how much you learn about something you thought you already knew when you have to explain it to someone else,” he said. “I think it has been tremendously beneficial to my understanding of my own field. I get feedback from working professionals in real-time, and that feedback helps me shape the course. Every semester, I take all the feedback I get, and I try to make the class a little bit better every time we go through it.

“It’s been a really wonderful experience to be part of the OU community. I am a part of this in a way that is more than just teaching my class. I’m hopeful that the students are finding my course and the program as a whole to be beneficial.”

Visit our website to learn more about the master’s degree in strategic communication and digital strategy, as well as other online degree options available from the University of Oklahoma.