Sunday, July 10, 2011

Not all data's created equal...

The famous class inequality sketch from Cleese and the Two Ronnies.

Hello there.

I've been away for a little bit, visiting the US, so sorry for no posts during the past few months.

Being in the States got me thinking; whilst I was there, I was struck by just how much of the US journalism adopted 'Metro style' reportage - articles that were basically glorified press releases with some poor branded polls to support some nonsense thought; barbecue sauce gives you cancer or something similar.

And it got me thinking about the importance or unimportance of data. Though I think he's often an insufferable arse, Ben Goldacre published a good article in the Guardian (and a decent rebuttal to criticism about the first piece) about how far people should trust medical data, something which is fairly close to my heart - I don't like the idea of spurious surveys being used to 'prove' some faddy nonsense that does people more harm than good.

His point was that some 62% of data published in national newspapers in the past two weeks would have failed the World Cancer Research's Scale for provable claims; the data would have been 'insufficient'.

I worry a bit that in an age where statistics can be generated/read about as easily as tying your shoelaces, that it has become ever harder to try and sort the wheat from the chaff. Frankly, if I was a client, I simply wouldn't believe half of the 'data points' that my comms agency (be it Advertising, PR or any of the above) came up with.

So why try to regurgitate stuff they already know; or, indeed, fill presentations with evident stuff? Far better to use data in a creative way (and no, I'm not talking about every planner's wet dream, the infographic) to enlighten, and to use to help support lateral thinking. Not telling Sony about the TV market. I'm all for demonstrating that planning/agencies understand the landscape, but oh so many data/'scene setting' new business presentations do little more than add a rudimentary few slides, almost as a embarrassed beginning.

I'd far rather we got on with the business of surprising and delighting our clients, rather than '8 of 10 cats believed'. Show human reactions to things. Proper ones, not some manufactured focus groups. How do people REALLY behave in the juice aisle? (Yes, I'm aware this may involve people being booted out of Sainsburys, but it's undoubtedly worth it).

It is a concern that in a world of MROCs/personalised panels et al that we're far too quick to outsource data gathering to those who are only a piece of the puzzle. After all,' facts only make sense in the light of an idea', as Stephen King put it. Far better to acknowledge what we don't know to a client, to be honest and grown up - and seek to surprise them with genuinely insightful information that isn't easily garnered by their own research department.

This would, I hope, partly stop the endless use of 'post-rationalisation planners' (though it'd never stop it; sometimes a good idea DOES come at the 11th hour). I don't want planning to be relegated to a 'backer up' of creative ideas that aren't founded in thinking about the business. In a dream world, planning would be a conduit, able to surprise creatives and clients, using research in a creative way.

I think it's no coincidence that TNS have appointed a creative director. As a nation filled with dubious 'quick surveys' in our national papers, the likes of TNS, more than anyone, have a need to stand out. I just hope it goes beyond infographics and focuses on why people do what they do. God knows, we've never needed to know that more.
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