Marketing Data & Privacy Future

Before the robots take over, prepare for a resurgence in ethnography and neuroscience

By Joel Coppersmith | Global Director of Measurement & Effectiveness



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May 9, 2023 | 7 min read

For The Drum’s deep dive into data, The New Data & Privacy Playbook, Joel Coppersmith of agency Assembly argues that a renaissance in ethnography and neuroscience is here (briefly, before the robots master them, too).

Sticker on lamppost: "the future is unwritten"

Is the future looking more and more holistic as technology evolves? / Max Bohme

“Troves of data gathered from consumers’ online behavior, allied to cheap storage and computing power, has led to a revolution in effectiveness and accountability. The C-suite reports growing confidence in the revenue impact from advertising, and the cost-efficiency of advertising has accelerated: less is being spent for much greater returns.”

That’s what a report on the data landscape of our dreams would say.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, advertising’s attempts to appear ‘scientific’ or ‘data-driven’ have too often been a case of a lot of effort for not very much. Too rarely has this attempt improved the quality and effectiveness (or, dare I say, enjoyment) of advertising. Much of the data gathered is of poor quality, misleading (deliberately or otherwise), or misused. As the old quote about the drunk and the lamppost has it, it’s given support rather than illumination.

We’re customer obsessed’

The data points that we assiduously gather from online interactions are often understood as proxies for human behavior, attitudes and intent. From these proxies, we build models; we make analyses. Much of this is funneled back into the machine to help improve the efficiency of our media planning and buying.

With this data (in aggregate form and often combined with a business’s own customer records) comes a host of consumer insights. Which is all very useful for... what exactly?

The thing is, when we’re looking at this type of data, we’re not watching people. We’re watching a very specific set of interactions, performed in a real-world context of which we’re mostly unaware. Like medieval scholars calculating the age of the earth based on the Bible rather than observing the natural world, we look at the data in our analytics and not at what’s around us.

Big data, little data (cardboard box)

We have a large amount of data from online interactions that can be useful for feeding bidding algorithms, and creating behavioral segments to feed bidding algorithms. Let’s call this type of data ‘YawnFuel’.

YawnFuel turns marketing meetings into the equivalent of sitting through Tron. It’s totally futuristic. It’s kinda cool. But it’s incredibly granular and tedious. There’s just no room for humans in this data-based hellscape.

Discussions of YawnFuel always seem to point toward some piece of tech intended to make advertising more efficient. And yet, somehow, between the tremendous cost of the tech (and people hired to manage it, and the time and attention from everyone else to make the tech deliver), it’s probably twice as costly and half as useful as just not bothering in at all.

The trombone connects to the brain bone

The associative network theory of memory formation suggests that memories are formed and reinforced through connecting nodes in the brain, with each node representing a concept or piece of information. Retrieval of memory occurs by activating the appropriate nodes and following the connections to the desired information.

Your brand imagery is a node. Feelings of hunger/thirst/hopelessness on my weekday evenings: also nodes. Getting your brand node to connect to my thirsty node is not merely the subject of advertising content that someone might be writing, it’s also how advertising creates and sustains the businesses that create and sustain the jobs that we all do including the ones that involve wallowing in YawnFuel.

My prediction: even as the AI revolution looms, we’ll see a resurgence in human-centered research involving real and actual humans. Ethnography. A nibble of neuroscience. A soupçon of semiotics. A pinch of psychology.

Why? Because the key to getting nodes to link up is understanding what people do, and under what circumstances they do those things. We can only answer those questions by asking others, like: ‘What do people notice?’ ‘What do people want, and how is that expressed in their behaviors?’ ‘What brings them into a category in the first place?’

Returning to the real world

The future probably involves most media (online and offline) being handled through automation, with algorithms and AI managing YawnFuel better than humans ever could, while marketers get back to gathering and interpreting actual human behavior in the wild.

This will be somewhat more interesting and useful and enjoyable for practitioners, and may even result in marginally better advertising (though most ads, if we notice them, will remain beige smears across our sensory landscape, just as they always have done).

So that’s the prediction: a renaissance in ethnography and resurgence in neuroscience, spurred by growing interest in the potential of human attention and the pressing need to find things clients are willing to pay for once their campaigns are managed by robots. This rebellion of human marketing passion will last until our AI overlords render us irrelevant in mid-2026.

To read more from The Drum’s latest Deep Dive, where we’ll be demystifying data & privacy for marketers in 2023, head over to our special hub.

Marketing Data & Privacy Future

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