TUESDAY 5 NOV 2019 12:52 PM


Antony Mayfield muses on our dysfunctional relationship with data and how to see the people and the stories contained within

“The quality of the underlying data can be poor. It can be biased. It can be misanalysed or used misleadingly. And even more damningly, data can fail to capture what it purports to quantify.”

Not an excerpt from a programmatic campaign report, but lessons in data around the Vietnam War from Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier in their seminal work Big Data.

Will we ever learn this basic truth? I was reminded of the quote last week when the theme of brands misreading their customers’ emotional motivation was picked up on from research published by our team at Brilliant Noise. Baby boomers, it turns out are still quite up for sexy brands and new products.

I’m a Gen X-er myself, that sudden valley of demography, caught between the self-entitled peaks of the Boomer and Millennial mountain ranges. But before long, I and my greying cohorts will be crossing the Rubicon of the Saga membership minimum age of 55 and I see no sign that colours other than beige, fun, spicy food or risk-taking are about to fall out of favour with any of us. 

That this is news to communicators in an age when we have more data about customers, marketing and the world at large than ever before is downright depressing.

Our dysfunctional relationship with data is clear from the borderline abusive language we use to talk about it. Careless words and lazy metaphors abound, while critical thinking or clear terminology is rare.

For instance: “Data is the new oil.” Except… it’s not. For a start the word data is plural, as any fuel knows. “Data are the new fossil fuels,” would be more acceptable, but still bullshit.

I’m not just being a grammar zealot – though I’ll accept that I am not unfairly labelled as such – data should not be thought of as a thing, but as lots of plural things. Remember that whoever brings data into an argument first wants you to see it as truth; unchanging and unchallengeable. Good luck with that.  

Most of us are so ill-equipped to work with data that we don’t even append the preposition to the word. We don’t speak data, and if data were languages, it would be all dialects in the world. 

Companies build Tower of Babel-sized temples to their data, staff them with priests and dispense wisdom via stone tablets and their modern equivalent: PDFs. Rather than encouraging progress, this hallowed treatment wards against the rigorous questioning and digging behind data that might actually uncover some helpful insight. 

Data is not knowledge. Data is not insight. Data is not more than the sum of its parts. Data just is and what you do with it, how you treat it, process and deploy it is what makes it valuable or not.


Personas suck

There’s a way through this for numbers-blind sapiens: convert data into better stories. We remember stories. We use them to think things through and work out how to act.

Which brings us to personas. Not the static over-generalised, stick-photo adorned rubbish many marketers are still using, but personas based on data that tell us more about our customers. Stories about how a real, believable person lives their lives. What they read, what they say, how they say it and what they would be interested in hearing about from your brand. If anything.

Sadly, too many personas are led by data people, research people, when they should be creative endeavours in themselves. Challenge the creative team to “tell some stories that will connect us with real people and make us care about them”. With this approach something different emerges. Personas based on reality and not the prejudices and stereotypical framing of metropolitan dandies with ageism issues.

The executions can be better too. Personas don’t need to be PDFs.

They can be set free to be things that surprise and delight the people who need to use them throughout an organisation. I’ve seen personas as chatbots, as pop-ups in planning wizards and even virtual rooms where they live. These story-vessels for useful data can stop us being surprised that 50-somethings, like sexy and young people, sometimes want security and not to be patronised.

Antony Mayfield is the CEO of Brilliant Noise.