Big data’s big problem

ib2Ok77bigdc03oNow that it’s crystal clear the Omnicom Publicis ‘merger of equals’ is all about competing with Google and becoming a Big Data powerhouse, we should stop any discussions about enhanced client service, strategic advantages or creative couplings.

This is a power play, pure and simple. And, it’s intended to accomplish one goal: enable the new super, duper holding company to collect, and sell, consumer data a la Google.

But Big Data, as the market segment is called, has one very big problem: there’s simply too much of it. As a result, the clients Maurice Levy and John Wren say their merger will help will, in fact, be hurt since chief marketing and chief communications officers will tell you they are positively paralyzed by too much data.

But, don’t take my word for it. A few years back, IBM’s Global Consulting Group surveyed some 1,700 CMOs in 64 countries and representing 16 different industries. Respondents overwhelmingly agreed Big Data is as much of a hindrance as a help. And a report Peppercomm did with Emily Yellin talked to several marketing and communications executives who echoed this sentiment. For instance, one automobile executive said, “It’s not that there isn’t good data. It’s that we can’t use it. We don’t have time to use it.”

The sheer volume alone makes it impossible to determine what’s important and what isn’t. So the already beleaguered CMO is left to sort through the debris field and fashion a program to generate sales and preserve her job.

The big hole in Big Data is what I call the why question. Big Data can tell you all you could possibly want to know about, say, a mother of two, who holds three part-time jobs and is absolutely time starved. But, it doesn’t take the deep qualitative dive into why she makes the emotional and intellectual buying decisions that she does. And, without an answer to the why question, real insight will be absent from any output provided by the Omnicom-Publicis coupling.

The IBM survey said CMOs know they need rich, qualitative insights to supplement the mounds of big data sitting on their desks. CMOs also know they themselves need to experience their brands from the outside in, and walk in their customer’s shoes. But, like the mother of two holding down three, part-time jobs, the average CMO or CCO is way too time-starved to get the job done.

And, that’s where PR firms can shine. The best of us DO walk in our client’s target audiences’ shoes. We DO identify the good, the bad and the ugly of the customer experience. And, we do repeatedly ask that poor mother why she makes the decisions she does.

Armed with the why, CMOs and CCOs can pinpoint the needle in the haystack of data. Sometimes it’s nothing more than a shopper’s surprise at finding a great bargain in a retail outlet. Other times, it’s the purr of an engine that convinces a first-time driver to pick one roadster over another. And, on other occasions, it may not be the consumer at all. It may be the channel sales force that, incentivized by a competitor, is actively dissing a client’s product. Those sorts of insights never, ever come from big data. They come from pounding the pavement, and asking the why question again and again and again.

I hope the new Google competitor otherwise known as Omnicom/Publicis succeeds. But, I caution their executives NOT to buy into the myth that big data is a panacea. It isn’t. In fact, it’s a commodity. A mound of stuff.

That’s why I think it’s never been a better time to be a midsized, independent communications firm that specializes in qualitative listening. Let the big guys do battle with Google. We’ll be there to help CMOs and CCOs make sense of the hot mess they just paid big bucks to have dumped on their desks.

3 thoughts on “Big data’s big problem

  1. If you don’t know what data you need when you start, you can never design the right process. Done right this requires different skills than what has been the traditional big agency skill set.

    When one thinks about this, companies like BlackRock and Bloomberg defined big data in the 1990’s and did it right. Start with an idea, map the ideal data you need, figure out how to obtain that data, standardize that data, then create superior business decision making value in multiple dimensions because of that data. As both of these companies now have over $9 Billion in yearly revenue, I’d say they are the B2B models the world should be modeling themselves after. The problem with that is much of what they did is not publicly transparent. Stated a different way, you’d need to hire one of the business architects that created that directly. Before one could do that though, they’d have to stop listening to certain loud noises from parts of the tech and media world.

  2. Nice analysis, Michael, I’m sure the soon-to-be-unemployed masses will agree with you.

  3. Yes, too much big data are paralyzing, and the subject of too much big data is paralyzing, but what is most paralyzing is the subterfuge of big data as the reason behind this merger. Is access to big data important. Of course. But not always. Still for the life of me I cannot figure out how the scale of OmniPublic leads the new holding company toward more big data, than either did independently. There is not a single new asset or capability or resource it now has – that it didn’t have before – that gets them closer to big data. If either organization really gave a crap about getting closer to the big data, they should have let themselves be acquired by Google. I feel like I am being played by a messaging machine that’s innately tying the alliance to the phrase big data. Big data is readily available from lots of companies that have nothing to do with Omnicom or Publicis. Every article written thus far seems to divert from the merger’s only legitimate intent – each agency under the umbrella will have new profit targets leading to a) greater ROI for investors, b) requisite lower cost structure and c) layoffs abound. Somebody please provide some big data that refute this.