Data Drivers March: Science and Spirit in Media, Tech, and Commerce

Data Drivers
Peter Feinstein

I’ve been called a geek, nerd, or dork for decades. I think sometimes those weren’t terms of endearment, or commentary on my technical sophistication, but more like someone’s idea of how uncool they thought I was — for whatever reason.

Little did they know how hip they make me sound now — although, to be totally transparent with you, my days of being in the know of everything hi-tech, or of being an early adopter of the latest gadgets, are in the past. That said, I do make the effort, virtually every day, to stay informed of what’s cooking in technology so I can talk intelligently about what’s on the horizon, what’s working, and what to be mindful and careful of in our fast-changing world of advertising.

Science Chained to Profit Isn’t So Sweet

Science has been a buzzword for a while. Recently, though, I’ve seen an increasing number of references — in a variety of publications, including The Wall Street Journal, AdExchanger, MediaPost, and Ad Age — to the “science” of advertising. The trend, as I understand it, is that many of the larger offline-media companies (TV and radio) are doubling down on the power of science to spur faster, bigger, and more long-lasting profits.

It kind of sounds like they’re looking to cure what I call AED — “Advertising Erectile Dysfunction.” OK, you can laugh; it’s funny … kind of. But it’s true. And even more self-evident is that entire media conglomerates are going out of their way to hire people called “data scientists,” with the sole intention of unlocking the holy grail hidden in the data they’ve been (and continue to be) accumulating with one purpose in mind: to drive profits.

I love profit; it’s a beautiful word, especially when the purpose that drives it comes from the transference of highly leverageable value to clients who are buying what you’re selling. That’s the basis of capitalism.

If the purpose of media companies hiring data scientists is focused more on unlocking the secrets held in their aggregated data than delivering highly leverageable value to clients, I think we have to ask ourselves some pointed questions, including:

  • Who really believes in the science of advertising?
  • Why are we so profit-first driven instead of value-first driven?
  • What’s behind the idea that unlocking the so-called science of advertising is going to release untold profits?
  • And perhaps most importantly: Are we willing to discuss our answers in thoughtful, honest conversation?

I’ll be straightforward with you (and I’ll bet some of you will think I’m some kind of dork because of that): it sounds like we’ve been hypnotized by a lot of really slick looking full-page ads in a variety of trade publications, as well as a relentless drum-beating of “data-first = profit-based” propaganda. These works of near fiction extol the success stories of integrating data and science to produce unrivaled, prodigious results at heretofore-unknown profit margins — all without sharing any of the nightmares of how the cost of hyper-datatargeting negated all potential ROI.

I don’t buy it — pun intended. And not because I’m a natural-born skeptic. I’m a sales guy — I love being sold, and I love buying stuff! So, my opinion comes from experience testing data-based science in advertising. I’m not saying it’s all hogwash. It’s not. I am saying that it is not the living end; it is not the be all, end all; and it is not deserving of our sole focus in driving profits for our companies.

Applying the Spirit of the Golden Rule

We must re-inject the spirit of service to our profit seeking. Zig Ziglar often said that we can have everything we want in life as long as we help others get everything they want. I’m a fan of that logic — and of the path down which Zig’s thoughts lead us.

I don’t believe that data and science will lead us to cure AED. Instead, they will lead us into depression, because we will have chosen to build our businesses on a house of cards. One small breeze, and it’ll all come down.

I suggest instead that we take the insights we can get from data and apply them to the power of our human creativity and our sincerest desires to be of service to our clients. We will get it wrong from time to time — but when we are motivated to be of service, we can’t ever really fail. Not even if you’re a geek, nerd, or dork like me.