The Case For Small Data
Right now, those are probably the two biggest words in marketing. Particularly since the recent Omnicom and Publicis merger announcement. The New York Times quoted Publicis Groupe CEO Maurice Lévy as saying, “… ‘billions of people’ who are now online and providing data to companies offer an opportunity to use advertising technologies to crunch billions of pieces of data ‘in order to come with a message which is relevant to a very narrow audience.’” Not just predictive modeling to automatically optimize large-scale media buying activities. Big Data will drive “relevant messages.”
I don’t doubt that Lévy’s assertion is true. But I’d like to speak up for small data. The telling moment. The fleeting nuance. The tone of voice. The casual expression. It can happen in an agency brainstorming session or behind the one-way glass at a focus group or as part of an overheard conversation in line at the grocery store. For those who are tuned in, this small data can be the jumping-off point for a creative breakthrough. It can propel a tagline or an entire campaign. For creative people, small data is a microcosm. As poet Kahlil Gibran wrote, “In one drop of water are found all the secrets of all the oceans.”
Probably my favorite small data story involves the “If it doesn’t get all over the place, it doesn’t belong in your face” campaign for Carl’s Jr. We were in a focus group listening to young guys talk about how they knew they were eating a great burger. “When you take a bite, the juice runs down your arm,” one said. “What do you do when that happens?” asked the moderator. “Wipe it up with a French fry,” came the answer. In that seven-word sentence was the seed for an entire campaign that lasted almost a decade and changed the fortunes of a company. And that’s just one example.
Were there terabytes of data that led to “Just Do It” or “The Computer for the Rest of Us?” Of course there weren’t because back then, no one even knew what a terabyte was. There were people willing to say, “This feels right” without the support of supercomputers and number crunchers. Don’t get me wrong. Even then, there were indeed scientific answers to marketing problems. “Day-after recall” was the Big Data of the last century. It gave marketers absolute answers about whether a commercial would “work” or not. It led to “rules” like, “mention the product at least three times in the first five seconds of the commercial.” In fact, it led to very bad, very formulaic advertising that has mercifully been lost in the mists of time and the vagaries of legacy technologies like VHS.
Small data is fragile. There’s a risk is that it will be swamped and subsumed by Big Data and those looking for some sort of “proof.” Big Data is a tool and like any tool, it can be used for good or evil. My plea is that it be informed by the small data that comes from the honed instincts of creative people who know when something is right because it vibrates like a pitchfork and elicits sympathetic vibrations.
There’s no way to stop the era of Big Data and there probably shouldn’t be. As the New York Times put it, “…advertising is now firmly in the business of Big Data.”
But if we really want to serve our clients and their brands, we’ll continue to stop and listen and, in the words of the legendary creative team Julian Koenig and Helmut Krone, “Think Small.” It was a great advertising idea then. It still is.