Can big data technology be used to replace creative marketing?

Marketers are coming to grips with how to use big data and analytics to better target customers, but does that mean they can afford to be less creative?
Written by Michael Lee, Contributor

Using big data is a careful balance of staying relevant and being creepy, according to marketers at the SAS Forum 2013 in Sydney on Thursday, but it's also left many arguing how much creativity can be replaced with technology.

That's the message debated between panellists from five different organisations, including Medibank Australia marketing and digital general manager Chris Caroll, National Australia Bank customer analytics and research general manager Gautam Bose, the Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising CEO Jodie Sangster, Virgin Australia loyalty and customer relationship management general manager Phil Gunter, and SAS VP and chief marketing officer Jim Davis.

While marketers may be experts in getting their product in front of people, Davis put aside the pitch, opting to show how even in healthcare, big data has life-changing effects and very real ethical dilemmas.

"There are drugs out there that today could have been on the market that will absolutely cure a disease in me, but if you have the same disease, that drug will kill you based on your genetic make-up. So that drug never gets to market."

He argued that human genome testing opens the market to creating designer drugs that could be tailored to a specific person, saving lives in the process, but could also be used for more nefarious purposes.

He said that the technology could be used to discriminate against employees, barring those from being hired if their genetic disposition meant that their insurance premiums would be too high.

The company itself is encouraging businesses to use big data to do better business, but Davis issued a note of caution to those that might seek to use big data to do wrong by their customers.

"We as marketers have to be careful not to abuse [technology] because people will come after us. The community will come down on us, and we'll be forced to wear it."

The panel further deliberated on the fine line, noting that there is a Catch-22 situation, where customers might have an expectation that businesses use feedback posted on social media to improve services, but, at the same time, surreptitious collection of information can be considered creepy.

"We've got access to information now that consumers haven't got. We are collecting information that consumers don't know we're collecting, and we're using it in ways to try and be more relevant, and that's where you're potentially crossing the line of creepy," Sangster said.

"If customers have given you their information and there's transparency around, 'This is what I'm going to do with your information,' then absolutely, they generally love it. But the world that we're living in now gives us so many more opportunities to use use big data."

Although these opportunities have been opened up due to the technology now at marketers' fingertips, Sangster said it wouldn't replace the creativity that the industry needs.

She said that the opposite is true; organisations are bringing in journalists and others that can help tell a story, and investing in creating richer, more engaging content.

But Caroll warned that, again, a balance must be found in using technology and pure creativity, calling for more of an analytical approach.

"The story is important, but it's much more powerful when you back it up with numbers. The shift needs to come back to this far more analytical, far more numeric, far more process-y type of people that can build a good case based on fact."

Gunter lamented that the marketing industry is perhaps too caught up in the creative side, with the chief marketing officers more worried about what colours are used in an advertising campaign, rather than the data.

"It's a quasi-failure when the response back, when you're talking about a piece of advertising, is around the crayons, when really the question's got to be about 'Tell me about the segment. Tell me about the propositions that this segment are attracted to. Tell me about the size of the segment. Tell me about addressable market of this segment.' When you get questions like that, I think you're in a good place."

In his past roles, however, Gunter said that the data sometimes led him to do things he'd rather not let the business know that may have seemed counter-intuitive, but were really in the best interests of customers.

"Sometimes, I had to hide things from the CFO ... that were out-and-out good for the member because it was right, and I was desperately trying to avoid negative things for members in the longer-term benefit of the company."

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