Personalisation has become something of an axiom in marketing’s recent history, suggests UM London’s Adam Morton; the balance between persuasion and precision needs restoring.

Consumer data is once again back in the headlines, courtesy of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal and the imminent arrival of GDPR. A lot of CMOs and marketing teams are scrambling to determine what impact these regulatory and perceptual changes will have on their beloved data.

And make no mistake, it is beloved. For some time now, data has been the pre-eminent sermon in the church of marketing services. It has, goes the cry, allowed us to personalise and target our communications to an unprecedented level. Data has enabled marketing to reach bold new heights, so we need to find a way to continue utilising that information, even in the wake of these recent data breaches and new legislation.

But now, surely, the whole premise of that argument is shifting. We’re starting to understand that, outside of the marketing bubble, in many instances the value equation we’d thought that consumers were willing participants in might not actually be the case.

In short, the industry convinced itself people were happy to exchange their data for a whole host of services and unique experiences. When in fact many didn’t understand what they were sharing – and now they do know, they aren’t happy, and some aren’t prepared to continue.

For the last few years the industry mantra has been consumers want personalised experiences based on their individual need(s). In some cases yes that’s true, and we’ve seen this approach deliver great returns in many instances. But equally there are occasions where consumers don’t want to be targeted in this manner, and when trust in brands is increasingly reported to be at an all-time low it can lead to long-term rejection. It’s become increasingly evident that we’re walking a personalisation tightrope.

The fact is that an over-reliance on (and frankly, addiction to) data forms part of a wider state of what could be termed marketing paralysis. A situation where marketers are aware of the problems, but somewhat powerless to do anything about it.

Over the last few years, there has been growing evidence on the dangers of short-termism and over-focusing on ROI. Almost two years ago the IPA’s Marketing Effectiveness in the Digital Era study reaffirmed this argument, while as its chair Sarah Golding put it at EffWeek 2017, “As an industry, we are choosing to be less effective than we know we can be”.

Yet has the industry reacted accordingly? Some have argued that as our industry has become more data-driven it’s reduced bravery and bred conservatism. And a focus on tactical innovation has been at the detriment to the big, media-neutral creative ideas that can bring about a major cultural effect. But many marketers’ behaviour remains unchanged.

The question now is if the Cambridge Analytica scandal and GDPR will combine with these other challenges to lead to a full awakening and a notable shift in the way we market to consumers. Or will the immediate business pressures, individuals’ own targets and a reluctance to admit that the previous course needs correcting maintain our slumber?

We need to readjust and get the balance between persuasion and precision marketing right.

And no, that doesn’t mean we ignore data completely. While it may not be the panacea some thought it was, the main issue here is with the workmen and not the tools. Used correctly, data is still an incredibly important and versatile weapon in our armoury.

But when we do employ it, perhaps we’d be better off doing so in service to the creativity our clients are actually buying from us in the first place. Using it to better craft our work around emotion, persuasion and big ideas that enter the public consciousness.

GDPR and the fallout from Cambridge Analytica are not the threat that many claim, but an opportunity to take marketing back to the basics. By forcing marketers to think outside their ‘data-first’ box, it could see them instead put consumers first and focus more attention on the big ideas that will engage and inspire them. This is a chance for our industry to get back to making brands better.