Data: Beyond a Shiny Toy

In a recent interview related to WPP earnings, WPP’s CEO, Sir Martin Sorrell said, “The three main reasons why the ad market is struggling are because of digital disruption, activist investors and the low cost of capital money.” He went on to talk about the first reason – digital disruption – in the following terms: “[…] digital disruption creates opportunity, because it is changing the way people consume media, how items are produced and how products are distributed.”

Anyone surprised? I’m not. In fact, I’m shocked that this realization has taken this long to dawn. As an industry, we have been talking about data and its incredible impact on our businesses for decades.

Still, I feel that we are still relegating data to a “shiny toy,” rather than as an organizing principle. Why is this? Three reasons: Denial, Data “Lite,” and Segregation.

How many times have you heard statements like, “Oh, but data-based marketing will never replace pure creativity.” This is a fallacy and false equivalency. One should look no further for evidence than industry festivals dedicated to pure creativity, like the Cannes Lions. This year, ad tech was everywhere, as it has been over the last few years – but this year was different. There was a new confidence, a distinct swagger among the ad tech giants. Yes, we all know a shakeout is coming but, for now, they are very much there and clients are avidly listening to, if not outright buying, their respective premises.

The data specialists are at our gates. The time for denial is over.

(BTW, if you want data-based proof of ad tech’s presence and salience at Cannes, here is one metric you may find interesting: yachts.)

Data “Lite”:
This is a sticky problem. Understanding data is not for dabblers. But “data” has become such a shiny toy that people are using both the expression and the discipline very loosely. I have a name for this increasingly rampant dilution of data’s power and meaning: Data “Lite.”

The easy generalizations made about demographic behaviors of huge swaths of the population on a percentage basis is a perfect example of Data “Lite,” in that it only tells half of the story.

It’s a bit depressing that we still have to say this in 2017, but folks, simple percentages are not data – they are inert numbers. Quoting these numbers and advising clients on strategy are like looking at a few still frames in a movie reel and hoping to get the full story. Real data-smart marketing asks you to take the effort of watching the actual movie: understanding how the individual frames (different pieces of data) interact, qualify and sometimes even contradict each other. That’s where the real story is.

How do data-smart marketers handle data? Using sophisticated statistical techniques, they look at each customer as an individual, not in Data “Lite” terms, but across a number of points to create a rich tapestry of insight into that specific customer or sharply-defined, behavioral or attitudinal segments, transcending age, gender, life stage and so on. Developing deep insights and sharpening them with every contact, they develop powerful engagement loops with individuals, rather than generalizations about whole populations.

This is where we should aspire to reach when by eschewing Data “Lite” thinking. In my humble opinion, the proper use of data will help PR in its inevitable chrysalis from “Public Relations” to “Personal Relationships.”

The creation – or perpetuation – of separate departments or functions comprising of data specialists, whose job comprises largely of creating points of view that reinforce strategies that have already been developed, or creating measurement protocols for campaigns, is a huge issue for planners and data specialists alike.

We need to provide strategies and creative solutions that start with, and are deeply rooted in, data that’s relevant to a client’s business objectives, not cherry-picked data to support individual insights or personal experience, or mere whims based on someone’s latest Google search.

So, what can we do?

The solution lies not in perpetuating a flawed model, but in developing and implementing an entirely new model: Data should not have a seat at the table; data should BE the table.

Let’s focus on what Sir Martin pointed out: data is indeed the biggest opportunity, not just for brand innovation, but for the marketing services industry as well. The transition is going to be far more profound and foundational than we have been willing to accept thus far.