Cambridge Analytica and the mindset revolution

Facebook banned Cambridge Analytica because of how they used the platform, not for what they did, explains the chief product officer at Wavemaker UK.

This weekend, the press and the Twittersphere were alight with news that mysterious, Trump-backing data-driven marketing firm Cambridge Analytica have been kicked off Facebook for violating the platform’s data collection policies. Cue lots of commentary about what it is they do, much of which has leapt breathlessly to the obscure details.

If you judged by the news cycle alone, you would assume that Cambridge Analytica had invented some entirely new way of marketing, that tapped straight into our deepest fears and insecurities, and that Facebook had booted them off in horror at this gross and intrusive innovation into our inmost psyches.

Fortunately, the shock-and-awe coverage misses the point. Cambridge Analytica’s approach is not entirely unique, and they have been excluded from Facebook because of how they did it, which was a breach of the platform’s terms, not for what they did.

I know this, because my team do something similar. When we founded Wavemaker at the start of 2018, we brought our audience research specialists and our programmatic marketing experts into one team (known as TAPP), because we recognised that understanding people and targeting media towards them are two sides of the same coin. Modern media needs to move people as individuals or as small groups, not just en masse – and that means getting closer to their individual motivations, and finding ways to target advertising to specific people with specific mindsets, not just broad demographics. We call this precision marketing (and judging from Marc Pritchard’s comments at ISBA a few weeks ago, we’re not alone).

There are two parts to precision marketing. The first is good old-fashioned attitudinal or psychographic segmentation. This has always been one of the most useful items in any brand marketer’s toolbox. By understanding buyers based on their reasons for buying – their attitudes, values, needs and worldviews – you can get to a far richer understanding and build stronger brands, products, propositions and communications.

In media, though, we’ve always tended to sneer a bit at psychographic segmentation) remind me, are we trying to reach Struggling Jugglers or Juggling Strugglers?) but that’s largely because our ways of targeting media had no overlap with these inner-life profiles beloved of consumer insight teams. This is changing, and fast, with the arrival of the second element that makes precision marketing a possibility: very large data sets of millions or billions of individual profiles, which can be connected to addressable media.

Within our TAPP team, we create psychographic and purchasing-behaviour segments using established research methods, and match these into large, privacy-compliant customer pools, especially Group M’s [m]Platform, to identify dozens or hundreds of individual digital behaviours that predict individual mindsets, brand attitudes, or needs. We use these to build specific media targets (online and off) so we reach the right people with the most interesting, relevant advertising. There’s very little voodoo about any of this – it just needs proper researchers, data scientists and digital experts sitting together to make it happen.

Cambridge Analytica’s method of doing this was not revolutionary – beside the alleged non-compliance of their data, they were matching psychographic segments to Facebook likes, which is barely scratching the surface of predictive analytics. But the approach – audience research meets big data meets precision media – is starting to change how we use media to move people.

When we understand people better, we can be more interesting and useful. Nor should any of this be done in secret – research ethics, data ethics and media ethics need to be part of an open discussion about the role that advertisers, the media, and even politicians play in our society.

Alex Steer is chief product officer at Wavemaker UK 


Start Your Free 30-Day Free Trial

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to, plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events.

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free