Being Sensible About Big Data


(By Bob McCurdy) We were visiting an agency earlier this week and the subject of big data and its role in the election came up. We mentioned we’d heard a TV pundit state that, based on the results and how wrong big data got it, that it was “dead.” The agency suggested that it surely wasn’t but that it might be somewhat “wounded.”

Big data was front and center in this election largely due to the positive role it played in the previous two. But based upon election “autopsies” conducted by the media last week, the consensus seems to be that the media, as well as some of those involved in the election, might have been overly reliant upon it.

This discussion brought to mind an article that appeared several months back in a WARC blog in which big data’s role in advertising was one of the subjects vetted. The essay highlighted in the blog was titled, “How Should Marketing Adapt to the Era of Personalization?”

Oliver Feldwick, the author and Head of Digital Strategy at CHI & Partners was quoted saying, “The promise [of personalization] is still a long way away from the reality.” He went on to note that consumers are not nearly as excited about this personalization trend as marketers. The reason? Many of us have had questionable “personalized” experiences, ranging from being stalked by ads for products we’ve already purchased or no longer have an interest in, to intrusive and downright creepy targeting.

Feldwick continued, “In the rampant march towards marketing automation, big data, and personalization, we have lost some intuitive understanding of what consumers actually want out of all this. The best examples of personalization marry human insight and oversight, with the power of data and algorithms.”

The operative words in the preceding paragraph are “intuitive” and “human insight.”

Marketers and others who look to influence us should not lose sight of the fact that we are “intuitive, feeling machines” who “think,” and that it’s not unusual for us to not know what we “think” about a situation, product, or person until we know how we “feel” about it or them. We just might be a bit more “analog” than some of the big data zealots choose to either recognize or believe.

When it comes to the marketing success, the bottom line is that consumers typically buy emotionally and justify with logic, and big data, in spite of its considerable prowess, can’t always accurately decipher what’s going on inside their heads.

A balanced approach is typically the best approach. This applies to media plans, diets, and, apparently, political campaigns. Research has consistently shown the most effective media plan to be a balance between:

– Broad reach and targeting.

– Science and intuition/gut.

– Traditional and digital media.

We need to look no further than the 2016 Advertising Research Study to substantiate this last point. The ARF had Marketing Evolution econometrically evaluate $100 billion dollars of ad campaigns that spanned a five-year period and concluded that the ideal traditional/digital media mix for campaigns targeting Millennials was 70% traditional and 30% digital, and 80% traditional and 20% digital for all others.

So while it’s still cool to worship at the altar of big data, we should try to keep the genuflection to a minimum, recognizing that radio and the other media assets that we offer – onsite, online and on-demand – can play an extremely important role in any balanced media plan.


  1. Why would a radio advertising salesperson make any claims about the effectiveness of internet advertising? The jury is out on whether it has any effective ROI, the way it’s being used as a brand reinforcer. The majority of radio salespeople still don’t understand how radio works, much less on-line advertising.

  2. People, including radio’s ownership and management, tend to accept “research” as a holy grail that is to be embraced and believed – without question.
    We, like others, accepted the responses of those being questioned as accurate – and therefore, useful.
    I am immediately reminded of the radio fiasco that was generated decades ago – and that lasts to this day.
    This is about when the “research” came back that declared: “Radio listeners wanted less jocks – and more rock”!
    Ownership disregarded their tenuous intuitions that radio was, primarily, a “Personality medium” and not a “Music medium”.
    The modern result of all that includes radio’s struggles to maintain any credibility at all. This, while radio is still in a position to dominate. But now, that is just a vague potential.

  3. I have to say that I really don’t like my computer throwing flights to Philadelphia ads at me for two weeks after I research prices on flights to Philadelphia. I purposely do not consider any of them. I own the computer-it doesn’t own me.

  4. Bob rightly illuminates the gross mistakes of election polling with overpaid pundits all calling this past election wrong….then goes right back and makes a comment like “research has consistently shown the most effective media plan to be….”

    Bob- the “research” is being done by the same people who predicted the election-wrong.


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