News & Views

Opinion / Data: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly


‘Most traditional business don’t really leverage data in ways that really matter to consumers.’ That was the (slightly loaded) title of a panel discussion I joined at a recent event called organised by Havas helia in London. Also on the panel were Nigel Walsh and Steve Jones from Capgemini, Havas helia’s planning director, Rachel Clarke, Ben Hookway, CEO of analytics firm Relative Insight and Neil Firth, a director at the UK Ministry of Defence. (Firth was, in his own words, the ‘wildcard’.)

The Good

Prior to the panel, there was a presentation from the Capgemini guys. They made some pertinent points: connected cars, particularly Teslas, are awesome. Amazon is particularly talented at parting us from our cash. Smart home devices, like Google Nest, could offer home-owners a real time insurance premium that self-adjusts if the house is occupied. I love such examples of data empowering, improving or disrupting. It’s unsurprising that Capgemini, ‘an implementation-focused management consulting and Information Technology services group’ wants to focus on the potential of data (and, let’s be honest here, how it can help businesses tap it).

But astonishingly for an event organised by an agency and attended by marketers, there was very little privacy speak. When Contagious commissioned Opinium to conduct research into privacy last year, we found that 30% of people in the UK and 44% of those in the US would be willing to pay extra for total confidentiality when buying products and services online. Further, nearly half (48%) of 18- to 24-year-olds in the UK have actually stopped using a product or service because they were worried about how it was using their personal data. There's more on that research here

So why aren’t more brands committing to NOT using their customers’ data? That could feasibly help differentiate a brand, generate revenue and secure loyalty. As more people are affected by data breaches  and take a quick look at this infographic from Information is Beautiful showing the world’s biggest to see just how often these happen  there will be more people looking to brands to help them safeguard their privacy.

The bad

Breaches belong to the other side of data. The dark side. The creepy side. And that’s precisely the side that The National Film Board of Canada wants to show you. Working in partnership with French/German public broadcaster Arte and German public broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk, the Board has just launched the first part of a seven-part digital documentary series called Do Not Track. It aims to show people exactly how their data gets used and – this is the clever bit  you need to commit to sharing some of your own data to see exactly how it’s collected, stored and used.

The first episode starts with film-maker Brett Gaylor’s morning routine, the information he shares online willingly (e.g. posting photos on Twitter) and the data that’s deduced about him from his online behaviour. Then the camera turns onto you, the viewer. The film shows that it knows what country you live in, whether you’re on a Mac or PC and what the weather’s like where you are. While you’ve been watching the film, those three pieces of data about you have been crunched behind the scenes.

The film then shows how organisations such as Facebook, Google and Twitter are profiting from building up data-heavy personal profiles about their users. They then auction off that information in real time to advertisers. ‘What you put out there affects everybody else, says one interviewee in the film, Data & Society Research Institute founder danah boyd (she spells her name like that, by the way, I’m not lazily deciding to ignore the shift key). ‘Your data is used to judge other people.’ How sleazy does that sound? It certainly sent a shiver down my spine.

Other attempts to make us pay attention to what we unwittingly share date back as far as 2011’s Take This Lollipop, a personalised viral video that compared the dangers of sharing your Facebook data with taking candy from strangers. And what are we always advising our kids not to do?

The ugly

In a world where real time bidding, programmatic media buying and algorithms are the norm, marketers need to integrate them into the mix as opposed to either ignoring them or over-relying on them. A case in point: Facebook’s algorithm-based Year In Review in 2014 provoked a backlash and put Facebook on the defensive when people’s years were summed up insensitively. It had to apologise to one user, Eric Meyer, whose 6-year-old daughter had died and then graced the cover of his review. Meyer blogged about the experience in a post called ‘inadvertent algorithmic cruelty’. Algorithms may be smart but they’re pretty damn tactless.

So after a lot of thinking about data over the last few days, I’ve come to a conclusion. You can gather and store the most granular data in the world, but if you haven’t got a clue what to do with it, what’s the point? It’s like having a Ferrari in the garage but not owning a driver’s licence. In marketing communications, it’s that human touch, that spark of wit, that empathy with another person that drives effectiveness. Yes, data’s getting bigger, but it still needs the right people to make it clever.