Big Data is a Big Waste of Time

Earlier this year, Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of WPP, told the world via the MediaCom “Beyond Advertising” event that the medium was more important than the message. In fact he went as far as to say that “The days in which creatives ruled have gone and media departments are now much more front and centre.” Sir Martin went one step further to clarify his point by saying that he “was talking about the ever-increSocial Mediaasing importance of big data and technology to our business, and how they’re revolutionising what we can do for our clients.” Big data. It’s the catchphrase of the season and every marketing suit is selling it in like it was the cure for cancer. It’s at the heart of a shift that I say without hyperbole threatens the world of advertising and marketing at its creative core

So what is big data exactly?

Well, it’s information about point of sale transaction data, responses to direct mail campaigns, coupon redemption – and lately includes online purchase data, click-through rates, browsing behavior, social media interactions, mobile device usage, geolocation data, etc. Notice how most of the tracked data is all digital. That’s because it’s trackable. There’s no big data for radio ads, TV commercials or press ads. None. Zero. Not unless there’s a trackable element attached to it like a coupon or a keyword.

So what does big data do exactly?

Big data tries to rationalise purchase behaviour by assuming your behaviour in response to a marketing stimulus is in fact the de facto response you’ll have every time you encounter that stimulus.

That’s right. Big data reduces you to a binary idea. You’re either the market or you’re not – and your response will always be the same.

To be fair it can help with low level stuff like SEO and SEM but that’s about it. Now I hear you say “But more than 80% of purchase decisions come from search”. No. They don’t. Search provides reasons to purchase: reviews, testimonials, complaints forums… They inform your decision but they don’t put the idea into your head to buy a particular vehicle. That comes from good advertising. The kind of advertising that is built on solid creative ideas. The kind of ideas that cut through and make people notice them. And even that advertising relies on the consumer identifying for herself that her current wants/needs basket requires a new vehicle (that’s your REAL purchase decision) to get a response or recall.

Now let’s assume big data acknowledges that you are human but still uses what it has learned to try and predict your next response i.e. learnings from your previous responses to enocurage more responses. This is an absolute exercise in futility – and to underscore my point, I will turn to quantum physics in the form of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The principle states in its simplified form that an atom cannot have its velocity and its position measured at the same time. Expanding on that, it stands to reason that our response once measured cannot predict our next response. Example: I touched a hot plate and burned myself so I will avoid the plate again. If you ask me to touch a hot plate again I wont…unless you pay me…or I’m insane…or I think today is a good day to touch a hot plate. Similarly, our path through our day does not necessarily mean we will respond to or even encounter the marketing stimulus no matter what we did the previous time.
So big data fails there.

Let’s return to the idea that big data regards you as a cypher. That means you will always behave as it predicts you will as if you were Pavlov’s dog. Numbers, after all, don’t change without a catalyst. They would drop the stimulus and you would respond correctly – much like a trained chimp. If that’s the case, then your next big campaign comes not from a creative agency but from an accounting firm/media-buying agency. In fact, you could find one crackerjack campaign and just keep running it and you’ll always get the response you want. If you think that makes sense, you’re probably an accountant or a media-buyer.

Big data’s biggest crime is that it suffocates creativity. It builds silos and boxes and tries to achieve what no living being has been able to do: predict the behaviour of masses of humans. We can’t. That’s why we have creativity. Creativity allows us to consider problems from all angles, discover fresh solutions and new ways of doing things. These ideas capture the attention of the masses (or some of the masses) because it’s probably something they hadn’t considered. And once we have their attention, we can talk to them about liking us. Big data assumes there is nothing new and that every problem is the same as the previous one. In this business of advertising especially, which is essentially the providing of creative solutions to business problems, this is suicide. To stop considering the alternatives or to disregard possibility in favour of superficial certainty is reckless and short-sighted. Do it at your own risk but don’t be surprised when your competitor chooses take the path less travelled and gets to the finish line before you.

When it comes to advertising and marketing, big data is a waste of time. I’m not saying don’t take note of your market. I’m saying look for the qualitative information, the human feedback on your product or service, to improve your business. Forget big data. Find the big ideas.

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