Big Data: Handle With Care

During my studies for the 2018 IPA Foundation Certificate along with five of my colleagues here at One, I took note of a quote that came courtesy of BT’s chief brand marketing officer Zaid Al-Qassab. In it he threw down the gauntlet on the industry’s ongoing traditional/digital divide, contending that digital marketers ‘understand how to harvest clicks, but have no idea why’.

Whilst clearly provocative, it does aptly summarise the raging debate on how the growth in data and increased accountability for marketing departments and agencies alike has largely fixed the industry’s eye on the short term. In late-2016, a report by IBM Marketing Cloud stated that 90% of the world’s data had been created in the preceding two years alone. Its increasing accessibility, coupled with the rise of the ‘quick win’ economy has resulted in data becoming the ‘opium of the people’, as opposed to the elixir that it can be, when used to serve the effectiveness of a strategy.

The short of it

Data analysis has become associated with short termism due to the reluctance of many marketers to draw a distinction between the objectives and relevant effectiveness measurements of short-term tactical executions and long-term strategy. The majority of digital advertising (social, paid search, display and video), for instance, is judged according to how it performs through short-term direct response metrics, whether that be a completed view, a click through or even a purchase. Of these, a paid search campaign can be particularly vital in influencing a consumer when they are in the market for the product and considering their options, and naturally it should be judged more keenly on the ROI that it produces.

However, this trend of seeing direct response as the only worthwhile measure of ROI defies the code of Marketing 101!

Wider-reaching brand building exercises, such as TV, press or radio campaign expenditure, have borne the brunt of this shift, as the influence they hold over the consumer can’t then for the most part be directly attributed to sales. This of course neglects the fact that the emotional response that a radio campaign can trigger in an as yet unreached consumer, is more likely to then increase the effectiveness of sales activation channels like paid search and social ads once these consumers eventually ‘enter the market’.

In their landmark studies into marketing effectiveness, Les Binet and Peter Field championed the virtues of a longer term strategy that strives for the optimum balance between both sales activation and brand building. After analysing the Databank of the IPA Effectiveness Awards, they concluded that this balance stood at 60:40 in favour of brand building.

Although it would be naïve to assume that this split can be successfully imposed on a business in any given industry, it speaks volumes that, since the financial crisis, the proportion of budget allocated to sales activation channels has grown exponentially, reaching 72% by 2016.

The New World

I would argue that this rising tide of short term thinking has been largely aided by opportunistic tech vendors selling the New World, backed up by real-time data that ostensibly guarantees success for any business that takes them up on it. I was recently contacted by one such opportunist, who assured me that he could secure ‘s**t hot conversions’ for whichever nameless client we threw his way. Beyond the obvious question of ‘why so hot?’, at no point during our discussion did Mr Opportunist refer to a brand, nor its market, nor its consumers.

So many agencies have fallen for the charms of these baseless promises that the marketing funnel has drifted out of sight in their rear-view mirrors. Naturally, it seems that for order to be restored and the true value of Big Data to be realised in our industry, marketers must do away with the divide between traditional and digital.

Digital vs. Traditional

In spite of the ever-changing nature of the always-on world, building healthy, sustainable brands remains our primary mission. The formula is still underpinned by the ‘traditional’ need to create differentiation and truly understand the consumer, beyond pithy terms like ‘millennial’. It seems counterproductive to evaluate constituent channels in isolation of these objectives and without reference to our old friend, the marketing funnel. The all-encompassing nature of Big Data can be key to realising the effectiveness of these synergies, but, more often than not, online conversions are attributed to one channel alone which are quickly then heralded as the holy grail.

Without properly interrogating the reams of data we have at our fingertips with the right questions, it’s easy to get caught in the quicksand. Put simply, we don’t require the majority of data that we have access to. At a recent Google workshop that I attended, it was revealed that only 12% of all available data in Google products is analysed by marketers. In order to make this 12% count, analysis needs to derive actionable insights that can improve our overall effectiveness and not merely reinforce our prior opinions.

An effective workplace

Recent large scale investments by ITV and M&S to integrate data as a core function are just two examples of the giant leaps companies are taking to unlock the potential that data can hold for their brands. In the case of M&S, they are seeking to train over 1,000 cross-department staff in data science, including analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence. This move to de-silo data management skills and deeply embed effectiveness seems to be the smartest way to bridge the divide between traditionally minded marketers and their digital counterparts.

In new research released by Marketing Week titled ‘The Future Marketing Organisation’, they found that almost a quarter of marketers (24.4%) consider data skills to be their greatest shortcoming. For me, as an industry we will only ever tackle this deficit by becoming more diagonally minded and embracing new skillsets. Although these skills may not necessarily be a primary condition of our business function, it’s vital for us in gaining access to the bigger picture. Only then can marketers reap the benefits of integration and put the client and their brands front and centre again.

Further Reading:

The Future Marketing Organisation: Filling the data skills gap

ITV puts focus on brand and data as it looks to be ‘more than TV’

M&S sets up data academy to turn staff into data scientists

Les Binet and Peter Field’s research into marketing effectiveness

Marketing is in crisis, warns BT brand chief