Tech viewpoint on data interpretation
A view from Hugh Baillie

Tech viewpoint on data interpretation

The World Cup is coming and so I’m just over a month away from nirvana. The questions have begun: Will Rooney finally prove himself  on the world stage? What effect will goal-line technology have? Will Brazil enjoy a coronation, or will Germany spoil the party?

Whatever the question, the answer is normally answered by the victor. As José Mourinho reminds us, it’s the winning that matters – there’s no middle ground. And so, while the football managers are preparing their players to give the best performance of their lives, the global chief marketing officers are fervently fine-tuning their campaigns, vying for the support of consumers.

It strikes me – as a marketer and football obsessive – that data is the common denominator in this spectacle.  It’s the fairy dust that can sprinkle magic over the players and brands alike, if used intelligently.

Where football managers have data telling them fitness levels prior to a match and performance of their players during it – using platforms such as Prozone – so marketing directors have constant streams of data telling them their brand’s health and subsequent performance.  

A goalkeeper was poorer at saving penalties because the data analyst removed instinct from his game

The interesting thing, for me, is that the data or the metrics are not by themselves the difference; it is their availability and the subsequent interpretation that mark the difference between winning and losing.

That is where skill, experience and judgment come into play. In the same way that I hope we never allow an algorithm to select the man of the match, I hope we never rely solely on data to determine our next action in business. This business, like virtually every other, rests on the skill of combining art and science. In advertising, after all, it is about making something coherent and truly engaging from a mass of information and experience.

Predictive modelling may be the playing field for data intelligence in sport and in business. Indeed, Amazon is apparently close to predicting what we will buy before we’ve even ordered it, and Target can tell a woman’s family that she’s pregnant before she does. However, data is at its most powerful when combined with innate human judgment that can find wisdom in it.  It’s about knowing what to pay attention to, then building a strategy and using it to change the course of events.  

The danger is that we can go too far with our reliance on data: Bolton claim their goalkeeper became poorer at saving penalties because the club’s data analyst had removed instinct from his game. We’ve all seen people hide behind the numbers to make their case, whether in sport or in marketing, but it’s simply not enough, no matter how many statistics we reach for. What makes the difference between victory and defeat – the 12th man on your team, if you will – is a flair for merging hard data with an impossible-to-calibrate instinct for placing the winning shot.

Hugh Baillie is the chief executive at Fullsix Group