Stop using data to spoon-feed consumers

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House of Cards: opening scene was ‘triumph of creativity over data’
House of Cards: opening scene was ‘triumph of creativity over data’

A data-filled world of customised messaging could replace the magic of "random encounters", says the joint chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB.

I had a slightly strange experience at the weekend. I walked into a bookshop and came out with a novel about an elderly cellist from eastern Europe.

Nothing in my past behaviour would indicate that I had any kind of disposition towards this book’s subject matter. In fact, if one was to extrapolate from the themes of my past few purchases, this was about as far away from the pattern as one can get.

I haven’t travelled east recently, my taste in music is not terribly sophisticated and, the last time I checked, I wasn’t a 65-year-old man.

It was a brilliant book. It broadened my horizons, made me feel something and, by proxy, made me love the place from which I had bought it even more.

So used have I become to being spoon-fed suggestions of what I "might also like" that it was only when I was buying this book, sans filters, that I realised such random, unlikely purchases are disappearing from our daily lives.

Why would we take a chance when the increasingly sophisticated data is showing us how consumers will react?

The physical path to purchase is still ostensibly considered "backward" compared with online retail but it’s only a short matter of time until this too is shaped by our mobile footprint. We are defined by data. I am what I liked, what I bought, what I shared.

Brands are pushing content based almost entirely on what we have purchased or done in the past. Ocado has kept my grocery list from last week so I don’t need to spend hours trawling through virtual aisles, Net-a-Porter sends me curated suggestions based on labels I have looked at before and Spotify is relentlessly serving me Ed Sheeran songs (someone must have borrowed my phone for that one).

Not only does this make the day-to-day more streamlined but hyper-personalisation lets us believe that our favourite brands really understand us and think of us as individuals, not just as anonymous consumers.

But we need to consider at what point this begins to reduce our experiences to just the complacent adherence to predetermined patterns. How much of ourselves do we want to see, and how much do we still want to be surprised and delighted by the unexpected?

Relationships in the automated age are built on a foundation of predictability rather than surprise. But this is where the danger lies, since the best relationships are inevitably those that still allow for moments of excitement and inspiration.

The more filters we apply to make the consumer experience feel more relevant and efficient, the less opportunity there is to experience the inherent joy of discovering something new.

Random encounters often resonate with us most because they allow us to recall the point at which our mundane habits were disturbed. By making the relationship between brand and customer more predictable, are we weakening it over time?

The emphasis that brands now put on supplying people with personalised content also means that, worryingly, it can make them less brave.

Hyper-personalisation lets us believe that our favourite brands really understand us and think of us as individuals.

Why would we take a chance and go against what we know when the increasingly sophisticated data is showing us how consumers will react? But sometimes it is deviating from how we know consumers will respond that can help prevent content from becoming stale and bland.

The opening scene of House of Cards was a triumph of creativity over data – despite being poorly researched, creators insisted on keeping that scene. It actually established the show as a provocative piece of work, and the bold and differentiating tone of voice went on to define Netflix.

The need to keep creating content that challenges and disrupts is even more important in the on-demand world, where we no longer "happen" on something new.

More than ever, brands need to find moments of genuine surprise so they can have an even more significant impact against a backdrop of automated behaviour. Advertising, almost by definition, is about inspiring and persuading people to try out new things – from small products to memorable experiences to entire lifestyles.

The purpose of our industry is to help people break the monotony of their habits and sell the concept of change. By tapping into this culture of hyper-personalisation, we run the risk of giving up on the magic and creativity that fuel the very best campaigns.

If people become too comfortable in what they know, too afraid to try something new, then they will cease to respond to stories outside of their increasingly myopic interests. As an industry pushing itself to be more accountable, let’s not lose sight of the power we hold not only to capture imaginations and drive loyalty but also to be constantly curious.

Moreover, we know only too well from recent events that, when spheres of our influence become tighter and tighter and we close ourselves to outside noise, we cultivate an environment in which the absence of surprises can ultimately lead to shock.

Tammy Einav is the joint chief executive of Adam & Eve/DDB.