Data vs. Insights – They’re Not the Same, Not Even Close

I remember my first client meeting, around 15 years ago; we’d just reached the tail end of a four-month campaign and the client invited us to their headquarters to present the results. It was the first time this brand ever made a major investment in digital and they were eager to understand the impact and insights created by such campaign.

Keep in mind, these were the early days of digital advertising; I am talking Altavista, AOL Keyword, Overture, and banners – lots of banners.

At the time I was running “digital” for the account. Prior to the meeting I briefed the account lead on the results available (some form of impressions and clicks) and shared some thoughts on how we could leverage that information to get the brand excited and engaged in digital.

At the client’s office, the traditional (print, broadcast, etc.) account lead then proceeded to deliver the most painful presentation I had ever been forced to endure. It consisted of approximately four slides, the first one being filled with way too much content about unrelated activities and the importance of digital; the remaining screens showed our ads on the respective properties (no insights to share, just creative they’d already seen).

Although I was really disturbed by the shallowness of the content, the client was impressed – bordering on amazed; after all, it was his first “display” campaign and digital was the shiny new object of the day. It was clear to me that neither the client nor the account lead really understood this then-emerging medium.

One of the big challenges at the time was that it was nearly impossible to measure the impact of the digital campaign on actual business results or anything meaningful for that matter. The account manager was left to talk about a whole lot of nothing.

As the years went by, the industry got smarter and created an expanded set of new metrics: click-through rate (CTR), impression share, engagement rates, share of voice, bounce rate, and many more. Even with these, it is still very hard to measure success in a clear, distinct way. With technology and consumer behaviors evolving as fast as they do, we face new issues every day, from different attributions models to cross-device measurements to connecting online activities to offline sales.

Out of this barrage of metrics – channel-, medium- and even device-specific – grew the monster of Big Data; add to that the rise of business intelligence tools, and suddenly every brand and agency needed to have a data scientist. Don’t get me wrong, talented researchers have helped shape advertising strategies since the early days before direct mail was invented; but in my opinion, data scientists have revolutionized the advertising industry in ways that are not always good when it comes to client presentations and aligning digital metrics to business objectives.

As much as I love data and often daydream about being one of those amazing data scientists, I think the whole Big Data movement and the rise of these wizards has come with a hefty price tag: We have lost the ability to tell meaningful stories or insights in favor of huge reports filled with analyses and pivot tables. We have all the data but less of the human factor that makes for successful agency-client collaboration or that good advertising thrives on – business and consumer insights that lead to actions that sell widgets.

I’ve seen too many practitioners and account people bring reams of data and spreadsheets to the client, thinking these will be relevant to them; and while some clients surely enjoy a nice deep dive into data, the majority do not.

Today’s savvy brand marketers have a great understanding of digital’s capabilities, but no brand manager wants to spend two hours digging through his media performance data on a line-by-line level. So in order to get our message across, to make our agency shine and deliver the insights we are famous for, we must make the presentation compelling and tell clients something new about their consumers, business, or industry.

I have actually heard of meetings where the client asks, “What have you learned, what are the insights, what are our next steps?” and the reply from the agency team is, “Look at the data: mentions are up 10 percent, impressions are down month over month…” While these are all good data points, they will not change the way the brand plans or executes its advertising.

The data scientist should help the account leads to create the story, answer questions, and find priceless nuggets, but there is rarely an occasion when we need to have them lead a client meeting (no offense intended). Most brand managers want to know about consumer insights, business goals, and the next big idea.

Too many agencies have fallen under the data spell and have forgotten to turn those results into stories that speak to the client in a language they understand – and that aligns to their objectives and strategies. It’s like talking to a customer about product features (empty of emotion) without selling them on the benefits (the emotional hook).

We as an industry need to get back to delivering meaningful consumer insights instead of only data. Recently there has been a lot of talk around the lost art of storytelling and the importance of visuals, and while a pie chart definitely looks better than a table, it’s still not cutting it in terms of getting a brand manager fired up about a campaign or excited about the next big thing. Delivering insights means telling the brand what is going to happen in their industry, how something we did had an impact on their bottom line, or how we discovered something that will change the way they do business. And we need to do it in their language.

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