Big is not always best, data evangelists told

Big data is presenting big opportunities for brands. But the IPA warns it may not provide all the answers. By Alasdair Reid.

Google: one of the leading digital companies that have big data at the heart of their operations
Google: one of the leading digital companies that have big data at the heart of their operations

The publication last week of the IPA’s report on the impact of big data was rather timely. Big data (huge data sets, often recording the minutiae of consumer behaviour in the digital domain) is a hot topic across all sectors of the economy.

The world’s capacity to capture and store data has (roughly) doubled every three years since the 80s – and businesses are focused more than ever on making best use of that resource. The pre-eminent digital companies have cutting-edge big-data expertise at the heart of just about everything they do; and there’s also a burgeoning big data consultancy sector.

But the major mainstream corporations are investing in a big way too. Last week, GE announced a programme to use big data to help forecast demand and to automate the strategic planning of manufacturing processes. At a press conference, it revealed its belief that harnessing the "industrial internet" in the right ways could boost global GDP by $15 trillion by 2030.

And, of course, that has huge implications for media and marketing – so it was no surprise to see the subject of big data coming up time and again at Cannes. The IPA report, entitled The Big Opportunity – Audience Research Meets Big Data, attempts to consider how the ad industry can make best use of this opportunity.

But, interestingly, Lynne Robinson, the IPA’s research director, also hopes that the report can help to temper some of the wilder forms of big-data enthusiasm we have seen recently in some quarters. She believes there’s a need to guard against the belief that, when you have big data, you don’t need anything else. "It’s a form of data imperialism," she warns. "We felt we needed to have a more balanced look at this."

In particular, the report urges media agencies not to down-weight the importance of industry-standard audience data. The real rewards, it states, will come from merging big data and survey data. Big data, mined largely from online transactions, may be highly granular in some respects, but gives limited access to bigger-picture notions of consumer behaviour.

"To simply assume that big data will replace survey-based data is to do a disservice to big data and actually limit its potential," the report argues. "Bringing together big data and survey data really is a case of 1+1=3." And it concludes: "We want to ensure that users make the most informed and therefore optimum use of the new resources available."

But is this really a problem area? Are agencies putting too much faith in big data? Denise Turner, the head of intelligence at Havas Media, can see how it might happen – she agrees that a sense of perspective is very important. She adds: "Big is not necessarily better – just because we have loads more data now, that doesn’t mean we have the answers to everything."

She concedes that this is already a fiendishly complicated business; and, as Robinson points out, it’s not going to get any simpler. "Like anything new, you can get carried away with it," she says. "This is something people need to take control of – and understand what’s good, what’s bad and what’s relevant.

In the future, this is only going to get more complex – with so much more available, we’re all going to need advice about what data we really need."