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Strategy: In a Data-Driven World, How Do You Ensure Your Strategy Doesn’t Lose the Human Touch?



LBB’s Zoe Antonov speaks to strategists and planners from across the board to find out how they infuse numbers with reality and what happens after our data gets collected

Strategy: In a Data-Driven World, How Do You Ensure Your Strategy Doesn’t Lose the Human Touch?

There’s more specific, quantitative data sloshing around than ever before and it’s proving to be an invaluable tool for brands and agencies alike. But when it comes to real-life problem solving, which lays at the heart of all great things in communications, best practices often need to dig below the surface and work through the cold, hard numbers. Those qualitative insights are what gives them texture and helps them not ‘lose the human touch’. But how, according to strategists and planners, is that ensured in a world where everybody gets a ‘cookie’?

Mandy Waldorf Graham, group strategy director at Sid Lee, is keen to first address the reason why we are currently living in a data-driven world. “We chase progress and innovation instead of being satisfied with ‘it is what it is’,” she explains. “And data enables major breakthroughs in science, finance, sports, healthcare, just to name a few. But it’s never the data itself that is the breakthrough, it’s how we come to the data, how we analyse the data, and how we action it.” When it comes to ‘coming to the data’ Mandy believes that one can never skip the conversations and debates around it, as well as the alignment on the objectives of said data - “What issues, questions, and decisions will you use the data to inform?”

And when it comes to analysis of data, she knows that context is what’s more important to the real human world and biases are inevitable. “Was this asked directly from the brand? Was it generated without consumer knowledge? Was this collected during a culturally charged environment?” are all questions Mandy advises adland to ask, in order to “manually and routinely combine data from multiple sources to ensure empathy, understanding and inspiration.” Most importantly, actioning the data to her is contained in being able to pause and accept that all the quantitative information you need has been gathered, so now you’ve arrived at the fundamental question of “What should we do?” So, according to Mandy Graham, if done correctly, all this data should “have the human touch all over it.” 

James Chung, strategy director at dentsu X, also believes in the merging between qualitative and quantitative, although we have been taught to look at them as if they’re at odds with each other. Although when we first entered the world of digital behavioural data there were media experts convinced that quantitative survey and focus group data were obsolete, that turned out to be false., “Surveys and focus groups have never been more important than they are today,” he says. Agreeing with Mandy’s point, James explains that “quant and qual data are both about getting to the human truth.” He refers back to an automotive client brief that posed the question of how to bring to life the joy of driving through a campaign. After a long week of looking at data from all across the spectrum, the team agreed that the focus should be on music. “Although halfway through the presentation the clients weren’t impressed, when we skipped to the last slide of people singing in the car, they were sold,” he says. 

So how can we enable people to get this type of data-evidenced human strategy? “Expose your team and yourself to diverse experiences. People who create brilliant strategies are people who can look through the clutter and get to the core of things. Get yourself and your team immersed in not just what the product or service is for, but how people actually use it. What do people do when they drink your milkshake? Do they drive? Do they work? There’s a brilliant human truth to be found there. Use data that gets you to the why behind the what people do.” James explains that there should be no divide between qual and quant, just as there shouldn’t be one between strategists and data professionals, because the most brilliant work happens when the two come together. “Attitudinal survey data told us that there’s a luxury consumer segment that is absolutely driven to win, to be the best, and to do that at all cost. Interestingly, search data showed us that the same audience searched for ‘previously owned’ more than any other segment. We initially thought the two insights clashed – a common clash of qualitative data leading to imagining a unicorn consumer to life versus seeing reality through behavioural digital data. But we later discovered that majority of this audience were at the very cusp of being able to afford this luxury product. That led us to the truth that these people’s deepest desires were in wanting to become part of the group that had the best, even if that meant buying a previously owned product.”

Tifenn Cloarec, senior strategy partner at iProspect, part of dentsu, also knows that experience is what makes data break open to reveal what is truly beneath. “Data signals are human behaviours,” says Tifenn. “They give us rich clues into what keeps people awake at night, what they hope for, what life events trigger what purchases. Yet, true insights do not reveal themselves easily. It takes sweat, tears, human acumen, and a few walks away from the computer.” And, again - data engineers and strategists working together, willing to go through a rather “messy” process that involves heaps of intuition, in order to transform what is seemingly obscure into the kind of insight that speaks to people. While people in strategy often tend to ignore data when it “doesn’t fit in the beautifully simple and logical narrative that made sense in their mind, in an ivory tower away from any hypothesis.” Tifenn knows that those working in activation may see hypotheses as just as big of an enemy to efficiency. This needs to change.

Andy Grayson, director of strategy at Arts & Letters believes that data strategists should also not shy away from words like ‘love, hate, jealousy, fear, disgust, and desire’ in order to find the pulse in the numbers and help us not lose sight of what is important. “The truth here is that too many strategies today are born from data alone,” he says. “But breakthrough insights and resonant strategies come not only from how people answer questions, but also from how they respond. There’s a difference. The truly amazing data isn’t data at all, it’s the stories people tell around it – it’s observing their struggles, their joy, how they live, how they use products, how they feel about the world and our brands.”

