2017: The Year of Data Illusion and Reality

By Imran Ismail 

Imran Ismail,Senior Partner, Director Business Science and Analytics, MediaCom USA

As we watch the sun set on yet another year, one word seems to be on everyone’s lips: Data. The craze, feels a little bit like the first internet bubble, with companies scrambling to buy each other’s data off the market and out of the hands of competitors.

The question is, “then what?” The only way to safely navigate the new year is to accept a fundamental truth: Data is only the beginning, not the end.

Complexity doesn’t yield truth or insight.

With data pumping from every channel, the biggest issue in 2017 will be how to keep the inevitable complexity at bay. This is going to be difficult, as the reflexive response is usually to try to make the complicated look and feel simpler. Data visualization, for example, has taken off; and then there’s the old standby: Dashboards.

The challenge is that dashboards provide little more than a fleeting sense of comfort … and perhaps the illusion of accountability. I’m not saying that dashboards (and the data they house) are no longer relevant, but the industry has sold these beauties as crucial instruments that help measure advertising effectiveness and capture changes in consumer decision-making processes, when in fact the data bits they display are irrelevant almost as quickly as they can be posted. We mustn’t devalue dashboards altogether. But analyzing only a handful of metrics, which is what dashboards do, is like attempting to describe a room inch by inch and hoping the audience knows what the room looks like when you’re done.

A KPI to rule them all? Or a tapestry?

So, what does this mean? Do we just take our ever-increasing computing power and run analysis after analysis, hoping to find the one gold nugget that will be our beacon of truth?

A lot of small data vendors think so. A quick survey of available offerings yielded the following sales pitch: “Give us your entire media plan and we’ll optimize your media on the one KPI that we know provides the value you’re looking for.”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. No single type or handful of accessible information may be truly worthy of KPI status. After all, how do we know what we don’t know? Are we sure the gold nugget is even in the data we are sifting through? And what about multiple gold nuggets? What if one or more of them are in a walled garden?

This diving-into-the-weeds method of data acquisition leads to analysis paralysis, and misses the forest for the trees. The larger strategic challenge is that—even though multiple things can now be counted—not all things are worth being counted. Additionally, just because we can now count things that we previously uncountable doesn’t mean that human beings make purchase or brand-acquisition decisions any differently today than they did before the advent of big data.

Instead of painting a picture of the room from the bottom up, perhaps we start looking at things from the top down. Maybe we need to weave all data points together into what will ultimately be a tapestry of advertising effectiveness … with a hole here and there until we have everything we need.

Now what?

It’s a fact that a great data infrastructure (or marketing plan) relies on systems thinking, or the belief that everything is connected. This means that nobody’s got it sewn up, because the nirvana of being able to capture every consumer consideration and action everywhere all the time in one cohesive way doesn’t really exist. Yet. But, using a systems thinking approach is a great start. Don’t just focus on the data you do have; focus on what you don’t have. Working toward a holistic view will require nothing short of a fundamental shift in how we think about data and the role that it should play. There’s still far more work to be done if data (and the volume of data points) is ever going to provide a true sense of transparency. But, the heavy lifting has begun across suppliers, channels, publishers and partners. And for most of us, 2017 is a good place to start.

Think about the meaningful metrics that appeared in the past and focus on iterating them. Understand that they are useful, but they’re only pieces of a much larger puzzle. The excitement in the coming year will come from real breakthroughs that enable us to extract intelligence from the 24/7 life of the body politic, including every messy impression and action out there. The fact that we’re having this conversation—that we know what we have, as well as what’s missing—theoretically means that what we need and want can happen. Spend less time in 2017 on this metric or that new measurement, and more time demanding your internal and external resources help you get closer to a true systems view of your business. Doing so in the coming year will be time well spent, particularly because shouting about big-, small- and whatever-sized data voices are likely to be louder and more anarchic than ever.

Imran Ismail is Senior Partner, Director Business Science and Analytics, MediaCom USA