Does data really give us the whole picture?

Does hard data really tell us how consumers behave? And why? Can it predict how to make your ads more effective? Or can it actually give us the wrong message?

With so much data there seems to be a gold rush to analyse it and make sense of it all in the hope it will tell us something we didn’t already know and find some secret that finally answers that eternal question, ‘how can you persuade and influence more potential customers?’

I bet I can get a psychologist to predict the outcome of any data analysts efforts without seeing the data, fans of the Mentalist will emphasise. Understand fundamental human behaviour and you can predict exactly how people behave and why, which is why I embrace NLP and other psychology based practices.

Look at behaviour afterwards and you can easily be led up a cul-de-sac. It’s like watching people on Google Earth and thinking you know what goes on in their homes.

Looking at the world through a data keyhole may not only tell you half the story but the wrong one. We all know the effect of Chinese whispers or the danger of only hearing half of the conversation. Our brains naturally make assumptions and jump to conclusions. And we all know what assumptions make us…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no enemy of data, in fact I put a lot of importance on data, but we really don’t challenge enough of what we are sold, so I believe you need to see the whole picture not just part of it. And I often question how qualified those analysing the data are to then turn it into a map of human behaviour – ever met a mathematician with a psychology degree?


Consider this scenario to make a point.

Sven, a young, dynamic analyst studying at Stockholm University is spending a month in a Swedish art gallery looking at how people interact with an art exhibition.

He sets up three devices, one measures headcount, maps people’s movements and measures where people stop and for how long.

The second records if they use their phone to comment on the picture on social media.

And the third measures facial expression of joy, disgust, passiveness, etc.

After a month he analyses the data. He finally concludes that a picture placed in the left hand corner was the most visited, commented on and got the best positive reactions.

The picture near the radiator was the second most visited and commented on, but got the most disgust.

The third most popular place was by the fire extinguisher, but reactions were mostly passive.

His final recommendations was if you want pictures to be looked at they need to be placed in the left hand corner for positive reactions, by the radiator for negative ones and by the fire extinguisher for a passive one. Other areas were not important.

Sounds familiar?

It’s not hard to spot the massive error in his thinking – the art work itself. For him it’s just a picture, he hasn’t included it in his value set, yet we all know it is the most significant element in a gallery, it’s placement is almost insignificant. But by ignoring it he has come up with a conclusion that is wrong. Had he included the creativity he’d had come up with a far more accurate theory.


Sadly we have become over reliant on numbers in society and marketing, hence the term ‘The Numeric Society’. Blame politicians, they have been justifying everything from cut backs to war using them. So often we are easily seduced by the wow factor, “Over a million people saw the press coverage,” “Our campaign got 100,000 likes on Facebook”, “The video was viewed by 400,00 on YouTube.”  Impressive numbers but what impression does that make on selling?

When we see a number, before we say “Wow!”, we should pause and ask a simple question, “So what does that really mean?

If a drug cured 75% of people that would be enough for some but for a scientist they’d be asking the question, why not the 25%, how well does it cure the 75%…? They’d be on a never ending journey to deeper evaluate the data and its meaning, that’s the human element.

But in marketing we often accept things on face value, why? It’s safer to do so, humans have used number since time began to reassure and justify themselves. As one researcher told me at a planning conference I was speaking at, “I’m not in the business of insight but arse covering.”

Worse is when we see consumers as just numbers. This is actually the problem junk mail had, you were just a number, usually a door number.

Many direct marketers measured response, rarely the creativity, yet this was what made 85% of the difference in response (if the strategy was right). The same is true of digital ads, the most significant factor in success is the level of creativity. Relevance placement is a no brainer but doing better ads will make a bigger difference. It’s the old 80:20 rule, 20% of what you do actually makes 80% of the difference, yet we often focus on the 80% that only makes 20% difference. Too often we don’t look with a broad enough view to see all the elements that actually make a difference, but instead look at just what we think matters or is convenient.


“Forget creativity it’s all about numbers,” wrote a fool on LinkedIn, he got aright pasting from other members. But there are also those that would say “Forget numbers, it’s all about creativity.” I say, we need the two to work in harmony, because one without the other is not only useless but damaging.

