Highly digitally-connected media planners are bringing their own biases to the interpretation of campaign data, argues Hannah Gillett, Strategy Director at Spark Foundry.

At its core, communications planning is all about understanding other people – who they are, what they do and how they feel. A clear understanding of how other people tick is crucial to knowing what messages and communications channels will perform best, and the advertising industry has always prided itself on the ability to get under the skin of different groups of people.

Nowadays, the sheer volume of data available to us means we have more information than ever before to help us make these decisions. Easy, right? Wrong. To be truly effective, our decisions need to be based on a completely impartial analysis of the data sources available to us. We must somehow exclude our own opinions and beliefs, built up over years of personal experiences and hidden in the depths of our minds.

But, as humans, do we ever really make completely unbiased decisions? Can we ever truly put ourselves in someone else’s shoes?

The human brain is a complicated machine with a whole host of hidden biases built up over years of personal experiences and encounters. A quick look on Wikipedia reveals nearly 200 different types of bias all classed under one heading: cognitive biases.

Confirmation bias, for example, leads us to look for data patterns that prove a hypothesis or support an existing belief. It exists in the smallest decisions like choosing your energy provider, right up to global data analysis, like the polling results in the 2016 US presidential election. Familiarity bias, meanwhile, means that the things that are familiar to us hold greater weight in our minds.

In the context of media planning, these can have huge implications. If we have a hunch that a specific channel is right for an audience, we are bound to place more weight on the data that supports that belief. The media platforms we consume ourselves will inevitably feel like the strongest channels, simply because these are the ones we have the most exposure to.

Ensuring media plans are not skewed by biases

Recent pieces of industry research from Reach Solutions have looked at exactly this issue. ‘Why we shouldn’t trust our gut instinct’ examines how the attitudes of people in adland are vastly different from mainstream audiences, and how this influences our perceptions of other people.

When media agency interviewees were asked to plot the values of a modern mainstream audience, they placed a far greater importance on their own personal values with the gap reaching up to 40% in some cases. A follow up piece this year called ‘The Empathy Delusion’ showed how the moral institutions of media agency employees are actually driving a wedge between us and the mainstream audiences we wish to engage.

The ‘Re-evaluating Media’ study run by Ebiquity and Radiocentre highlighted a huge gap between what advertising professionals believe, and what industry research proves are the strongest channels for a given communications objective. Across the board, the impact of digital is widely overestimated and more traditional channels very much underestimated, with the exception of TV.

It’s easy to see how a London based advertising community, which is highly digitally connected and constantly reading news reports on the latest tech disruptors, would over-estimate the effectiveness of digital channels.

Despite an increase in agency tools and digital capabilities, there is still have huge amount of human interpretation required when analysing the data and making media decisions. There is no easy way to avoid these biases in our assessment of channels, (at least, until the robots take over…) but we need be more transparent about the fact that they do exist.

There needs to be an open discussion about how to tackle them, rather than trying to cover them up for fear of clients finding out that we are, in fact, human after all. Studies like the ones from Reach and Ebiquity are important, but don’t give us clear action points on how to try and reduce the impacts of these biases.

Diversity in the workplace is one important factor that will help to tackle this problem. By expanding the cultural experiences and media consumption within our workforce, we will ultimately have a more balanced view of the media we recommend to clients.

There has been progress in this area with unconscious bias training for agency recruiters, more clarity on the gender pay gap, and more transparency on BAME representation within agencies. Similar to the unconscious bias training provided for recruitment purposes, the same rigour needs to be applied to our media channel selection processes and creative development.

Open discussions should be the first step, but we should also be looking to create training programs to help us better understand our own biases. Better channel selection and truer insights will only lead to more effective campaigns for clients and better industry practice.