What Big Data means for brands and agencies

You’ve likely heard the term Big Data bandied about over the past year or so. Just what is Big Data? Writing for The GuardianTagMan CEO Jon Baron defined Big Data as “a simplistic term which refers to the automated accumulation and analysis of audience data on a large scale.” In our marketing world, Big Data describes the plethora of information we have accumulated through the monitoring of consumers as they browse, socialize, search and purchase online. Every time a person visits a website, a cookie is dropped within their browser. Every time a person responds to a call-to-action from a landing page, data from the form they filled out is captured.

Marketers and agencies struggle with this onslaught of data on a daily basis as they craft campaigns to reach their customers. In terms of Big Data’s ability to improve the work an agency does for its clients, School of Thought co-founder Joseph Newfield said, “For agencies, [Big Data] presents opportunities to deliver much more value to our audience through custom content.”

The more insight marketers and agencies can access about their audience’s wants, likes, dislikes, behavior and purchase patterns, the more on-target future campaigns can be.

Big Data can be both harmful and beneficial to creatives crafting campaigns for their clients. Echoing this concern, Newfield added, “Big Data doesn’t make creative work better on its own. In fact, it can make it worse, by tempting clients to use data to make matter-of-fact offers. ‘We know you like Palm Springs, so here’s a 10% off hotel coupon.’ But like any audience insight, when used as fuel for a real creative exploration, big data opens all kinds of doors.”

Expanding upon his point that Big Data, done right, can vastly improve how creative teams approach campaign creation, Newfield continued, “If [creative teams] are using the insights that come from big data, for instance, to make a banner ad that is different for every single person who sees it, and they’re delighting their audience, then, as with all creative, they’re doing their job.”

While Big Data can certainly arm creatives with the insight they need to develop compelling creative, Newfield was quick to caution that Big Data will never replace creativity. “Data doesn’t create ideas or bring them to life – it just helps rationalize the tactics and better assess risks for success.”

Supporting Newfield’s word of caution, Neighbor co-owner and chief digital officer Jared Levy added, “In a truly integrated agency, there is a constant tug of war between creatives and analytics. Analytics do not help creatives in that small-view, internal dynamic. But in the broader view, insights from big data can be extremely informative in writing strategic briefs that can point creatives in winning directions.”

The use of research and data (big or otherwise) must be used in combination with other skill sets — namely, the development of gut-based big ideas — to develop a well-rounded approach. “Everything in moderation,” as my mother always says.

With Big Data increasingly making inroads with brands and their marketers to develop programs that move product, the question of data ownership has arisen as well. Some argue all personal data should be owned by the consumer. Others argue it should be owned and managed by the companies that collected it.

Lending, perhaps, some middle ground to the debate, Marcus Thomas SVP of analytics Scott Chapin told me, “Ideally, we’d all own it, but that’s rarely possible. Most marketers understand consumers, but few possess the statistical or analytical skills to analyze big data. And the IT team isn’t consumer-focused enough to know how the data will actually be used. It will take new skills, new positions for agencies and marketers to fully wrap their arms around Big Data. ”

And, perhaps, that’s what we need: companies and skill sets keenly attuned to the the intricate details of data management. While there are certainly plenty of data management companies in existence already, what we really need are masters of marketing data who can make it very easy and very natural to access data and insight that will inform marketers and creatives in a way that will help them better connect with their customers.

If marketing were mathematics, there would be no debate. The answer is the answer. It’s black and white. But marketing isn’t mathematics and, though it does involve a significant amount of black and white number crunching, part of marketing is a craft that requires a bit of non-quantifiable creativity. And while Big Data can certainly inform and improve the black and white elements of marketing, it should never be allowed to hinder the creative spirit or crush the Big Idea.

Post by Steve Hall

Steve Hall is a marketing professional, publisher, writer, community manager, photographer and all-around lover of advertising. Steve has held management positions in media and account service at Leo Burnett, Starcom/Mediavest and others, working on such accounts as Reebok, Marriott, Monster.com and Marshmallow Fluff.