Big Data? Big Magic? Or Both?

March 16, 2012 4:30 pm

The demand for marketing accountability is a good thing. When something costs millions of dollars a year, it’s only fair to ask “are we getting anything for it?”

But, like all good things, it is not free from unintended consequences.

Big Data Or Big Magic

Marketers must now invest a great deal of time and energy simulating clean inputs and outputs to “prove” ROI. This may work on spreadsheets. But the real world is not made of clean rows and columns.

The real world is and always has been a chaotic mess of overlapping impressions and experiences. This is only made worse by the move to a paid, owned and earned media world. How should a global brand isolate and estimate the dollar value of a single Facebook “like” in India or Indiana?

We must come to grips with the fact that we are asking people to gauge the relative impact of a single carrot on 100 gallons of beef stew.

But, you ask, isn’t this exactly what computers were built to do?

The Big Promise of Big Data

According to IBM, every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. The more devices we have, and the more that happens in the cloud, the more data we create. Want proof? Fully 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone.

The Big Promise of Big Data is that somewhere in this whirlwind of structured and unstructured data are transformative chunks of insight capable of unlocking tremendous business value.

In many business functions, this is probably true. But I believe the very best consumer marketers – people like Steve Jobs — are ruthless reductionists.

They know that marketing is not about knowing everything; it’s about knowing a very few things that are essential.

Should We Trust Big Magic, Instead?

Self Comes To MindI have been creating advertising for more than half my life. I have read countless books about how people make decisions, including excellent ones by Dan Ariely and Jonah Lehrer (wonderfully readable) and Antonio Damasio (wonderfully impenetrable). I have studied the subject about as hard as any one human can.

I know a lot about how good advertising works. But despite my best efforts I don’t entirely know how magic happens. And I don’t think anybody else does, either.

Like most strong creative people, I can reliably give clients singles, doubles and triples. But occasionally I’ve created things that were grand slams. They radically outperformed any reasonable expectations and did fantastic things for my clients’ businesses.

In short, they accomplished things advertising generally isn’t able to accomplish.

Hollywood would call these hits; if I am to be honest I must call them mysteries. They always started as good ideas. But there was something magical that lifted them to another level. Sometimes it’s insanely good luck in casting (this just happened to me on my last commercial shoot). Sometimes it’s a new technology or even a digital bug that opens previously unimagined possibilities. Sometimes the tone of a piece of communication is accidentally perfect for the times, despite having been originally created long before it runs.

The Myth Of Predictable Magic

When I owned my first digital agency, a tech company that wanted to acquire us asked me to detail our process for delivering magic predictably. I laughed out loud. I told him we had a process to deliver smart, effective, surprising work every time. But no creative person or agency can summon magic at will. Predictable magic is a myth: it’s magic because it happens unpredictably.

The best we can do is to look for signs of magic coming our way and to let it happen when it does. It’s radically easier to dispel magic than it is to create it.

But with the pressure to be accountable, many of us want to be smarter than magic. We want to crush problems with the weight of our frontal lobes, with the elegance of our algorithms, with the sheer bigness of the Big Data in our Big Spreadsheets.

Big Data. Big Magic. Or Both?

Human beings are both rational and emotional. It’s OK for marketers to be human.

In fact, it’s the only way we can be.

I’m not suggesting we ignore Big Data. By all means, let’s go as far as the data will take us. Let’s rack up our singles and doubles and triples. Let’s be open to what Big Data might bring us.

But let’s also be appropriately skeptical about its limitations.

What lies beyond data is something bigger and harder to explain, but immensely more valuable. So our real job is to keep looking for magic. And when we start to feel magic happening, our greatest contribution is to get the hell out of the way and let it happen.

I’ve worked with people who can’t bear to loosen their death grip on the controls, who can never allow anything unexpected to shake their preconceived notions, who insist that 1+1 can only equal 2 and can never equal 11.

Magic never happens for them.

But I’ve worked with people who have the courage and humility to embrace magic when it comes. Magic happens to their brands a whole lot more often. The brands that get lucky most are the brands that are willing to get lucky.

Are you willing?

P.S. The left side of the graphic in this post is from an actual IBM “Big Data” Chromogram of Wikipedia Edits. The right side is the famous “1984” Apple TV Commercial. You will be tempted to pick sides. But it’s better if you don’t.

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