Is all this data driving brand advantage?

Earlier this year IPA President, Sarah Golding, set out her ‘Magic and the Machines’ agenda and a new programme to help agencies fully embrace data and “the machines”, to deliver better marketing. Here Sue Elms, Consultant at Skin the Cat argues that we should embrace the machines, and even delegate to them, but we should never abdicate to them.

Data and the machines cannot drive brand advantage alone. Brand building magic lies in being insight-led vs data-led, and approaching that insight in a holistic and human way. We will need to integrate analogue and digital intelligence, Stage 1 and Stage 2 thinking, different research methodologies and technologies. We will need to combine skills in research design, big data analytics, AI and human observation. We will need to value reflection time as much as reaction time.

Used blindly, data-driven marketing risks “driving” us all down the same path, like sheep. We risk chasing behaviours without understanding their motivation. There are fewer behaviours than the motivations behind them; for example, you may search for a two-door hatchback for your son or daughter’s first car, to enjoy a grittier ride, for the best budget option, or something to fit your dog in. More motivations mean more varied opportunities to approach your customer; to say something more relevant, more differentiated, more noticeable and in new moments to talk.

Data-driven targeting promises to deliver greater “relevance”. But if we are all in the same places, saying the same machine-optimised things in the same machine-optimised way, how can we be more relevant than our competitors? The hyper-targeting, we see online nowadays is not hyper-relevance; surely the real brand advantage is found in the less obvious places where you escape the noise of the other braying sheep; where people are influenced by how well you have understood them as humans, not irritated by how you have tracked them down?

Data zigs. Insight zags and this is where brand advantage can be built. 

Despite the digital world we live in, most people are analogue in nature – complex, physical, emotional beings - usually doing and feeling something real, somewhere real, when a brand advertises to them, even via digital means. As we embrace data and the machines we must not be inhibited from also embracing analogue thinking, or buying analogue moments because they come from outside the “data-lake”; I think it was Ivan Pollard who recently said, “we’ve lost sight of the poster outside of a shop”.

Indeed, agencies must embrace data and the machines but the challenge will be to do so without them taking over completely as the only route to market, the only source of insight. I am not alone in thinking this – recent research by Kantar Millward Brown recently shows a prevailing 75:25 regard for human versus machine-led insight.*

When it comes to data and the machines therefore, we should certainly embrace them, and even delegate to them, but we should never abdicate to them.

Sue Elms has decades of expertise operating at the leading edge of consumer intelligence, with a passion for ensuring it genuinely helps brands deliver more meaningful connections and better ROI. Currently working via Skin the Cat Ltd she helps businesses successfully maximise the decision-making power of their consumer intelligence resources.

To see more details about the Audience Analytics & Insight Forum please go to, if you would like to register please use the code IPA25 to get 25% discount.

As part of this year’s EffWeek, Sue is chairing the Audience Analytics and Insights conference day on 11th October which will explore how data, analytics and technology can deliver the insights for, per the IPA’s vision, marketing “magic”. It will also look at how data and technology can give us new information on people; for example, from the real-time digital data flow or from fishing the data lakes being built using 1st, 2nd and 3rd party data. For more information and to book tickets, please visit: 

*The image below is taken from the Kantar Millward Brown Getting Media Right 2017 report, which you can download here

Kantar Millward Brown - Getting Media Right 2017

Last updated 21 January 2022