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More Data, More Problems? Why Data Isn’t Always the Answer

In the rush to analyze the numbers, there’s one essential question that we need to ask first, says Suzanne Michaels, EVP, creative innovation

Admit it, as an industry we’re obsessed with data and the insights they provide. But are we really gaining any understanding of our customers? It’s like we’re jonesing for a fix —or the fix —but don’t even know what the problem is. Suzanne Michaels, Leo Burnett’s EVP, creative innovation, heads to Detroit for the Ad Age Brand Summit on May 3 to look at the choices marketers face today and how strategic thinkers are reimagining the future. She’ll be part of a panel that asks, “Is Advertising Out of Touch With Mainstream America?”

While Suzanne will tackle that and many other questions, we caught up with her to ask five of our own.

Rishad Tobaccowalla has said: “I believe most people are at least 50% mysterious. It is impossible to get to know someone because they change.” Can brands truly get to know their customers in this hypertargeted age? And should they?
No amount of data will give you a total understanding of people. How could it? People are constantly evolving—impulsively moment to moment and gradually over time—habits, tastes, tolerances, desires. Our unpredictability is what makes us fascinating.

But marketers are businesspeople first. Of course they want to predict how people will respond to their brand.

Predictions used to come from seven prophets in a windowless room with a moderator and a bowl of M&Ms. Today, we have billions of bits of data—signals and trails that every one of us leaves behind as we move through the world. That data has become our focus group—massive, honest and real-time.

We still can’t claim to fully know people, but we can sense patterns and make predictions far better than we ever could before.

Is the industry as a whole over-reliant on data? How can we best show clients that we’re using the “right” data?
Marketers are at varying points along the “WTF Data” spectrum. Some are paralyzed by the volume and complexity of it all. Others are throwing data on everything like it’s road salt in a snowstorm.

In the rush to get data-smart fast, too many brands and agencies are asking, “What data do we have and how can we use it?” Instead, we should be asking, “What specific problem are we trying to solve?” That’s how you get to the “right” data.

Are brands still served with a “water-cooler” moment? How can they be most successful reaching a mass audience in today’s landscape?
Absolutely, you still want a water-cooler moment. When a brand can give people something so surprising or engaging that they want to heighten their enjoyment of it by bringing other people into it—amazing. It’s what we’re all after.

Of course, if you’re looking for mass reach, don’t hang all your hopes on organic sharing or “virality.” A smart media spend is still essential to being seen.

Is data helping – or hurting – creativity? Is there a way to think of the two as not being adversarial?
Being data-driven is not “data in; creative idea out.” It’s much more fluid than that.

To me, the convergence of data and creativity is a balance of IQ and EQ. Data is IQ. Creativity, wisdom, instinct—that’s EQ. Cultivate both sides and you’ll find yourself in a surprisingly human place.

Finish this thought: “At the end of the day, it’s not about technology, it’s …”
…About a glass of wine and my watchlist. We’re all human.

Suzanne Michaels is EVP, creative innovation, at Leo Burnett.