Data is great, it’s useful, it’s enlightening but unless someone is able to see the broader picture you could easily be spending your money on the 80% of media spend that delivers nothing rather than the 20% that sells (Lord Lever got it wrong, it wasn’t 50%).

As new channels open to us we need to think more about the creativity first, and how best to use the channels. I’ve lost count of how many pre roll videos are just TV ads and not been designed or edited to grab you in the first 5 seconds, which is a critical factor in getting people to continue watching. The power of pre roll is exceptional if you make ads that grab people and they want to watch and them pass on. It’s all down to the creativity.

The ad industry was built on creativity, and if we are to deliver better results, to better understand consumer behaviour, it’s future relies on getting the marriage and balance between creativity and data right. If we go too far either way we will simply not sell our client’s brands, let along our own services


  • Rick Pullan



    What an amazingly apposite article for current times.  Well done. 
    You are dead right.  How many
    times do I lament…


    … data geeks are dangerous… my question is this… how many
    people do you know who are great at data literacy and inspirational with marketing ideas and business acumen, a pretty
    unique blend of commercial holisticity.  I’ve
    been in business for 37 years and I haven’t met many… Clive Humby… his protégé Richard
    Organ, now a leading data detective.


    The need of this skill is increasingly required as data influx
    increases exponentially.  Welcome to the age
    of big data and the danger of walking in thick data treacle.  We’ll all end up standing still as data
    stifles us.  The reality is most of it is
    not relevant.  Companies need to bottom
    this one out.  The other issue is many,
    many organisations are lumbered with hugely expensive legacy investment to
    handle data, a lot of it unused… the whole hot potato syndrome.


    The issue is this… what data matters to understand how
    people buy, perceive, need, want, predict, recommend my proposition.  How can I balance the bird’s eye top down view
    with a granular bottoms up view without disappearing up the proverbial?  What are the critical data fields on a
    database?  What are the critical searches
    for social media monitoring that aid commercial strategy development?


    Whatever happens in behavioural trends, consumption
    behaviour, mystic magic, there are only 3 sources of business development for anyone
    in business:

    Imagine if you increase customers by 15% (getting
    new customers)

    Imagine if you increase average purchase by 15% (keeping
    current customers)

    Imagine if you increase frequency of purchase by

    Oh, and more customer
    reactivation too.


    Anyone got any secrets up their sleeve I don’t know about?


    Here’s a crucial freebie… how many people running brands and
    businesses know why customers DON’T buy their brand, their product or proposition?


    Oh I hear them say… I have qual and quan research on that…
    really… can you identify, quantify, rank and prioritise the differences in the reasons
    why u people buy and why they don’t buy?


    Run that one by me again, I hear.




    What data do I need, why do I need it, how will I use it,
    how can I track changes.  All data is, is
    knowledge, but have I got the skill to interpret it and apply it to engage and
    involve more my customer chain, whatever it is?


    This is all about getting a bit more knowledge, being in a
    bit more informed position… in order to understand the customer journey and how
    it zigs and zags amongst the touch points.


    But as you so clearly illustrate… data is only knowledge,
    half the equation.


    But it’s not a sinecure or short cut to skill.


    Skill is how you use the knowledge.


    Here’s a simplistic analogy, let it sink in, then extrapolate
    it to see why monumental cock ups can happen.


    I’m borrowing this from one of my fellow iMA practitioners. 


    An example of knowledge is that I know Tomato is a fruit.


    The skill is that I don’t put it in a fruit salad.


    I agree with your art gallery illustration.


    Welcome to the skill of interpretation of the right data to
    help define the creative brief to improve customer or consumer retention, charm
    prospects for acquisition, referral, transaction value and so on.


    I’m not giving all the secrets away!?


    But think of the business development scenario as data
    detection to discover the pictures in the data others can’t see, identify the revenue
    nuggets, then share it with the creative marketing guys to weave their magic.


    But make sure you sense check it before chucking it into the


    The DMA has just started a brand and trust discussion, so
    this should feed into that too…


    To be continued…