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Forward Thinking Essays 2012: Data, but not as we knew it, Tash Whitmey, EHS 4D

This year companies will need a clear plan to unleash the potential latent in their data - to ensure that it both inspires engaging creative work and enables real-time conversations with customers.

Data. There, I've said it: long the Cinderella by the fire, while the creative goes to the ball.

They say that oil and water don't mix, and this has long been true for data and creative, being such different beasts. They are rarely mentioned in the same breath, room, or even agency, come to that, and are almost guaranteed to cause the eyes of many marketing people to glaze over. That has to change.

Data has long been the preserve of a brand's IT department or technologically focused suppliers that simply don't have it in their DNA to really understand people, let alone the ability to plan and create compelling and engaging conversations with them.

Similarly, many creative agencies, above and below the infamous line, don't have the technical and analytical skills to truly understand data and gain the insights that should be inspiring their work.

Silos are crumbling - an ad agency won the Direct Agency of the Year category at Cannes last year and is undoubtedly capable of designing the odd email and 'blasting' it in the way they have interrupted consumers for decades.

Many direct agencies are on top of digital channels and are producing TV spots and banner ads, calling themselves integrated. Increasingly, this means nothing without a single customer view built on data.

Traditional digital agencies have always produced direct communications, but are rarely sufficiently strategically driven to cut it with the marketing director, so are becoming increasingly put in a niche as production companies.

We are awash with data, both old-school customer data and, increasingly, the wealth of information generated from every new-school digital touchpoint: social-media likes, Twitter mentions, click-through rates and product-interest indicators from ecommerce browsing.

This data can and should inspire strategic insights, propensity models and behavioural segmentations. Customers don't want to be sold to, but will happily immerse themselves in a bespoke experience that informs, entertains and maybe even recommends as part of an experiential conversation, one that is driven by data.

Consumers expect their interaction with a brand, the user experience, to demonstrate understanding of their needs and adapt to them.

This can be done only if it is driven in real-time by data, and that can happen only if the data is there and 'knows who it is talking to'. The brand needs a single customer view.

The vast majority of the world's consumer data is captured by just four companies - Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook - and it is no coincidence that these four organisations also lead the way in user experience.

They have conversations with their customers by building customer-centric business models, enabled by data.

This will be the year of data - big data. Brands will start looking at themselves and asking whether they have the data they need, a single customer view and what they want to do with it.

They will use this data and business rules to drive conversations, to listen and to act appropriately in the right place, on the right platform, at the right time - in real-time. Gone are the days of overnight batch-processing: this is the age of data-driven customer conversations.

If a rugby fan's team is winning and they are prolific on social media, their favourite beer brand should be aware of it and know the fan is at the game. It should send a voucher for a free beer at half time. It should send the fan a message afterwards to check they enjoyed the drink and to ask them to share photos of the match with mates in return for access to an exclusive interview with a team member.

Many brands are now realising the true value of their data and are looking to unlock it. To do this, key stakeholders from IT, brand marketing and agencies need to start talking to each other and formulating roadmaps and plans of action.

They need to align with the brand objectives, but, most importantly, with customer needs, behaviours and the conversations they should be having.

Tash Whitmey is chief executive of EHS 4D. To find out more, visit www.ehs4d.com.

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