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Why we should all embrace a data diet

By Lisa Thompson

January 8, 2020 | 7 min read

Picture the scene. It's Saturday night and Match of the Day is on the TV. During analysis of Chelsea vs. Wolves, a stat pops on screen. Tammy Abraham is the first player to score a hat-trick and an own goal in the same match. The stats didn’t stop, post-match analysis was full of conversion percentages, player data and number-based facts. Some were useful, some ludicrous. We discussed the absurdity that every single stat is deemed important. We scoffed at these football pundits. They clearly don’t know how to use data, surely as marketing professionals we would never do that, or would we?


Why we should all embrace a data diet

Not that long ago, Kantar released research asserting that marketers are drowning in data; 47% of marketers are not confident in their ability to integrate multiple data sources and create meaningful insights, but despite this only 10% of those questioned believed they have all the data they need.

The data gluttony

How can we be drowning in data but still want more? We appear to have a data-based addiction, and it is one that requires action. Time to go on a data diet.

Now don’t get me wrong I bloody love data, but I believe we are overdoing it. Like the Match of the Day pundits, marketers are generally too obsessed with stats, and it is making us less effective.

I am not alone in the belief. Debra Bass, global vice-president at J&J coined the term 'Info Obesity', arguing we are “gorging on an in-consumable amount of data that is not just unwieldy but can become dysfunctional”.

And there’s real evidence to say our work is becoming dysfunctional.

In his report, The Crisis in Creative Effectiveness, Peter Field - Honorary Fellow of the IPA- found that, “creatively awarded campaigns are now less effective than they have ever been in the entire 24-year run of data and are now no more effective than non-awarded campaigns”.

If this is true, this means the best of the best is no better than a standard campaign. We are being driven by short-termism and our preference for data-driven creativity. We now have access to ‘always on’ brand trackers that can be accessed at the click of a dashboard.

I’m sure I’m not alone in the feeling of panic when a dashboard isn’t showing instantly strong results for a brand. We know that branding campaigns are like porridge, they are slow-release energy that takes time for you to feel the benefit. But we’re all swayed by these instant results, ripping up the campaign and making immediate changes, looking for a short-term fix to makes us feel better.

Why are we doing this?

We just can’t help ourselves, we love this data flavoured sugar fix.

You could argue the solutions are better tools to help us, up-skilling staff in how to read data, and publishing reports on how we need to change our short-term ways. However, this is a short-term fix. We read, watch, listen and vow to act but we forget it all once in the office when a dashboard comes calling.

In mulling over this solution, I realised the human brain isn’t designed to be able to take on and remember loads of data, no matter how much we train it to. In 1000s of years the brain hasn’t changed. Author of Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari acknowledges that the “human brain is not a good storage device for empire-sized databases.”

Cognitive psychology has demonstrated that our working memory can only remember a ballpark of seven chunks of information. An example: we struggle to remember a phone number if it is over seven numbers. Therefore, how can we be expected to remember multiple complex data sets? And it’s not just that, as well as a memory that isn’t great with data, our brains are very easily distracted.

As marketers we are just human beings, but we treat ourselves like computers. If our brain can’t handle too much data, and we’re easily distracted, why do we continue to over-stuff it?

Now we are not talking about a crash diet where we just eradicate data. Cutting out carbs isn’t good for you so cutting out data certainly isn’t. This diet is more of a long-term sustainable lifestyle change, and just like we teach ourselves good food and exercise habits, it’s time we start creating better data habits.

So, what does a data diet look like?

We lock down certain data sets, so we can only access them at certain points of the year. We remove the temptation to be short-term.

We pledge to agree on only important metrics. As many a fitness Instagrammer will tell you stepping on the scales is misleading, so, therefore, we don’t mislead, we only share metrics that count. We set up reports that are only allowed to show data that everyone has agreed is the most important for that specific goal.

Like any strong health-regime, variety is crucial. If data is our endurance exercise, we commit to 30% of our time on analysis that doesn’t involve numbers, where we go out and watch people. A strategic version of low-intensity yoga if you will. Like yoga, it will calm us and remind us that we are not just dealing in numbers but in humans.

And like any good personal trainer, we’re not too hard on ourselves, we accept that there may be relapses. However, we pledge as organisations to have our own internal version of Slimming World where we get together and understand what’s working and what isn’t. It takes time to create a healthy habit.

As an industry, we need to collaborate on creating the most sustainable approach for data consumption. But it’s vital that we never forget - we are just ordinary humans who get distracted, struggle with too much data and are prone to living in the moment.

So, next time when I am watching Match of the Day, instead of scoffing, I will remember that like a football pundit, I am both a marketer and a human being who is likely to get carried away with data. I will remember that for the health of the industry I must continue to preach the health benefits of a data diet.

Lisa Thompson is planning director at Wavemaker North.

This piece is one of a series generated as part of the IPA Excellence Diploma course for 2019. The course was supported by The Drum's editorial team to help develop the writing skills of the students taking part to help them learn to pitch and write effectively for an audience of their peers.


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