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:


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