Why Big Data Isn't Enough In The Media Business

The advent of Big Data and all that it portends for our industry is – without question – A Good Thing.


From enhancing media planning, buying and selling; measurement of campaign effectiveness and sales impact; marketing content and even informing the development of programming and network positioning, Big Data is increasingly improving what we can do.

But – it is not any kind of magic bullet and we should never approach it as such.

While the prevailing discourse surrounding Big Data, Data Analytics, Data Science etc. is focused on its growing importance and wider use, some of this discourse has become simplified and even simplistic – especially outside of the research and analytics function which is its natural home.

Too often, we hear the view and witness behavior that suggests its now “all about data.”

I’ve even heard people confidently declare the “with Big Data we don’t really need primary research any more.”Such thinking is not just wrong, it is lazy and downright dangerous. That view was expressed by someone who is a great statistician, but with no experience of researching and understanding the irrationalities and nuances of human behavior.



The truth is that data does not deliver competitive advantage.  Anything you can obtain by way of data can be acquired by others (or mirrored).  What it does do, of course, is provide us with more data points and more granularity – often faster and even in real time – on which to base our decisions. 

In effect, it redefines and re-levels the playing field.

In many respects, Big Data and everything it supports -- such as programmatic buying and audience targeting, campaign sales impact assessment and more -- become the new commodities as more organizations deliver against the promise.

True competitive advantage comes through the ability of your team to discern meaningful and relevant insights within the data (both patterns and anomalies), the creativity that is applied to leveraging those insights and – critically - the tolerance for risk that your organization (or your client) is willing to embrace.

However, without the insights delivered by primary research – both quantitative and qualitative – Big Data remains unsupported in critical respects.  Whereas large and granular data sets can reveal much about what, when, who and how often etc, it is far less good at questions like why and why not, which are arguably the questions that provide the key to unlocking the optimal way forward.

Clearly, the combination of Big Data in its many forms and primary research with its varied techniques represents the responsible way to go.  I’m aware that many in the research community share this view.Yet, it seems that the prevailing climate resembles what prevails when technology makes things newly possible: The pendulum has swung too far one way.

At the present time, there are major investments being made in software, hardware, data and people to turbo-charge organizational use of Big Data.  While this is unquestionably the right thing to do – and effectively a requirement to exist in the modern media market place – very often it is happening at the cost of the primary research functions and skill sets. 

The two are not mutually exclusive; they are utterly interdependent.  The most successful companies will be those that make best use of both in concert -- not those that emphasize one over the other.

I believe it Is incumbent upon all of us in this business to make clear to those outside of the research and analytics function that combining the best of primary research and Big Data will secure success.

We work in an alchemical business, and our audiences are emotional and irrational beings.  An over-reliance on either the science or the art will not maximize success.  Ensuring that we integrate the advantages of both will be critical going forward.

So enough with downplaying the importance of “why?” and with minimizing primary research.  Let’s champion the case for how primary research makes Big Data work harder – and vice versa.


3 comments about "Why Big Data Isn't Enough In The Media Business".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, August 10, 2016 at 1:16 p.m.

    Good piece, Mike. As you point out, its not the data itself that is important, its whether and how it us used by humans to arrive at the best decisions. I might also add, that too many people in our business think that they don't really need to look at data in order to form their own interpretations and educate themselves about axioms or general patterns. They only turn the "data" spigot on when the client or some other authority figure poses a question which they, by vitrue of their lack of general knowledge, can't answer.  All too often, when the data is churned out, the "user" is at a loss to evaluate it as there is no contextual basis for doing so. I see this all the time in our consulting work and it's getting worse, not better.

  2. Mike Bloxham from Magid, August 10, 2016 at 6:13 p.m.

    Thanks Ed - I suppose its inevitable that when the array and type of data sets available across the industry increases exponentially in a short period of time then - like anything else - best practice will take some time to become ubiquitous.  

  3. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, August 11, 2016 at 12:04 p.m.

    Bravo Mike--Not sure where this quote came from but, "databased answers are only as good as the intelligence of the person asking the questions."  Perhaps the offshoot of that is a good researcher approaches new data sources (big or not) heuristically and that inevitably leads to some enlightenment which often leads to data gathering and interpretation refinements.

    An associate was doing a content analysis of job listings in the general space and noted that most require working knowledge of databases and database management.  They also noted "analytic" skills.  It's seemingly easier to find the former and a little harder to not only define what's meant by analytic skills.  Finding someone possessing those skills is one of the paramount challenges.

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