Data, Art, Engineering

Data technology, like rising water, has flooded online advertising — but many can’t swim.

It’s time to get serious, folks —  because now, data is not just bits or attributes, it’s the bread and butter, and the story. It’s competitive advantage, it’s audience definition, it’s consumer understanding and media efficiency. It wins elections, and it builds brands, but the concepts and vocabulary are foreign to many decision-makers.

The situation reminds me of the American ex-pats I knew in Brussels. If you moved to a French neighborhood, the shopkeepers would speak English to you for about six months. Then the honeymoon was over.  Your failure to learn French meant you had learned Dutch, or no new language at all. The shopkeepers would stop speaking English to you. You had declared your dismissiveness by failure to engage with their culture, and they reciprocated.

Turnabout is fair play in any language.  Your window to learn to speak “data” is limited. After a while, the decks will be rife with unsubstantiated claims, and you might not know what questions to ask.

And the deeper the BS becomes, the more it behooves brands to dig in. Data is more than attributes and opinions now; it’s the underlying support for most conclusions.

Look what the flood of content has done to the concept of “facts. . Related: One of Voltaire’s biographers said that when Voltaire became schooled in rhetoric he could prove anything, but consequently believed nothing.  Data, in aggregate, is numerological rhetoric. Anyone can prove anything, but what can you believe?

We don’t even have our nouns right. “Data” is confused for “analytics,”  but analytics is not a product, or a job, or an outcome, or a benefit, or a differentiator.  It’s an ill-defined activity having something to do with math, but not much.   

Invoking “data,” in any situation, opens a can of worms because it carries, inexplicably, a mantle of truth. Somehow, “data” takes moral high ground because it suggests quantitative truth, but the buck stops when you take action.  How can you develop enough confidence to take action if anyone can prove anything?

If marketing were “The Gong Show,” any use of the word “data” would result in the performer being thrown off the stage. (For those of you who may never have seen it, “The Gong Show" was a tacky TV talent show in which losers were thrown off the stage when a celebrity judge slammed a beater into a giant Chinese gong. I’m not kidding.)

We have data! It will make your ROI go up! Gong!

Data are indeed the pillars of steel in the construction of truth, but you can build an abomination, or confuse steel for aluminum. Either way, it can be a disaster.

A Trip to the Market

The reliability and validity of data, and the conclusions derived from it, are on the verge of controlling differentiation in a $500 billion marketplace — media, globally. Now take a deep breath.  

You can buy segments (i.e., data) of the U.S. population by income or age, propensity to buy a Buick, ownership of a luxury car, viewership of almost any TV show, Chinese language skills, intent to buy video games, and on and on.

LiveRamp’s catalog, for example, specifies whether each dataset was observed, inferred, derived, or whatever.  

That’s the way it should be, but faced with those choices, how do you chose? Are brands equipped to choose, or will you now, confounded, leave those choices to your agency, or the IT department, or a data vendor?

Just remember: Bad data choices make media costs go up -- and yield, however you define it, go down.  

The art sits in the connection between known consumer attributes and the moment of receptivity. The brand manager may be the only person who can construct the right audience (for top or bottom of funnel) from the cornucopia of raw material now available.

Someone once said that engineers make something from something, but artists make something from nothing. Brands: You are the artists, you are starting from nothing, and data is your new palette.

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