Big Data: The Promise and Peril for PR (Column)

Insights from Christian Madsbjerg, author of the new book The Moment of Clarity

Greg Power is president of Weber Shandwick Canada.

Greg Power

Greg Power

Public relations and advertising agencies are moving quickly to embrace analytics to tell us what people want and what influences their decisions. Called a move towards “big data,” this shift is predicted to enhance the solutions we bring to clients.

In March, though, an article was published in the Harvard Business Review called “An anthropologist walks into a bar…” Co-written by Christian Madsbjerg, the feature did not end with a punchline, but was actually a provocative exploration of how marketers understand their customers—and how they don’t.

Madsbjerg was in Toronto recently to speak at Weber Shandwick’s “From Now to Next” breakfast series, and he said that if big data is used just to tell us what we’re doing or thinking, rather than why we do it or think it, it’s simply a lot of data, which leads to the wrong answers.

He believes the obsession business has with trying to understand human beings—presuming them to be individuals that make rational decisions—is a house of cards. Survey questions seldom reveal the truth, he says, because people do not answer them accurately. Instead, we constantly take a stand on our own self-identity and evaluate and re-evaluate based on emotional, cultural and situational filters.

And we tailor our answers to affirm that identity and expectations of our behaviour.

Madsbjerg’s new book, The Moment of Clarity, showcases his work as a founding partner of ReD Associates in New York for global brands like Lego, Adidas and Samsung, where he attempts to build a stronger foundation for that house of cards using his ‘Sensemaking’ methodology, designed to extract real meaning from experience.

Sensemaking adds new texture to conventional market research using a new type of problem solving, one led by human sciences like anthropology, philosophy, sociology and political science. Madsbjerg says these disciplines can tell us why we want, why we believe and why we act, or why communications affect us, which can help us understand what people will do or respond to next.

“If you do not understand that natural science is different than human science,” he explains, “you will get people wrong most of the time.” If the insights derived from big data are based on the assumption that people are rational and will provide rational answers to questions, it will miss what is really happening. Most brands force-fit customers into segments, but that is based on the world they want rather than the world that’s there.

“People want their world to be consistent and they want to think of their lives as a ramp of good decisions and nobody’s life is like that,” he explains.

Madsbjerg continues that if we want to understand the relationships people have with products and ideas, researchers need to look and not think. “Just observe what’s going on without importing your own bias or background framework and try to understand for a little bit and be surprised by humanity,” he says.

In other words: think from the outside in, not the inside out.

According to Madsbjerg, the PR and advertising world will miss the opportunity of big data if it speeds down the path of quantitative hard natural science and neglects the arts and humanities. They need to rethink the way they get information about people they want to reach, and have a more nuanced way of looking at what is important in peoples’ lives.

“It’s still about culture, it’s still about beauty and it’s still about stories. Stories are not something you can get down to an algorithm,” says Madsbjerg. “The advertising and public relations companies that get sophisticated about this will be the big winners.”

My first university degree was a B.A. in sociology, so I have to admit I am easily seduced by these arguments. But I also know from experience that people see what they believe, they do not believe what they see. If a PR company seeks to persuade an audience using only a rational argument, and does not first empathize deeply with that audience to understand how they think and feel, they are going to fail.

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