Covert behavioural data – the bridge between tech and creative

Eaon Pritchard

Bill Drummond once made this point. The technology always comes first. Then creative people mess with it and create something new and unexpected. 

Artists never invented oil paint, or the movie camera but they saw the opportunity the technology gave for creativity.

The advertising business has been no different.

In fact, recent years have seen the industry dive head-first into digital and social media, then virtual and augmented reality, black boxes of every flavor, now machine learning and artificial intelligence.

As a bonus, with each of these new developments in technology comes the processing of huge amounts of new consumer data – we have more than past generations of communicators could have even imagined – so it should naturally follow that we can now connect with consumers better than any other generation of marketers.

Global ad spending is said to be growing faster than at any time in the digital era. The recent eMarketer Worldwide Ad spend Forecast estimates that total spending will reach around US$725 billion by 2020. 

That’s growth of between 5% to 9% year-on-year, with digital and mobile spend contributing to about 36% presently, growing to nearly half by 2020. Big bucks.

But, in spite of the growth and gusto, advertising hasn’t had a good time figuring out how to make tech, data and creativity work together, and therefore doesn’t appear to have a clear articulation of its own future.

For many, simply being exposed to the volume and velocity of data that we have today is enough to just switch off and become misty-eyed for simpler times; whereas for others the accumulation of data has become something of an end in itself, as if simply possession of the data constitutes a silver bullet.

But the daily reality, for the most part, is more mundane. Agencies may tend to limit their view of data as either input to inform or rationalise strategic choices, or as output in the form of metrics and measurement.

What’s even worse is that during this process they tend to obsess over the wrong data, giving disproportionate focus to small and insignificant differences, get distracted by noise rather than finding the signal, getting dazzled by vanity metrics and missing the big important things that really matter in guiding strategy.

Direct marketers and digital marketers will, of course, disagree. They will crow of how they can effortlessly track and retarget elusive consumers, whilst micro-segmenting audiences and optimising each campaign to within an inch of its life.

But is that all there is? Efficiency?

All of the time each of us spends on the internet, and on our smartphones, all the websites we visit, the apps and services we use, everything we buy or think about buying and the people we talk to generates an incredible amount of data on our behaviour and our preferences that could be used by brands to better connect.

As a result, the domination of programmatic delivery, automation and advertising technology is inevitable. Very soon all media will be distributed in this way. It’s a wonderful thing, but the tech, on its own, is not enough.

We desperately need our best creative minds to grab the opportunity that data and technology provide for creativity. But we need a bridge to connect the two.

While no planners should be strangers to data analysis – some may even have a basic grasp of statistics and recognise an NBD curve when they see it – the key imperative for strategic thinking is how to provide the human understanding that connects the data and technology to the creative product.

Understanding what consumers actually do rather than what they say they do is critical. We’ve learned from the recent advances in behavioural economics and consumer psychology that consumers have, pretty much, no access to the unconscious mental processes that drive most of their decision-making.  

However, this doesn’t prevent people providing plausible-sounding rationalisations for their behavior, when asked. Even the process of asking people what they think exerts its own unconscious influence – to the extent that much of the survey data that has traditionally fueled marketing decision-making is, at worst, a total fiction or, at best, only an artefact of the research process, itself.

The consumer psychologist Philip Graves famously channeled Edgar Allen Poe by remarking "Trust nothing consumers say, about half of what we see them do, and nearly everything the sales data tells us they have done".

Graves is adamant that real sales data and covert behavioural observation should always be the starting point of any research.

The use of the words ‘covert observation’ can quickly divide a room. However when the focus of any research is overt – the participants are aware of what’s being investigated – then, while it feels like it’s more transparent or ‘ethical’, it is mostly useless. Knowing that your behavior is being observed is intrinsically biasing. When people are aware that they are being observed they become more self-conscious and their behaviour changes. 

This is where the new developments in data technology become interesting.  

For example, at Dentsu Aegis Network, where I work, our people-based platform, M1, enables observation of the real attributes and behaviors of identifiable individuals (rather than cookies or devices) and the subsequent ability to reach those identifiable individuals across nearly all media and channels. 

The platform allows for targeted audience creation at the person level from consumer data sources and/or a client’s CRM data securely ingested. These person level identities are then matched to media platforms like Facebook, Google, programmatic and direct publisher platforms and, soon, addressable TV, enhancing our clients’ understanding of known customers and unknown audiences, and enabling addressable targeting at scale.  

Being able to identify an individual consumer, rather than trying to make sense of multiple cookies and multiple devices that may be associated with an individual, is far more useful and accurate, and also helps us find ways to group together bigger sets of consumer data to develop deeper insights that inform creative, media investment and optimisation strategies.

Today, smartphone data is obviously the key – about 90% of smartphone devices are uniquely identifiable with an individual. With this data we can know almost the exact composition of a total audience, as well as where and when media is used.

This is just the beginning. The full-tilt expansion of personal media means that the next decade promises the next wave of technology will possess capabilities far beyond the abilities of our smartphones. 

This will require new skills in tech development and data analysis, but also offers the opportunity for an exponentially better understanding of human behaviour and new outlets for creative thinking.

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