When the Melanesian islanders of the Pacific first came into contact with Western cultures and particularly Western technology, it was as though they had been visited by creatures from another planet.
They could see possibilities they had never dreamed of – aircraft, medicine and abundance of food and resources beyond their wildest dreams. They wanted it, but they didn’t understand it.
And then the Westerners left. Cargo cults emerged on the islands. They conducted rudimentary facsimilies of the buildings and equipment the Westerners had used in an attempt to magically summon back the prosperity from these gods. Entire airstrips and aircraft were constructed from materials they had on their islands.
But the gods never returned.
The aircraft and airstrips looked the part, from a distance at least, but they couldn’t fly anywhere and no deliveries of food ever appeared. It seems obvious to us, from our view point, that it was never going to work. But from the islanders' point of view, you can see the Field of Dreams logic they were applying to the situation. Everything looks right, but there are important things missing.
I was led to this story by thinking about businesses and data.
I’m sure that, like me, many of you have sat in cargo cult meetings, with PowerPoint standing in for crude wooden aircraft. Loads of data presented. More than ever was possible than in the past. Sometimes, someone at the back of the room (often me) pipes up to ask what we’re planning to do differently as a result of all of this. At this stage, people often look confused or nervous. They’re thinking: "We’ve done the data thing, dude, why can’t you just play along?" Data for these organisations is like sex for teenagers – the topic of conversation for many, but a practical endeavour for very few.
It’s worth taking a minute to work out what data can do for businesses in general and marketing in particular, because it should help you understand whether it’s worth gathering and keeping. It’s not a universal panacea that will inflate your stock price to Alphabet or Facebook levels. It can only really do two things.
Data can help you make better products and services. If you’re gathering and analysing data on what your customers like and dislike, what they’re using or not using, when, where and how, then in theory you can use that data to create new and better products and services. Products and services that connect better with customers. This is particularly powerful if you are running a service business born on the internet. You can endlessly adapt your offering, discretely test new prices and service bundles and learn with very little friction.
The problem is that it’s a lot less powerful if you own a crisps factory that makes profit by varying ingredients and process as little as humanly possible. Have a chat with the factory manager about real-time data-driven product optimisation and see how far you get. "What would Google do?" isn’t a terribly useful question if you’re not Google. Doing things like Google is really powerful if you’re a nimble search-driven advertising business. Perhaps less powerful if you’re a construction company.
Data can help you make better products and services if your business model enables you to profitably change those products and services all the time, and then quickly and easily scale success. The data isn’t the point. The ability to act on the data is the point.
Data can also help you target and optimise creative. Should you be convinced that the main thing holding your company back is that sometimes people you don’t want to talk to see your advertising and communication, then maybe you can profit from having a bit more data in your life. But if you’re a mass-market brand with big sales and big targets, you might want to run the maths on whether the complexity of creating a range of different messages really pays back in effect and reduced cost per thousand. The data logic leads us to do things we can most easily measure, rather than putting the effort into discovering whether something that is harder to measure could deliver a better return.
Reflect also on whether you are set up to create data optimised creative. A range of different variants that you’re comfortable to dispose of if you discover they’re not working so well.
This isn’t about your agencies only wanting to make telly ads – I’m looking at you here, clients. Are you a slave to a pretesting system that can only really qualify TV ads? And have you chosen to trap yourself and your agencies in endless rounds of pretesting before you’re able to deploy any media money in the world?
Data can help you target and optimise creative if you’ve invested the proper time in understanding the channels that are tougher to measure and if you’re willing to create structures that allow for swift approval of a broader range of assets than you’re making at the moment.
So next time you hear someone claiming that data is the new oil, take a minute to remember that oil only became of value to anyone once machines were invented that used it as fuel and refinery technology was developed to enable it to actually work in their engines.
You’re not a valuable organisation because you have data. You’re only a valuable organisation if you have built the ability to use it.
Craig Mawdsley is joint chief strategy officer at Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO