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The future of digital businesses isn’t data-driven: it’s data-led

By John Gillan, Managing director



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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November 7, 2019 | 6 min read

The familiar narrative of organisations becoming data-driven is on its way out. For the last decade, marketers have accepted the established wisdom that modern businesses need to evolve to incorporate advances in digital technology and offer services that are closely tailored to individual customers. The way to do this, we were told, was to become a data-driven business. This entailed having a culture that used data to enhance processes and decision making.


Criteo share their thoughts on data-led processes and how they will allow businesses to maximise on profits.

But according to NewVantage Partners, only 28% of C-level executives feel their organisation has forged this so-called ‘data culture’. It seems that despite their best intentions, many organisations are still struggling to become the ‘data driven’ organisations they believe they need to be.

We believe this is largely because being data-driven isn’t the right objective at all. In fact, it may even be a counter-intuitive one.

Here’s why. The data-driven approach usually involves utilising the data insights from AI and analytics technologies to inform human decision-making, but not trusting the technology to make decisions itself. Instead of leaving the technology to do its thing, even highly sophisticated digital businesses still think they require a human decisionmaker to at the very least check off many of the decisions and creative processes made.

Considering how large the volumes of data are becoming, and how crucial it is to be able to customise products, services and marketing techniques at scale, it’s no wonder that this is thinking is proving a challenge. If businesses continue to let human judgement act as a bottleneck for data-powered decision-making, progress will become impossible. Being data-driven in this way is impossible.

In the future, successful digital businesses will have to take a different approach. As technology progresses and competition intensifies, they must become data-led. They need to move from being pushed by data into being pulled by it. Businesses should develop their digital technology and processes to a stage where they can take a leap of faith and rely on that technology to make decisions.

This is not an easy thing to do. There are biases inherent in AI – which are often linked to those of the humans who have designed it. And of course, the quality of AI decision-making depends on the quality of information put into it. This is really where the human decision makers can prove their value. Rather than being responsible for checking off the final decisions and creative processes, humans can monitor results and patterns, tweaking algorithms as the need arises, rather than acting as bottlenecks who could hold the technology (and the business) back.

Initiating the conversation

A truly data-led business needs to use AI effectively to develop a 1:1 conversation with consumers. This means incorporating first- and third-party data to help understand the unique needs of its customers and connect with them in the right way, at the right time.

In marketing, for example, a truly sophisticated algorithm might work out that one individual is more receptive to a native ad at 8:30 am scrolling through the news with their coffee, than scanning the headlines at 11 at night.

To do this effectively, it will also become increasingly vital to have AI that can understand where it is placing ads – analysing the full context and setup of a webpage, interpreting text, audio and video in combination to understand exactly what’s the most relevant advertising content to serve. With this level of data-led insight, decisions can take place without human intervention.

Independent AdTech is in the perfect position to help brands, advertisers, publishers and agencies create these kinds of unique, personalised interactions. As the engine for these kinds of experiences shifts from human oversight to automated, large-scale smart technology, businesses are increasingly bringing their marketing and advertising capabilities back in-house or opting for a hybrid in-housing model, with 92% of chief marketing officers planning to sustain or expand their internal digital and programmatic advertising capabilities.

AdTech partners will be vital to help all stakeholders deliver unique experiences for consumers at scale. Independent companies like Criteo will be key for brands that are seeking a greater understanding of their consumers whilst driving improved efficiency, transparency and control over their marketing campaigns. This need will continue to fuel the trend for brands to move more of their marketing activities in-house either fully or via a hybrid approach so that they own more of the strategy, data, technology and execution and in turn can adopt a more data led approach to marketing. It’s imperative that we, as advertising platform providers, enable a greater understanding of consumer behaviour so that large and small advertisers, retailers and publishers co-exist.

The data-led imperative is not limited to marketing alone. Across all sectors, customers increasingly expect unique experiences – from personalised customer service that anticipates users’ needs to tailored financial and investment advice for every individual. The businesses that will adapt and survive will be those who follow an increasingly data-led strategy.

The future of digital business will involve moving from data-driven initiatives to data-led processes. This will allow businesses to capitalise on the opportunity to move from marketing communications to digital conversations. Only by becoming fully data-led, can digital businesses harness optimal value from their data, and retain market share.

John Gillan, managing director, Northern Europe at Criteo.


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