News & Views

What fantasy football taught me about data

by Contagious Contributor

Fantasy football has been good to Lucky Generals' strategy partner, Loz Horner, enriching him with £270 in old tenners - and wisdom and insight about the value of data.

Last year I won our agency fantasy football competition, claiming £270 in old tenners that I then had to take to the bank to convert into new ones. It was the greatest moment of my career.

So this year the pressure is on. And as I sweat over my team selection I find I am thinking a lot about data. Because fantasy football is a game completely built on data. It’s like drinking from a hosepipe of data. At any given moment fantasy managers have access to a myriad of different data points for every player in the league. This is the data they must use to build a winning team.

And that’s a bit like modern marketing, because in our own industry we also now have access to a continuous torrent of data that we must use to make winning decisions.

So here’s what fantasy football taught me about what data is (and isn’t) good for.

Data is great for understanding the market

To tell you the truth I’m not all that interested in football. I don’t watch much of it and I don’t have a favourite team. But that’s okay, because if there’s one thing data is bloody good for, it’s understanding the overall dynamics of a market. You’d be a fool to start building a fantasy football team without comparing what all the players cost and how many points they have amassed in previous seasons. The same is true in our profession. If you want an instant grounding in a market, just look at how all the brands in it compare on data points like sales, awareness, consideration etc. You’ll get a feel for the landscape in no time.

You need to know which metrics really matter

The thing is, not all data is equally useful. As a fantasy football manager it’s easy to get obsessed with what a player costs, but are they actually getting regular game time at the moment? Yes a player’s past points matter, but what has their form been like over the past three weeks? And what about weird things like their ICT index? WTF is that? Is it important? It’s all very reminiscent of our struggles in marketing where there are vanity metrics and then metrics that actually tell you something. It’s our job to know the difference.

When everyone has the same data, everyone ends up doing the same things

One of the things you can see in fantasy football is the percentage of other managers that own each player. It’s a beguiling stat, but it also demonstrates the herd mentality that reliance on data can generate. Right now more than 50% of all fantasy football managers own Salah, which is making me feel like I should probably buy him, too. Does that remind you of anything from the world of marketing? The collective obsession with increasing follower numbers and video view counts for instance? Or the decision to pursue a ‘social good’ comms strategy just because everyone else is? The risk is that when everyone has the same data, everyone ends up making the same decisions.

Ultimately, you still need a differentiating strategy

Canvassing the opinions of fellow fantasy managers, I have been heartened to discover that data is not the only thing that drives their decision-making. Most have devised what we would recognise in marketing as a long-term strategy. Some are piling their cash into Liverpool and Man City midfielders. Others are combining bargain basement players from the newly promoted sides with expensive mega-stars guaranteed to rack up the points. Interestingly, these strategies have often been devised precisely because they are different to how friends are approaching the game, so they provide a competitive edge. And the good managers will stick to their strategies throughout the season rather than constantly trying to react to data points thrown up by the most recent round of games. That feels like what the best marketing clients and agencies do to me.

So in summary, fantasy football reminds us that data is great, but it can’t tell us how to win on its own. Which is the excuse I will be using when I am bottom of our agency league in three weeks' time.