Big Data will not replace the 'Human Factor' in advertising

IPA report: "The Big Opportunity"
IPA report: "The Big Opportunity"

Richard Marks (below, right), a consultant at Research The Media, has authored a report for the IPA on the rise of Big Data, called "The Big Opportunity". Here he considers whether big data is the answer to marketers' dreams or an unwieldy nightmare.

Richard Marks"Media placement is part science, part courage… Harry Crane is a wizard. They use a computer the size of this restaurant" - Joan Harris, Mad Men 

Over the past couple of months I’ve been working on a project for the IPA examining the implications of ‘Big Data’ for the advertising community, most specifically in its application to audience research, the currencies used to target and plan campaigns and to evaluate their impact.

In a connected world, data is all around us and we can get closer to customers, media and purchasing than ever before. The most relevant data sets for agencies are the granular information gathered via Return Path Data, ISPs, websites, mobile and social networks and customer databases.

As the cost of storage and analysis plummets, the ability to become truly data driven grows, without needing computers the size of restaurants. Indeed, some have predicted that the Mad Men era of creative is gradually being replaced by one of ‘Math Men’.

Nothing to be scared of

I believe that Big Data is nothing to be scared of – if properly deployed it will greatly add to the tools that the advertising industry has at its disposal, but it won’t replace living human beings taking decisions.

It has, however, led some to question whether the traditional industry media surveys like BARB, NRS and RAJAR will remain relevant in a connected world. The more I worked on the report, the more it became apparent that industry currencies do still have a vital role to play. If anything, their role becomes even more important in bringing together and making sense of the dizzying whirlwind of data circling around the advertising industry.

Some to question whether the traditional industry media surveys like BARB, NRS and RAJAR will remain relevant in a connected world.

Big Data could perhaps better be called ‘Deep Data’. Typically it presents a very detailed and granular view of a particular part of the market – users of a chosen mobile network, subscribers to a satellite system or members of a particular social network.

However, advertising is all about context. If we are going to allocate money across a series of channels, we need to understand how they fit into a ‘bigger picture’ and that is where industry surveys remain vital; in providing the total market overview.  

Furthermore, when looking at large databases it’s easy to get blinded by the sheer scale and assume, therefore, it must be believable – ‘Bigger is Better’.  However, there is no safety in numbers: size is not the only key variable when it comes to assessing the reliability of a dataset.

A balanced, controlled sample of 1000 individuals with a high response rate will always be more representative than 1,000,000+ customers drawn from an imbalanced, self-selecting or partial sample. Big does not always mean beautiful.

Up their game

So, the industry currencies are rightly looking at how Big Data can help them up their game. This month BARB has announced plans to incorporate large datasets into the UK TV currency. This is the way forward: combining the detail and granularity of large data sets with the transparency, reliability and bigger picture that the currencies provide, will really create something that is bigger than the sum of its parts.

Big Data can be a fantastic new resource - a real game changer for the advertising industry - but only if it is handled with care. As ever, it’s all about asking the right questions; about being informed.

The creative spark, the inspiration that creates a campaign, will always be needed.

In the IPA Report, we list 10 key questions to ask when needing to make a decision based on Big Data – and also 10 questions about existing industry surveys. The report, "The Big Opportunity: Audience Research meets Big Data" is published this month and is available to download free.

You don’t need to be a researcher or a statistician to understand it, just as you don’t need to be a mechanic to drive a car. However, any good driver knows how to perform basic safety checks before pulling out and the report gives you the Road Safety Tips that will avoid your business being involved in a data disaster.  

Big Data can help the media industry accelerate into the future but – whatever happens with Google’s experiments with driverless cars – advertising itself will still be driven by human beings. The creative spark, the inspiration that creates a campaign and comes up with innovative ways of targeting it, that spark will always be needed.

'The Big Opportunity: Audience Research meets Big Data' can be downloaded from:


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now


Lynx tells men not to leave love to fate
HBO captures awkwardness of watching sex scenes with parents
Primark to open first US stores with Boston chosen as flagship location
Marketing spend on the up but a reality check is needed before celebrating
Top 10 ads of the week: Jackpotjoy and BT Broadband fend off Kevin Bacon
Lidl beats Tesco to 10m Facebook fans
Center Parcs ad banned for encouraging parents to take kids out of school
Coca-Cola, Cadbury and Amazon named top brands for targeting youth market
Leaked document shows Nokia to be rebranded as Microsoft Mobile
Nike lays-off hardware staff in move that casts doubt on future of FuelBand
Greenpeace says save the bees or humans will die
What brands need to know about changes to VAT and online downloads in 2015
Jimmy Savile victims urged to claim compensation in new ad campaign
UKIP launches biggest  ad campaign and stirs up 'racist' accusations
Apple boss Tim Cook provides voiceover on ad touting firm's renewed green commitments
John Lewis walks consumers through its history to celebrate 150 years of business
Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers
Ex-M&S marketing chief Steven Sharp consulting at WPP
Wolff Olins reveals new CEO after Apple poaches Karl Heiselman
Glasgow offers £30,000 prize to best digital idea for 2014 Commonwealth Games
Google's revenues surge but shares drop as it grapples with transition to mobile
Facebook beats Twitter to most 'marketing friendly' social media site crown, says DMA
Fableists believe children like Finn should be outdoors enjoying life
Homebase, Baileys and Camelot join the line-up at Media360
MasterCard renews Rugby World Cup sponsorship to push cashless message