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Whoever ‘owns’ the data owns the conversation

The fourth in the Noisy Thinking series for the APG took the beginning of the APG's Autumn programme by storm. This event had sold out shortly after it was announced and every chair was taken – justifiably, as it turned out.

Andy Nairn, CSO of Dare, Sue Unernam, CSO of Mediacom and Rory Sutherland, Vice Chair of Ogilvy took the podium. Deliberately chosen as speakers not just for their intellectual passion and leading thinking, but also for the fact that they represented different kinds of agency and would, we predicted, illuminate some interesting skirmishes in the turf war over data between agencies serving clients.

You can watch the videos here.

What we got was some genuinely stimulating soul-searching and some big questions and serious concerns about the over-use, abuse and sanctification of data without insight or the application of humanity, psychology and common sense. (And not a lot of turf war.)

For three leaders whose livelihood in part rests on the application of mathematics in various guises to the problems that beset their clients, this was riveting stuff.

Andy Nairn was ringing in his criticism of the mis-use of numbers, debunking the notion that data is the New Oil, decrying our industry’s obsession with ‘new-ism’ and claiming that the need to organise life and ideas within some kind of mathematical framework is as old as Stone Henge or the Domesday Book. His contention was the problem is scale; the vastness of the data available to clients and the paucity of people who can make proper sense of it and make it useful.

He also punctured the myth of ‘owenerism’ – our need for spurious control over everything we touch from the ludicrous idea of owning notions like ‘truth’, ‘hope’ love’; especially true in the world of data. Citing the example of Walmart which generates 1m transactions every hour – each of which has a data trail attached – he conjured up the notion of 2.5 petabytes of data; itself 167 times bigger than the size of the US Library of Congress and the impossibility of any agency usefully dealing with that level of data. And data as oil? Not worth the fight.

So what is the point of data?

Look forwards with it, says Andy. Like Nike Fuel, use data as the idea not the measurement tool.

Get better at helping companies use it – behave like Fiat Eco Drive (incidentally a prize-winning case in the APG 2011 Creative Strategy Awards) not Amazon.

Be more immediate. Process data fast and now, use data generated in real time and get to be Zara, the world’s biggest fashion retailer.

Don’t shrink your ambitions – turn data into Big Ideas – it’s helpful to the consumer, makes money and gets a real-time reaction.

Sue Unerman was a little more circumspect in her data wariness. She too deflated the idea of ‘ownership’. Life is not a hierarchy – and if it is, the most important person in the room is the one who has the best ideas. She was clear that point of data is to illuminate, pertinently quoting TS Eliot’s ‘Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ Information makes your briefcase heavy, but insights change things and make things happen.

There are some magical examples of the tremendous power of data to make a difference. Who knew that Florence Nightingale was the inventor of the pie chart? Not me, and nor did I know that she generated so much useful information about casualties between the first and second years of the Crimean War that death from casualties dropped from 23% to 2%.

But data is just as responsible for drowning insight and understanding. With Clubcard data it’s easy to lose the micro understanding of what sells in the small store. What we need data for is to help us understand how a consumer insight can be sold and how to challenge heritage principles.

Quoting FIFA 12 and the launch of Cheryl Cole’s new album she illustrated how fast media companies are combining data sources andnew and traditional media to create richer user experiences and best sellers.

Finally quoting Frank Portnoy’s ‘Procrastination’ she illustrated how we love to make instantaneous decisions and the point about data is the KPIs you set it against. What we need is a sustainable harvest of data driven by competent combine harvester drivers. Brand new ones I hope. I for one will look on clever media folk though an adapted agrarian lens from now on. And their 43 acres.*

Rory set to on the theme of data and was unstoppable. It was a scintillating, coruscating criticism of the mis-use of data across agencies, business, and society.

Counter-intuitive instincts may be right and people with spreadsheets are wrong. We give too much power to people who have data to win arguments and we are the poorer for it. In business culture now the person with the numbers, however stupid, will hold sway. You have to speak ‘number’ to get into power and numbers encourage unwarranted confidence in those who marshall them in argument.

He wasn’t pulling any punches.

He made the point that people who really know numbers are skeptical of mathematical models but our prejudice in favour of numbers is born at school where science and maths can generate ‘right’ answers and arts subjects are vague and woolly. Rory contended that really good science accepts ambiguity and that rationality probably won’t produce a better answer to a problem.

A lot of what we do with data in business now is effectively ‘category error’. We try to apply surface maths to ideas and concepts that cannot be depicted mathematically and make a nonsense in so doing.

Using the example of the highly experienced pilot who landed his plane on the Hudson river he lauded the power of proxy data (looking out the window and making a judgment based on experience) over mathematical calculation. Given the data available a heuristic is to be preferred – if as in life we don’t and can’t ever have access to all the data.

Garbage in, garbage out. It applies to models. Even if one or two numbers are wrong you can ruin a whole model. When you add another variable the whole model changes. And we rely on such models to make very big decisions in our working and national lives.

Rory’s quarrel is with Big Data and claims for exactitude. But data can often be good – especially behavioural data.

Moving into new realms of intellectual gymnastics Rory hopped, skipped and jumped through Cybernetics and Complexity making the point that a cellular worm is more complex to describe mathematically than the sun, so how can we possibly expect physics to describe psychology?

Sometimes we just have recognise things as too complicated; just too hard, and be as humble as the great mathematician Max Planck who decided economics wasn’t for him because the ‘maths is too difficult’. If you want to understand human economic behaviour you need to understand the stuff in-between. We try to apply the certainties of a small area of science to life – at our peril.

We have let the ‘Arithmocracy’ hold sway over the big and small decisions that affect every part of our life. We present creative ideas to rational people to create checks and balances but that doesn’t apply the other way round. We don’t let creative people debunk the worse excesses of rationality.

Let’s retain and build on the best things in our business. One of the few in which you get promoted not fired for having an irrational idea. As John Kay describes in ‘Obliquity’ using the same metrics in the same market produces a wind tunnel effect – and monotonous markets. We believe data because our brains are happy to make stories around numbers. Let’s stop.

*You have to be as old as the hills to get this reference to a perfectly dreadful 1970′s pop song. Answers on postcards win prizes.

Any comments on last night’s thinking and ideas most welcome.

Here is some suggested reading:

‘Blink’ by Malcolm Gladwell ‘The Wealth of Nations’ by Adam Smith Gerd Gigerenzer’s various works on Economic Rationality ‘Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder’ (Nassim Taleb) ‘Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly’ (John Kay) ‘Management in 10 Words’ (Sir Terry Leahy) ‘Wait: The useful art of procrastination’ (Frank Partnoy) ‘Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense’ (Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles)

Sarah Newman

APG Director

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