OPINION: Is data killing insight?

Ian Perrin
By Ian Perrin | 19 August 2013
ZenithOptimedia chief executive, Ian Perrin.

I have recently returned to a large media agency after five years and many parts of the business are very much the same as when I left. There is a far greater focus and understanding of digital channels, but mostly the principles have remained the same. However, there has been one massive transformation that has happened while I have been away, and that is, predictably, in the area of data.

Everyone is talking about “big data” and I have to confess I don’t really know what that means. But I do know that we are using lots of small data sets to answer big questions that media agencies couldn’t answer five years ago. We can accurately project how much money advertisers should be spending. We can use evidence to recommend how spend should be allocated across a portfolio of brands. We can measure the short term and long term impact of promotions versus advertising on sales. We can prove channel and creative effectiveness, and most importantly we can ensure that less than half of advertising is wasted, as most people have believed for decades.

While this is incredibly positive at positioning agencies as important partners to CMO’s and company boards, there are some unintended side effects. Most pressing is that data has started to undermine one of the key tenants of what agencies have stood for - understanding people. Data can tell you so much. Using Google to find interesting trend reports can also tell you so much. Using syndicated or bespoke research can tell you so much. However, when most agencies are based in the urban metropolitan areas of Sydney and Melbourne, I fear that most don’t generally understand what is important to the country. And worryingly, a high proportion of agencies don’t even invest in insights.

The most insight I ever gained on a category was drinking beer in a local shebeen in rural Mpumalanga when I worked on the SABMiller account in South Africa. I learnt very quickly that while people were incredibly passionate about and loyal to the brands they consumed, very little of what they knew came from advertising. Their brand knowledge came from stories their friends had told them, which invariably had been told to them by the local distributor. So we hauled down the outdoor hoarding in their town that we thought reached them, and instead created a CRM programme for the local distributors. We created stories about the brands that they could pass on to their customers. It may be a somewhat trite example, but it does help to illustrate the point.

No amount of data would have got us to that solution. It’s time for our industry to wake to the power of genuine human insight.

Ian Perrin
CEO Australia and New Zealand

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