The Year Ahead for ... Data

Ben Wood argues that the advertising industry must learn to understand the value of data, from the planning stage to the audit phase, in every campaign.

Ben Wood
Ben Wood

In the McKinsey Global Institute white paper Big Data: The Next Frontier For Innovation, Competition, And Productivity, released in May 2011, the consultancy talks of the trillions of bytes of data being "captured, communicated, aggregated, stored and analysed" in every function and sector of the global economy.

Making the case for the fundamental role of data across the economic spectrum, the paper states right up front that "like other essential factors of production, such as hard assets and human capital ... much of modern economic activity, innovation and growth simply couldn't take place without data".

And so it follows that the marketing and communications industry (representing brands from every corner of the global economy, and striving constantly for innovation and growth) should be right at the forefront of this revolution - evolving its structures, processes, skillsets and operating models around "big data".

The truth is that, with some notable exceptions, this is not yet the case. Yes, we grapple as an industry with "some" data, but the use of data remains largely an "end of campaign" thing, delivered by smart econometricians in a specialist department: "Did it work? How many people did we reach? Did people like it? Did it shift the dial? Did we sell something?"

The real opportunity is for data to become the input as well as the output, for the "big data" that McKinsey talks of to flow though the planning, executional and audit phases of campaign creation and implementation, in all corners of our industry.

We need to embrace this structural change now. It's a sobering thought for any agency that Google, Facebook and Adobe already know more about some of our clients' businesses and their audiences than we do. Why? Because they have the data.

If we want any chance of continuing to own and define our clients' communications strategies, then we will need to build the infrastructure and skillsets to own the management and ana-lysis of our clients' data. We will also need to build new relationships with publishers that revolve around data - moving us beyond relationships with media owners based on price alone.

Most importantly, we will need to evolve our processes within our agencies so that we weave data, in all its many forms, into the way we work, from start to finish.

On the one hand, client first-party data, held at a cookie level, might be the secret ingredient in terms of targeting digital advertising. On the other, Facebook data or Google insights might tell us more about an audience and its motivations than a traditional "managed" panel as we plan advertising.

It is the ongoing "digitisation" of both the media we trade and the communications collateral we build that will be the catalyst of change for the industry.

We know digital equals data and, increasingly, we are realising within the digital solutions we build for clients that digital data can be what defines and creates our insight, audience and creative proposition as much as what we use to understand campaign effect.

The majority of the most cutting-edge and data-centric solutions are currently being driven out of the online advertising arena. However, the reality is that, as all media becomes digital, so these data-centric campaigns (where data drives insight, more automated trading, creative retargeting and optimisation) will become the norm across all channels.

Sounds like pie in the sky? Digital outdoor is already climbing towards 15 per cent of the total market, and 10 per cent of TVs now sold are ready for internet TV (with forecasts that almost 10 per cent of all viewing will be via the internet within three years).

In this context, and accepting it's probably an overused phrase already, advertising really is becoming an engineering discipline - and certainly one where linear and analytical thinking will need to become as commonplace as more traditional strategic and creative endeavour.

It is not an over-assertion that many of our next generation of leaders and big thinkers will come from mathematical backgrounds.

Please don't decry me as a naysayer of great creativity - I'm not, and huge ideas will, of course, always be transformative. But I do ask for balance, and I do suggest that we currently lack the breadth of data-centric, technical and analytical talent we need - and that we currently lack the means to attract such talent.

The last change that was as fundamental to the industry as this shift towards a data-centric business model and talent base was the move of media out of creative agencies in the 80s. Media buying is going to be more automated, insight will be based on digitally tracked behaviours and creative propositions based on learned digital consumer consumption habits will become the norm.

This is big change, caused by big data. So, let's embrace this opportunity to change. And let's ensure "data" doesn't follow digital's path to specialist status and then finally (only now) back into the heart of agencies. Let's put data at the heart of everything we do - now.

The good news is that clients are clearly looking for help: IBM's recent global survey of chief marketing officers (1,700 were surveyed) found that the majority of CMOs across the world still feel underprepared to meet the forecast "data explosion".

The study found that 87 per cent of CMOs in the UK and Ireland and 71 per cent interviewed globally said they feel ill-equipped to deal with the increasing need for analysis and the overwhelming "volume, velocity and variety" of data.

Even government policy is lining up to help us: David Willetts' STEM initiative, for example, is designed to drive more technical and digital skills into the educational system - and we can harness the fruits of this policy.

Add to this recent announcements around the relaxation of taxation on seed funding from George Osborne, designed to support start-ups in the UK, which will especially benefit data, technology and digital businesses in the communications space.

So, the big data paradigm is here. And the change it brings to the industry will be transformative. The wind is in our sails to really embrace the opportunity. Do it now.

Big data is the big opportunity for the next generation of ad agencies.

Ben Wood is the managing director at iProspect.