This is why M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment are employing new technologies such as vectorisation and AI to give them insights at scale based on consumers’ real life behaviours,  global head of strategy Neil Hopkins tells me. “Data can provide useful insights but the picture it helps paint is of existing rather than potential consumer behaviour,” hesays. “That’s why we need to answer how they might react to a particular brand strategy or activation. For that, we need to understand how they congregate and coalesce around, say, football or music; what networks they are building; and, crucially, what trends are affecting the way they consume whatever passions they are engaged with. That is something data analysis will struggle to identify and ensure that the intuitive component of our strategic work continues to provide significant value to clients.” But that’s not where M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment stop - the human inputs themselves are crucial to ensure that the intuitive approach does not itself contain intrinsic bias, which is why they apply the principle of diversity of thought. Neil explains, “The benefits of assembling teams that are more diverse and reflective of the audiences our clients seek to engage are self-evident. We have established Step Up, a commitment to making the culture around people’s passions more equitable and inclusive. Data plays a fundamental role in setting the scene, pinpointing behaviours and throwing-up insights, but its preeminence and decision-making can disguise more.”

Continuing the consensus is Olivia Hedman, senior strategist at B-Reel Stockholm, who explains that although data is what derives the answers, humans are the only ones who can interpret it in a perfectly flawed way. To come back to what James Chung said about a simple milkshake, Olivia believes that asking questions that go deeper than quantity is what reveals insight - pretty straightforward, but how? “To add the human touch to the strategies you write, you need to bring your full self into it. The way you add value to the process is by asking questions only you can ask - in order to turn a string of singular observations into an insightful story that’s unique to the brand you’re working with, that humans in the real world can understand and relate to.” So, although we know roughly why and when people drink milkshakes, should we turn to what they are thinking while drinking it? Where are they going? A midnight milkshake and a milkshake on the way to work are two totally different and equally human experiences. 

Bram Meuleman, senior strategy partner and Peter John Waine, innovation partner at Carat, give me a quote from Johan Cruiiff, renowned footballer, coach, and philosopher: “I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.” And this sums up all of these thoughts very well. “Neither have we ever seen data itself find an insight, identify a tension between people, let alone spit out a ready-to-activate strategic advantage,” both of them say. Although the extensive lives we lead online – finding interests, subcultures and identities – gives strategists a load of information with which they can understand us, it also makes the process infinitely more complex, and this “noise” grows every year. That’s why at Carat, Bram and Peter join the dots between statistical data and anthropological understanding, they take creative leaps to exploit those tensions and, crucially, “cut the extraneous stuff that gets in the way”. But, ultimately, “there’s no silver bullet” Instead, it is about “elbow grease and about doing the work”.

Whitney Headen, CEO at 19th & Park explains that her team prides itself in being able to delve deeper through quick access to subject matter experts across various fields and interests. These then get attached to the internal processes to ensure that 19th & Park are “constantly assessing the tangible data from human experience, along with the tactical insights that always result in meaningful content creation”. Having access to data at all times, according to Whitney, is an amazing tool over time, but she brings it back to the incredible increase of the so-called “noise”. So, as it turns out - there is such a thing as ‘too much data’. 

Not only can it be too much and create excess, but it also can be too surface-level, according to Mariah Haberman, VP of marketing at DEFINITION 6. “It does not provide the full story,” she says. “At DEFINITION 6, we leverage a number of techniques to unearth qualitative insights including focus groups, one-to-one interviews, case studies, open-ended surveys, social media audits, and more. The ‘Eureka!’ moments are often born in qualitative discussion as opposed to an Excel spreadsheet or Google Analytics dashboard - the key is in the balance. It’s not either/or, it’s both!”

This entire collision of opinions might have left you feeling bad for quantitative data, but Lora Vanhooff, strategy director at IMPACT BBDO Dubai is here to ask “Are we maybe giving good old numbers a hard wrap?” She thinks that the industry might have grown a bit weary of the rational picture data paints of people. But still, what if numbers could just be more interesting? “In my opinion, things get interesting after gathering the ‘data’,” Lora says. “For me, personally, in my years of experience as a strategist, I find ‘interestingness’ in some quite analogue places. Places where the cookie is but a humble confectionery. Friends, family, online communities, a book, a newspaper or sitting in a café and watching the people of the world go about their business… Fascinating! Humans are fundamentally weird and do weird things, making them the most interesting species on the planet. And they will always make good stories.” As a strategist, Lora feels a “responsibility” to give good old quant a helping hand by infusing a bit of life in the numbers – “The type of life that’s to be found out there in the real world and simply needs to be lived.” 

“At this stage, I must apologise to quant and say qual really is my true passion,” says Lora. “But let’s be honest and say that without those stats and figures, the strategist profession as we know it today would probably not exist. We’d all just be sitting on a park bench, taking in the strange wonder of life, but not really knowing what to do about it.”

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LBB Editorial, Tue, 06 Sep 2022 16:42:00 GMT