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Why Big Data Marketing Can’t Do It All

2013 March 13
Leo_Burnett

Insight used to be considered a personal quality and one that was essential to be a successful marketer.  While other corporate functions, such as finance and logistics, were driven by cold, rational calculation, marketers were supposed to thrive at the human side of business.

Nowadays, when we refer to insight, we often mean the work product of algorithms, analysts and maybe a mathematician or two.  As Forbes previously reported, by 2017, CMO’s will outspend CIO’s on information technology.

However, for all of the wondrous possibilities of big data, there are still some things that it will never do.  Computers, after all, are not people, much less consumers.  While they can help execute plans, they cannot form our intent.  Ironically, as marketing becomes more automated, true competitive advantage is even more inextricably tied to the human spirit.

The Simulation Economy

It used to be that great marketing campaigns began in the mind of their creator. Marketing geniuses like Leo Burnett, Bill Bernbach and David Ogilvy would come up with a big idea and utilize mass media to broadcast it to millions.  If all went well, product would fly off the shelves and that’s how the great brands of the 20th century were built.

These days, a campaign is just as likely to start with an algorithm as an idea.  Computers can run through billions of data points, find relationships between them and point to opportunities to increase effectiveness.  These insights are then A/B tested in real time and only the most successful options are run at scale.

In the real world, this would be a pretty stupid way to do things.  However, much of modern marketing is not done in the real world, but in a simulated market where the costs of failure are negligible.  In the virtual world, not only is failure fast and cheap, budgets are unlimited.

Creating Efficiency and Creating Value

An oft-repeated adage in marketing is that “I know I waste half of my advertising money, I just don’t know which half!”  While this wasn’t strictly true (we’ve known for a long time that most of the wastage goes to excess frequency), it did reflect a widely felt frustration – we were spending more money than we needed to.

Marketing automation is quickly solving that problem.  We are learning to target our brand messages more effectively and then retarget offers based on observed behavior.  The gains in efficiency are real, substantial and impressive.  They are also, from a competitive standpoint, of questionable value.

Any reasonably perceptive observer of the marketing scene over the past decade will have noticed that almost as soon as any particular organization gets its hands on what they think will be a technological game changer, they soon find that they have merely achieved entry into a new industry standard.  Any competitive advantage is fleeting at best.

On the other hand, successful marketers have found that marketing superiority is no longer achieved through brand messages, but through brand experiences in which they create value that transcends mere product attributes.

Of course, parts of these initiatives will be A/B tested and simulated by algorithms to be made more efficient.  However, their fundamental value lies in the human intent of the enterprise, not the efficiency of their execution.

Forming Intent

There is probably no more significant (and scary!) development than the introduction of machines into the creative realm.  Virtually every area of culture – the music we listen to, the movies we watch and the things we read – is now intermediated by algorithms.  In some cases, music, books and articles are created with little or no human involvement.

However, even these advanced technologies cannot form human intent.  They are, in fact, a mere extension of our will.  We have long used CAD software to design products and Excel spreadsheets to design business models, are these new creative technologies really that different?  I don’t see how.

Moreover, platforms like Music X-Ray that evaluate new songs and Epagogix that evaluate screenplays are not, in style or substance, really all that different than the human driven formulas that have driven those industries for decades.  They are essentially templates for looking backwards and tend to fail when it comes to breaking new ground.

These technologies are painful reminders that true human originality is rare and that much of our so-called creative product is, in actuality, quite pedestrian.

The Role of Experience

What makes these new technologies unsettling is that they replace human activity.  We go to great effort to learn how to read and calculate in grade school and then invest even more time and effort to learn professional skills, from evaluating market research to judging the success of a campaign.

Now computers are replicating those experiences.  Artificial intelligence platforms are also learning platforms.  Although many are loaded with basic heuristics for pattern recognition, their true power comes from their ability to improve as more data is passed through them.

While it may take a human years to accumulate these experiences, a computer can simulate millions of them in seconds.  Much like John Henry, in the race against the machines, we don’t have a chance.

However, there are other experiences machines will never have.  They don’t strike out in little league, have their heart broken, see their children born or know many of the joys and sorrows that make life worth living.  It is these fears and desires that form unique human intent and drive truly inspired marketing.

Uploading Our Brains to the Cloud While Leaving Our Hearts on The Ground

Throughout human history we’ve used technology to augment human capability.  Writing enhanced human memory so that thoughts could span millennia, calculating machines from the abacus to supercomputers have augmented our relatively feeble powers of calculation.

The essential human role, to this point, has been to recognize patterns, but now machines are learning to do that too.  In his new book, How to Create a Mind, technologist Ray Kurzweil estimates that a human mind can recognize 100,000 patterns.  In the decades to come, we will upload a large number of them to the cloud, just as we have other faculties.

That will free our energies to create new ones.  Great marketers like Apple, Nike and Procter & Gamble succeed not because they are merely more efficient (although they excel at that too), but because they are able to imagine new human needs and fill them.

The future of marketing then, resides not in the power of our technology, but in the spirit of our human intent.

- Greg

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Kuldip Singh permalink
    March 13, 2013

    In one of your posts, you stated that big data is all about understanding.

    Data? What is it good for? Absolutely … something — Tech News and Analysis
    http://gigaom.com/2013/03/05/data-what-is-it-good-for-absolutely-something/

    This post validates your contention.

    Intent is often overlooked.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks for sharing it Kuldip!

    - Greg

    [Reply]

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