The Case For Small Data

Big 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.

5 comments about "The Case For Small Data".
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  1. Shelly Kramer from V3 Integrated Marketing, August 29, 2013 at 12:47 p.m.

    Love this post and your sentiments expressed here, Claudia. To me, that's what makes a marketer great (or a salesperson or a customer service rep, and so on) ... it's the he interest in the minutia. The small data. The way something makes a person feel. Ah yes, the small things matter so much.

  2. Ted Rubin from The Rubin Organization / Return on Relationship, August 29, 2013 at 12:51 p.m.

    For me this is what it is all about... intuition, judgement, and gut instinct. The creativity you cannot find in data, but is so incredibly valuable if you listen to the voices in your head, and the feelings in your gut.

  3. David Gutting from Barkley, August 29, 2013 at 1:19 p.m.

    Marketing strategy is as much about small, distinct moments as it is about condensing megabytes of information.

    Probably more, in fact--though I don't discount the role of Big Data.

    For me, marketing has always been like courtship. It's the most complex of human relationships, but it's complexity centered on getting something you want.

  4. philip gentile from Consultant, August 29, 2013 at 1:30 p.m.

    Bravo for your post and sentiments. While there are considerable merits to big data, mostly to engage with trends on a very macro basis, there is some skepticism that we are emulating the hopes we once had for the "data warehousing" era of the past where very few companies were ever able to successfully utilize on a major basis.

  5. Michael Baer from Stratecution Consulting, August 29, 2013 at 3:26 p.m.

    Love this - so true. We not only have to think BIG, we also have to think small.
    Michael Baer

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