‘We can’t be cowed into shame on data’ – UM’s Ben Tuff on ‘The Great Hack’ documentary

Shocked reactions around a recent Netflix documentary ‘The Great Hack’ should not get in the way of marketers deploying data to meet their business goals, says UM Asia-Pacific chief product officer Ben Tuff 

If Cambridge Analytica had been employed by a large FMCG company, utilised the same methods and driven incremental but meaningful share gains, and then been uncovered, would the concern and interest be so high?

I somehow doubt it. The storm would have been contained to a marketing teacup; the fine unnoticed by many. But the impact of what CA did may be having far reaching implications for our own businesses and approaches.

As marketers, for whom data must become our activation bread and butter, we cannot be cowed into shame of the work we do and the way we need to use data.

Elections are often defined by fine margins and strong emotions. When the UK’s Labour party lost the 1992 general election they went back to the drawing board. A new approach was required.

And much tighter targeting of those likely to be attracted to the Labour values. Mondeo Man (a European Ford brand typical of on-the-road salesmen) emerged; whilst a larger demographic, only 150,000 needed to be influenced in key marginal seats. The strategy at the heart of the May 1997 election was tight messaging to this group.

The prevalence of data driven communications platforms has changed the marketing landscape forever. Messaging to people’s hopes and fears becomes much easier: efficient and effective. Quoted in Netflix ‘The Great Hack’, the margins that defined the US election came down to 70,000 people in swing states. With margins so thin, any upper hand that data can give, has always been taken.

Whilst messaging was as critical in the UK’s 1997 election as in the 2016 US Presidential and UK EU Referendum, the driving use of data extraction was at best underhand and at worst, illegal.

As marketers we are left wondering and worried, but also thinking. Wondering, why we have not advanced to such a sophisticated level of data usage. Worried that if we use data overtly, we become tarred with the same brush – one of emotional manipulation. Thinking: had this been an FMCG company, would there have been such a moment of crisis?

We should therefore pause, briefly. Many technological advances are driven by darker areas, ones willing to push the boundaries. Like it or not, it clarifies an opportunity.

The internet of today was created in part by some of its less savoury aspects. Adult entertainment sites led the way in SEO, secure payment solutions and advanced code development: tools we take for granted today.

Whilst Cambridge Analytica has created a crisis around data, as marketers we should not shy away from advancing our use of it. Driving communications tightly to those audiences more likely to take the actions we want them to take, we must embrace the benefits for good. And find our own ways to push the boundaries of possibilities ethically and transparently.

For those still concerned about data usage and how consumers will react, we should be reminded that for years, consumers have willingly handed over their personal data. In CRM targeting via large scale consumer questionnaires and store ‘loyalty’ cards, for instance. Name and address to enter that competition or land that voucher.

All long before they started ignoring terms and conditions for online platform use.

This is why companies who can legitimately handle data in a safe, personally identifiable information (PII) compliant way are going to become ever more critical.

If we want to address audiences that will have a meaningful impact on business outcomes we must embrace the use of data in ever more sophisticated ways. We must set ourselves up as users, develop plug and play ecosystems that enable precision marketing across all channels. Those that don’t will be left behind.

As agencies we seek to protect brands from being associated with unsavoury content but do we need to protect brands from unsavoury targeting practices? As agency groups, do we need to develop some kind of consumer data ownership stamp? Can this drive change in the partners we work with, a clarity in “terms and conditions” to be agreed too, ones that don’t stretch for 15 almost intentionally complex pages?

The outcome is one that has potentially huge benefits to businesses in the effectiveness and efficiencies of the messages we drive and the outcomes we achieve.

It can enable the creativity we seek to deliver, the way in which we message and engage. The impact is not just at the top and bottom of the funnel, but becomes properly connected through it, more deliverable as we track responses, score and action against these at the individual level.

The outcome is we can legitimately use the small margins that data enables to have the impact we need.

And we can do that in a way that significantly enhances the consumer experience as well. Personalisation, however you wish to define that, becomes more achievable. We can become cleverer in what we deliver and the way in which we do so. With, more openness from platforms – an admittedly aspirational position at this juncture – we would be able to create a better “social” space.

Therein lies an irony; by getting their houses in order, Twitter, Facebook, Google et al are the ones who will likely benefit the most. The experience they offer, the trust consumers find in them and therefore brands seek to ride on will only improve. Can they? Or will that take leadership change in itself?

If they don’t change, the future may lie in the ownership of data. Brittany Kaiser, a polarising character and key protagonist in The Great Hack has launched her own #ownyourdata campaign.

Whether you see that as akin to Lance Armstrong launching an anti performance drugs campaign is personal, but there is likely something in it. More legitimately, a better place to start might be with ourselves: agencies and marketers, with strong standards, driving transparency. An IAB for consumer data if you will.

Technology itself may be the one to trump this; blockchain, a far more nascent tech, offers the potential for consumers to track their data usage and benefit in the monetisation. The application is likely some years off but it is coming; platforms in limited form are exploiting this.

At the end of the day, transparency on personal data or a move in that direction has to be good for us all. Within brand marketing what is unlikely to occur is the complete level of scrutiny that electioneering data use has created.

In these apathetic times, politics still drives levels of passion and emotion brands could only wish for. That makes data use even more critical to business outcomes. We should embrace it and push the possibilities harder.

Ben Tuff is the chief product officer at UM Asia-Pacific, based in Singapore


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