Big data should not just be a third-party addition to the planning process, says Ethel Sanchez of the University of the Philippines, but a tool that current and future planners should become familiar with, if they are to continue seeing and shaping the future.

Much has been said about the painful complexity big data brings into insighting, creativity and performance measurement. But I would say it is no different from any other marketing tool. It is what our minds make of it. Whether it ends up sharpening or dulling our strategic or creative sense is entirely up to us.

Data is fast becoming infinite. Soon the purist market researcher presenting a body of information in its entirety will cease to exist. Data will come in bits and pieces, forming the backbone to a narrative when building a case or furthering a presenter’s agenda.

Big data businesses will continue to make it all seem incomprehensible. They will continue to dangle tidbits of data for free, making marketers feel lucky to have a peek at what is “really” happening to their consumer, pressured to be smart by riding the trend, motivated to spend to keep an eye on the trend, only to end up mindlessly doing exactly what everyone else is doing. There is no surprise here. Everyone listens to the same sales pitch under the guise of industry trends sharing.

There will then be two kinds of marketers— those who listen and follow, and those who remain faithful to the marketing role of seeing and shaping the future.

The latter will refuse to be told what to do. The latter will choose to be on top of big data, will insist on good old strategic sense to lead data mining, and utilize creativity to find patterns in seemingly unrelated data points— the kind that ignites breakthrough insights and ideas; patterns that third party analysts will never spot on a marketer’s behalf. In the new era of big data, the latter will use strategy to fight through complexity and stay in the driver’s seat rather than the rear wheels of modern consumer insighting.

And though aware that there is a significant part of consumer behavior that machines can now measure better, faster and more precisely than even the most sophisticated conventional methods, the latter knows that machines and big data can never deliver solid consumer understanding on their own.

Another widely talked about angle on big data is the obsession with measurement that “kills” creativity. On the marketing side, obsession with measurement is a common result or indication of not being attuned to the consumer. Confidence is drawn conveniently from sheer numbers rather than mastery.

At its best, big data should complement and not substitute conventional methods of measuring performance. And with proper consumer understanding, numbers are not taken at face value but rather scrutinized, challenged, augmented and framed to have meaning and actionability.

On the creative side, seeing it as absolutely detrimental to creativity is often an unfortunate pushback on accountability. The promise of breakthrough learnings that only technology and big data can surface is shunned to protect creative freedom. This is highly counter-intuitive in a function that is, in principle, in the service of driving consumer relevance. 

At its best, measurement via big data should raise the bar in respect of delivering insight authenticity and creative relevance. It should be welcomed as a challenge to make creative output more faithful than ever to effecting real, measurable impact.

Being able to successfully navigate the era of big data takes keeping a firm grip on the fundamentals that we as marketers should be uncompromising about—consumer understanding, strategic thinking, creativity, and most importantly, thought-leadership.

There is no denying that big data brings a painful complexity into the things we do, but if it forces us to step up our game seriously, keeping our strategic minds on top and never at its mercy, then there is no sense in resisting, fearing or vilifying such a powerful tool that, will redefine the marketing game, whether we like it or not.