Big Data is Not Enough

By Mike Drexler

There’s a big, gaping hole in the way we look at marketing and media. Not only throughout the years before the Internet came along, but even today with all the technological advances and access to big data we still are missing lots of answers. Just big data is not the answer. It really depends on what you do with it. And what you must do with it is provide deeper insights before the marketing process begins.

What I mean is this: we have been very good at looking at data and trying to interpret how it should be used. What is the best way to take the information and apply it to strategies and tactics that will accomplish specific marketing goals? What we are really good at is describing what occurs, or has occurred, and using it to predict what might occur in the future. But here’s the rub. Description is not explanation. What we continue to lack is why something happened. The “WHY” behind the action.

I recently sat down to breakfast with Michael Donahue, Executive Vice-President of The American Association of Advertising Agencies, and he told me about a book entitled “ START WITH WHY” written by Simon Sinek. I have not yet read the book, so I can’t be accused of any plagiarism here. But I was intrigued by the thought and have been thinking about ‘WHY” has been bereft of explanation for so long.

One reason is that we always try to look for precision. Most researchers seek that but it never goes far enough because arguments against it always raise doubt; we can’t use something unless it is proven, without a doubt, that it will always provide exactly the right answer. I’ve spent a lifetime in the advertising business attempting scientific reasoning coupled with creativity to find the perfect answers. But certainty is almost always out of the question as long as an emotional connection (we sometimes call it engagement) is a necessary requirement of marketing.

Other reasons are cost or time. Answers to “WHY” do not come easily. Or inexpensively. And sometimes they can’t even be explained cohesively because sometimes it’s also about feelings. I’m not a researcher but I do know that every time someone comes up with a way of trying to discover “WHY”, particularly through some sort of psychological testing or focus groups or questionnaires (online today), etc. the response often seems to be that people don’t always do what they say (which is probably true). Even attempts to measure brain wave activity through an emotional reaction to stimuli in an ad or commercial doesn’t necessarily tell us “WHY” and it’s not applicable to every situation in every product category all the time. Moreover, it does not always provide a definitive correlation between what happens in the brain and what people actually do on their feet. Sometimes it just comes from the heart because people just trust the product or the company for what they do differently. If companies resort primarily to price and promotion to compete with similar products or services it won’t build a lasting, profitable foundation.

Many attempts have been made over the years to get at the “WHY”. And we will continue to do so. But when we think about the high cost of marketing today and the short term thinking required to produce more immediate ROI we better get some answers about “WHY” or the foundation that many products and services build on will erode and it will take even more money to get out of the hole.