What the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House tells us about the state of modern marketing

What the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House tells us about the state of modern marketing

If like me, you work with numbers, there’s a very good chance that the Big Bang Data exhibition at Somerset House will blow your mind. In among the eerily lit and often overwhelming visualisations of just how much our entire society revolves around the collection, aggregation, analysis and sometimes downright hoarding of information, I was struck by a sudden awareness of the potential dangers of everyone in the field of marketing can fall into if we blindly put all our faith in “data”.

The exhibits at the show ranged from the sublime – for example, the beautifully rendered and hypnotic digital representations of data projected onto entire walls – to the downright ridiculous, like Iknowwhereyourcatlives created by artist Owen Mundy, which uses Instagram data to pinpoint the exact locations of more than a million cats with frightening accuracy.

But one corner of the exhibit in particular caught my eye, tucked away from the bright lights and razzle-dazzle novelty of the rest of the show – a simple text-heavy lightbox with “WHAT DATA CANNOT TELL” prominently emblazoned on it. I read on:

“… by concentrating on data alone, we ignore the fact that our society can thrive on more disordered mechanisms such as negotiation and debate. Although data can help us understand the world in important new ways, it must always leave room for subjectivity and ambiguity.”

Yes! Finally. We are living, breathing people, and although data is, of course, useful, it can only offer us a single piece of an infinitely larger puzzle that takes into account our subtle nuances, our personality quirks, our unexpected decisions; these are what make us human. What’s more, sometimes the data can be tweaked to fit a particular agenda – or can simply have us barking up completely the wrong tree. I see this at work in the marketing industry every day.

Take the example of an airline using data “insights” to market what it thought was a great deal on a flight to Ibiza to would-be holidaymakers living in Newcastle. So far, so good – except that when the Newcastle customer clicked on a link to a cheap flight, it turned out that it flew from a London airport which would have cost them significantly extra to travel to, meaning that what started out as a great deal was in fact extortionately expensive. “Insights” from data collected online may often be anything but insightful unless they are filtered through time-honoured lenses of common sense and empathy, which is why we understand that a one-size-fits-all approach rarely, if ever, fits everyone.

My colleagues and I believe we are at the forefront of some really cutting-edge stuff, but I am also old enough to have been schooled in the fundamentals of advertising, and it seems to me that marketing today has somewhat lost its way; digital – and the use of big data – has long been lauded as the “be all, end all” of marketing, but to my mind this is a mistake. There are indeed more channels out there today than there ever have been, but this doesn’t mean that the underlying principles of good advertising have changed, nor does it mean that digital will necessarily “cannibalise” everything else. It simply means there is a bigger need for human insight and creativity than ever.

Data is great at helping build a picture of your customers and targeting them, but it doesn’t take account of their emotional reaction. Creative is still key to grabbing attention and engaging a consumer. Data alone is incapable of taking account of external influences – like a competitor’s sale or simply the weather.

Digital advertising grew up as a measurable medium and the addition of masses of data has meant that it is still viewed as a science by many. But traditional marketing has always involved understanding what motivates your customers and this understanding comes from more than just a click or a conversion.

It means understanding the entire customer journey from the moment they first hear about your brand and ensuring you meet consumer needs and expectations right down the funnel to the point of purchase and beyond. Defining your product, knowing your competition, being consistent – these are all essential marketing skills, but data isn’t much help with some marketing principles and, once again, good old fashioned market knowledge and experience come to the rescue.

In short, the unconditional worship of data is a trap and one that many in the world of marketing have fallen into. Let’s get our feet back on solid ground and pull ourselves out of the black hole of data-centrism, because while data is a fantastic tool, without skilled human intervention it may not give us the results we are hoping for.

This article first appeared in The Guardian