There may at first glance be little in common between advertising and Formula One racing. However the two have some interesting parallels. Both have, in recent years, been revolutionised by technology. And both are facing the same soul searching over the impact this revolution has on the role of human skill.

David Coulthard is a legendary former Formula One racing driver, racing for Williams, McLaren and Red Bull Racing. He won 13 Grand Prix, finishing in the top three five times in the F1 world championship.

He certainly knows a thing or two about winning but he also knows an incredible amount about the power of data. This is because Formula One today is built on data, and the real time processing of this data, to gain competitive advantage.

This will sound awfully familiar to anyone that has witnessed the meteoric rise of programmatic advertising over the last few years. In fact, the evolution of the racing car itself has echoes of recent changes in the advertising industry.

Coulthard points out that racing when he first started was carried out on intuition and gut feel. The only tools open to him were the three buttons on the car’s steering wheel – kill, drink and accelerate.

A modern car has over 40 buttons that essentially let a driver self-engineer the car as they drive. Hundreds of sensors generate thousands of different data points on everything from tire pressure to fuel and car position. Over a race weekend, hundreds of gigabytes of data are generated by each car.

Then, as Coulthard says; “just like NASA”, all this data is transmitted in real time to the pit to be analysed by data engineers. It’s also sent via satellite live to the team’s factory where engineers work on analysing up to 13,000 parameters logged on the engine alone.

This real time data lets the engineers simulate hundreds of thousands of possible race outcomes, from the qualifying event on Saturday up to Sunday’s actual race.

The real key to success is then reacting to this data in real time during the race.
This ability to react in real time to real world conditions and context means Coulthard could perform as he would never have been able to dream of doing when he first appeared in Formula One in 1994.

The amount of data produced in an F1 race almost pales into insignificance when compared to the almost boundless array of data that advertisers can today access about the condition and context of their customers online. It is the intelligent analysis and application of this data that is starting to let advertisers feel the same transformative benefits as Formula One racing drivers.

Letting them start to perform as they would once have never believed possible.

As Coulthard points out, “Whether it’s Formula One or advertising, every product or service being provided is all about being first to market, best in class, with a sustainable success profile, and that’s about harnessing the right data.”

But what about the human cost of this data revolution? There have long been discussions in the ad industry over the role of human talent as advertising increasingly moves towards a programmatic future.

It’s clear though Coulthard certainly does not see the replacement of the critical human role in F1 disappearing any time soon. He believes it is only be marrying our human skills and knowledge with the power of real time data that the ultimate success can be achieved.

The most successful marketers will only win the race for their customers’ hearts and minds, a race just as fiercely competitive as Formula One, by following suit.

David Coulthard is the first interview in a series entitled Quantcast Sessions.