Big Data. Aren't you just tired of hearing these two words? There seems to be 'Big Data' panels here, VP of Big Data there, and an Integrated Holistic Big Data Strategy hiding round the corner ready to pounce on you.
All it means is we have a lot of data. So much that us mere mortals cannot cope with it. Hence the need for supersmart folk armed with complicated (and not so complicated) algorithms to help us make sense of it all.
However, as the great David Byrne once said...
same as it ever was, same as it ever was, same as it ever was
No matter how much information has existed, we have always struggled to cope, struggled to make sense of it all, struggled to find the right insight and struggled to act upon it. It's just that we now have that much more. So our coping genes are hopelessly frayed.
Yet what is it about Big Data that we struggle with? Are we simply overloaded? Or is it the search for meaning from the mountains of 0s and 1s that threatens to engulf us? Or could it be search for someone to trust to help us make sense of the data?
Make no mistake about it. Companies who can help brands make sense of the torrential downpour of data will be incredibly successful in the near future. Some will help simplify the data, taking some stress away from clients. The work of visualisation specialists will become even more Others will seek meaning from the data to help improve a brand's short to long term decision making.
Media Agencies have for years been well placed to make sense of data on human behaviour and on the brand. So surely they are the first port of call for brands to help them?
Not so, according to Michael Baker. The founder of dataxū believes that the media agencies have neither the tools nor the talent to provide the expertise that brands need. In a world where people live at the 'speed of life', he posits that media agencies are not built to take action or proffer advice to clients under such circumstances.
I interviewed Michael at the 2013 Festival of Media Global. We talked at length about his belief in the power of data to assist businesses and about his view that brands will be shifting to a more data driven approach to marketing. For him, the future is quantitative.
However, he doesn't believe that such a future is soulless. The fear/hate/loathing for quantitative analysis is based, according to Michael, in part on an assumption that creativity and data analytics are two separate entities. He forcefully challenges such a separation, encouraging the industry to bring them closer together.
Michael is a passionate advocate for the value of smart data analytics as comes out in the interview, and one can't argue against the value that data brings to a business.
Whilst a key challenge for data analytics businesses will be to build trust amongst the clients in their systems and their outputs, I have one observation and one question that for me is fundamental to this discussion on Big Data.
Observation: data is all too often used to create marketing that focuses on the MEANS (more impressions, more interaction) not the END (more sales, increased trust). That needs to be challenged continually.
Question: Who watches the watchmen?
Who will be able to assess whether the algorithms and analytical tools are not producing skewed data? I have seen enough 'infallible' tools fall on their proverbial faces, leaving brands to rethink strategies and investments.
Which brings me to Sir John Hegarty. At the inaugural Advertising Week Europe event that took place earlier this year, I listened to a bunch of folk on a panel talking about data, including the co-founder of BBH.
In one single statement, Sir John Hegarty put the Big Data debate into a wider context:
Supermarkets had all the data in the world, but they were still selling horsemeat. Look for the broader view.
Data can help shape that broader view. It can help challenge the status quo. It can help inspire. However, if we do not challenge ourselves to focus on the End rather than the Means, Big Data will just end up fuelling past mistakes, rather than future glories.