AdWeek 2017: Getting a grip on our relationship with data

“The numbers told us…”

“You don’t know what the numbers just told us. I’m an expert and I don’t know what the numbers just told you.”

“Numbers don’t lie.”

“They lie all the time. They lie when seventy-two percent of Americans say they’re tired of a sex scandal, while all the while, newspaper circulation goes through the roof for anyone featuring the story.”

Tuesday morning on the Guardian Stage at AdWeek Europe 2017 kicks off with an exchange between Joey and Josh on The West Wing. That’s one way to liven up a panel discussion about data. I like this session already. ‘The Big Data Backlash’ poses some pretty thought provoking questions. Have we become over-reliant on data to develop our recommendations and inform our decisions? Just because we can use data in ever smarter ways, does that mean we always should? And what lessons can our industry learn from Brexit and Trump, when the polls got it so wrong?

Insight Trumps data

The panel get straight to work on unpicking some of the recent high profile examples of where data has failed to predict the right answer. Amushka Asthana, Joint Political Editor at The Guardian, talks through her experiences on the Conservative Party battle bus during the 2015 general election, when the polls were predicting a hung parliament. It was only when talking to people on the ground you got a much better sense of how far off the mark the polls were.

Ben Shimson, Founding Partner of Britain Thinks, talked of the dangers of letting the data move you into smaller, more transactional areas of focus and losing sight of the bigger uniting idea. Hillary Clinton’s election campaign was a prime example of this, using the data very effectively to create and push out lots of rational, policy-led offers to very targeted audiences, but lacking the big, universal message that would resonate at scale on a deeply emotional level.

Have we gone too far?

PHD’s Rebecca Burchnall and McCann’s Karen Crum moved the discussion onto the ad industry. Data has always existed (we used to just call it ‘research’), but with the sheer volume of data now available has it become harder to ask the right questions to get to the right answers? Have we become too intrusive, particularly in digital marketing, and have people really given us permission to reach out to them in the ways that we do? Case in point: serving someone a message to their mobile phone warning them of the dangers of melanoma whilst they’re sunbathing (through a code that finds and responds to geo-located hashtags and images on Instagram). A great example of super smart, hyper-relevant, contextual targeting? Or just a bit creepy? Would an OOH site have been just as impactful and less intrusive, if less award-worthy? The audience were fairly split on this one. The judges at Cannes rewarded the purpose-led innovation.

We must challenge ourselves constantly on how we use data

Overall I think this session threw up more questions than answers, but they’re incredibly important questions. We’re always trying to find new ways to use data to give us a competitive edge, but the rules haven’t fundamentally changed. Great campaigns and great thinking come from powerful insight. In a world of echo chambers and data overload, we need to work harder than ever to ensure diversity of thought, challenge how and when we use data in our campaigns and as an industry, and make sure we’re taking the time to ask the right questions. Because in an ever increasing world of automation, nothing has yet replaced creativity, curiosity, and the human touch.

Otherwise, you’re like the French radical, watching a crowd run by and saying, ‘There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.”- Joey, West Wing 


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About Author

Natalie Marshall Foxwell

Natalie is an Executive Director for Disney at OMD EMEA, and has been with the agency for five years after an eight year spell with MediaCom. In her spare time she can often be found at Stamford Bridge, with her family.

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