Data risks going the way of ‘digital’ in becoming a meaningless buzzword. What we’re looking for is information and forgetting that in favour of data can leave marketers looking for tactics rather than creating strategy, argues UM London’s Adam Morton.

I was recently in a meeting where the word ‘data’ was thrown around like confetti. And it reminded me, unfortunately, of ten or so years ago where the same thing would happen with the word ‘digital’.

‘We need to reach digital consumers’, went one of the calls to arms. The fact that these people still were – and are – simply consumers was lost amid the cacophony.

In some instances, it seems ‘data’ has become an overused or catch-all term to cover a number of things simply because it’s en vogue. No longer do people research, comb statistics, study the evidence or find facts to gain greater understanding of their business or target audience – they mine data.

Shortcut terminology is a curse of the marketing profession. There are times when a blanket term could be viewed as a good thing for enabling people to easily grasp a concept, but not when it’s in place of specificity and identifying exactly what needs to be achieved.

Good marketers and planners have always used data in some form. And while there is an ever-increasing amount of data available that can lead to richer insights and precision targeting, it’s important to recognise it’s still a means to an end and doesn’t change the fundamentals of our industry.

A fixation with digital data can actually be dangerous. It can take us away from strategy towards tactics and undermine the importance of having both qualitative and quantitative research, allowing us to understand consumers beyond their online behaviour.

For marketing has always been about people. And an obsession with data can lead some to forget that we are dealing with real human beings, whose feelings and motivations drive the numbers.

A data expert is not necessarily an audience expert. The latter will not display the sort of data blindness that has seen platforms propose target audiences for a premium brand, the size of which is bigger than the total population! The defence will be: ‘it’s devices not people’, the sentiment of which I don’t really like (remember we’re in the people business) and even then the numbers don’t stack up. 

It could even create unhelpful biases, leading CMOs to write the briefs they think they should rather than those that reflect what is truly important to them. When a term reaches the vernacular to this extent, marketers might feel they have to put data first to seem as though they’re on the cutting edge. But a brief that demands a ‘data strategy’ as the primary consideration might not be the best fit for a brand with business objectives that might be better suited to focus on a big creative idea.

Again, it reminds me of years gone by, when a brand brief might focus on the importance of digital and omitted the retailer’s requirement for the brand to be on TV, which required 80% of the budget.

Data is not a panacea to every marketing ill and it doesn’t change the basics of good business behaviour.

Let’s be clear, I’m absolutely not anti-data. Far from it. But in order to get to more powerful insights that fuel better ideas and outcomes, you need to ask the right questions and ensure it’s gathered and interpreted correctly.

People-based data stacks that combine on- and offline information, which unite thousands of behavioural and attitudinal data points, help avoid many of the pitfalls highlighted above. They allow for great alignment of planning and buying audiences, negating the need for proxies. This is a welcome development, maximised when strategists, planners, analysts and programmatic specialists come together.

These kind of scrums are hugely important. Data empowers business strategy and helps brands to reach their overarching objectives, but it cannot exist in isolation. Brands and agencies alike should never forget that we are using data to understand real people, avoiding the types of statistical errors that are embarrassing for all involved.

Perhaps it might even be worth avoiding the term entirely for a while. Ensure that we maintain obsessed with people and our current or future customers. It would be, if nothing else, a breath of fresh air to have a few days go by without the word ‘data’ flying in from all angles.