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  • Writer's pictureBloom North

Why we should all embrace a data diet

Lisa Thompson is Planning Director at Wavemaker North. She is currently participating in the 2019 IPA Excellence Diploma and was asked to produce an opinion piece that would be relevant to the industry.

As part of the Diploma, she received training with The Drum’s editorial team to help develop the skill of effective writing. The Drum then selected the best articles to publish. Lisa's article was selected and published in January 2020 and it's clear why! A brilliant and thought-provoking read:

Picture the scene. Saturday Night. 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?

Then last week, Kantar released research asserting that marketeers are drowning in data.

47% of marketeers aren’t 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.

For me, this oxymoron is surprising. How can we be drowning in data but still want more? My diagnosis is that we have a data-based addiction, and it is one that requires action. I believe we need 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, marketeers 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 InfoObesity, arguing we are “gorging on an inconsumable amount of data that is not just unwieldly 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 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 been driven by short-termism and a preference on data driven creativity. We’re all obsessed with data.

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.

Laura Carstensen, Professor in Public Policy at Stanford University tells us “humans are wired to live in the present, not plan for the future”.

But creating these dashboards encourages us to focus on the present. We’re feeding our own bad habits.

You could argue the solutions are better tools to help us, upskilling 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 1000’s 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 7 chunks of information. An example; we struggle to remember a phone number if it is over 7 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 marketeers 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?

For that reason, it’s time to start our data diet.

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.

I am not some diet dictator; therefore, I propose as an industry we 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. Next time I am watching Match of the Day instead of scoffing, I will remember that like a football pundit, I am both a marketeer 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.

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