People first, not advertising: Collecting data without bamboozling customers

Tash Whitmey is group CEO of Havas helia, and is obsessed with the power of data in creating human insights.

So much heat and yet so little light has been generated in the seemingly endless series of talking shops and theoretical thought pieces on data, which have dominated conversations about its place in the future of advertising. I’m not planning to add to the melee.

As an observation, it’s perverse that those same tech companies that claim to be able to simplify and solve the conundrum of what has now gained the inelegant and overused buzzword ‘big data’ have largely generated this overwhelming noise and confusion.

But then it’s in their interests to make a pseudo-science – and therefore a business – out of something that direct agencies have been understanding and implementing for years.

The interpretation of customer level data to understand consumer behaviour, drive engagement and increase sales is something that we’ve always done. And in the best instances we’ve done it without the consumer necessarily actually realising it, by successfully fusing data, insight and creativity in a relevant and appropriate and unobtrusive way.

Those endless platform debates and conferences, with the industry talking to itself, suggests not just a chronic degree of navel-gazing but also perhaps a wobble of confidence from companies bewildered by how data can be used. Dispelling the myths and showing that data – big, small or otherwise – is nothing to be frightened of was one of the key objectives of our recent fiel

d.work event.

With so much internal focus, it’s easy to forget that in the real world customers don’t really care that much about the industry’s attempts to identify them better or how brands can better join up touchpoint and communication across multiple channels. They just want information that is relevant to them, has utility or is entertaining – or preferably all three. And they also don’t want to see their data abused.

In order to remind ourselves of how best to achieve this, we need to cut down on the endless chatter and theorising over data application, which is often solely if implicitly based on what’s good for the company or brand, and start right at the beginning. It’s not the data that’s significant – it’s the customer, just as it always has been.

A customer-first view will require a return to the founding principles of direct marketing but also a realignment of how we capture store and govern the data, and most fundamentally of all – how we look at it. Key to this is remembering to quantify the value it has.

Too often collection is by sleight of hand, with little transparency and no clear value exchange. It’s little wonder then that consumers are more concerned about data infringement – even though data collection has been going on for decades – if they see little benefit for them.

With people generating more and more personal data in an increasingly digitised world through wearable technology, the connected home and the internet of things, there is undoubtedly a massive amount of learning, policy setting and governance needed to protect it. This data is richer than that which went before but the industry is not taking seriously the need for ethics, governance, and security.

It’s important to remember that, as in the past, people won’t mind sharing their data if they know that what they will receive in return will have value to them. So the industry (or the more progressive companies within it) needs to be more open and start to create a transparent 'open' dialogue with people where a simple equation of collaboration takes place.

Those businesses that take seriously that information and data that people generate, and forge it with their own resources in product development and research in order to bring value to their lives, will win. And win in a transparent and meaningful way.

Tash Whitmey is Group CEO of Havas helia

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