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David Brennan 

The sad fate of data

The sad fate of data

From Brexit to digital advertising, data has been allowed to become a complex, unreliable, unverifiable and selectively applied jumble of numbers. It's time to put that right, says David Brennan

There have been two huge debates going on over the past couple of months - and neither of them appear to have been based on accurate information or rational argument.

I've spent the last few weeks recovering from illness, so it's given me more time than usual to absorb and analyse major news events.

Here's a few comments that appear to sum up one very topical issue;

"There's so much information been thrown around, but none of it is very enlightening"

"They're just trying to blind us with statistics and data"

"All these projections of what's going to happen, but what do all these experts know? They've got it wrong so many times before"

"It's not based on reality - the numbers don't tell us what's really going on"

"The numbers they are peddling are untrue and dishonest"

"It's all just a cosy cartel. Nobody knows where the money is going"

Actually, that is a mix of quotes relating to two topical issues; both the European referendum and the current travails of the digital advertising industry.

In both cases, there have been worrying patterns emerging lately.

Both issues have been overwhelmed with data. There has been no shortage of 'facts' or statistics or meticulously modelled projections, but there has been very little insight. We've seen a growing distrust of the 'experts' and the establishment and a disillusionment with a system that is being gamed for short-term financial gain. We're witnessing game changing decisions made on emotion and ignorance.

Welcome to the age of information!

In the early days of digital, that was the promise. Everything would be readily available to everyone. It would be transparent, accessible and completely verifiable. We would be the most informed - and connected - society ever.

Well, that is true, but not in the way we imagined.

And, the sad thing is, the more data we have available to us, the worse the decisions that we seem to take

I'm not just talking about Brexit (possibly the UK's Donald Trump moment).

I think we are in a similar place with digital advertising. (How I wish we could abandon that phrase but - like the EU - we can't fully integrate it as a full member of 'advertising' until it plays by the same rules).

My belief is that we should start with the data; it's been allowed to become a complex, fragmented, unreliable, unverifiable and selectively applied jumble of numbers, used much as a drunk uses a lamppost; for support rather than illumination.

Which means they can be used to hide the real truths. Especially if nobody is minded to put them under much of a spotlight.

This ultimately is why the legacy media invest huge sums in providing (relatively) accurate, consistent, transparent, verifiable, accessible currencies. Without the consensus these bring to the planning and trading of media, it becomes a crap shoot.

Meantime, like the case for Brexit, this just might all still end up working to the online display's advantage, at least in the short-term. Despite the lack of accountability in the trading data, and increasing concerns about the flaws in online measurement generally, the online display advertising market in the UK continues to outstrip the competition by a significant margin.

At what point does that investment merit the scrutiny that legacy media channels have faced for years? Online display advertising revenues increased by more than 17% across Europe last year and shows no sign of flagging.

It pains me to say it, but in the end the quality of the data is far less important than whether or not people want to believe it, for whatever reasons.

As a number of commentators have mentioned, the debate (and decisions taken as a result) are based far more on emotions and vested interests. But if the trust between media agencies, adtech businesses and the advertisers is to be built on firmer foundations, they will need to begin with the numbers, algorithms and projections that have been driving the industry to its current levels.

In particular, we need to compare this advertising inventory against the other media channels. It seems to me that only the established media trade bodies are attempting to look at the whole picture. An interesting example of this has come out of the YouTube/Thinkbox exchange of opinions, following YouTube's recent claims for 24% of clients' TV budgets. (What an old-fashioned, silo-led approach to building a media argument).

Thinkbox's chair Tess Alps provided an immediate response, but the more detailed response from CEO Lindsey Clay contained a couple of nuggets which helps to set some perspective; not least the chart she included suggesting YouTube only accounts for an estimated 0.6% of all video advertising airtime, whilst TV accounts for 94%. The figures for 16-24s are 1.2% and 87.6% respectively.

Now, although there will be some apples and pears comparisons within those figures, in my experience Thinkbox try to be as fair with the data as they possibly can be. The question is, how will YouTube respond?

Or, do they even need to when revenues are looking so healthy regardless? If an argument has already been won based on emotion, why engage in rational fact and expert opinion?

As true for the digital advertising industry as it is for the European question.

David Brennan is the founder of Media Native


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David Brennan, Founder, Media Native on 1 Jul 2016
“Fair points, Ian, and I should have mentioned UKOM as part of the way forward. The challenge is greater for you guys, because there are so many alternative metrics that can be used for planning, trading and campaign evaluation. Legacy media currencies do have it a lot easier. So, all power to you and your team in helping to address some of these issues - the digital industry needs to invest more in your work. Now, on to the EU Referendum result and its aftermath!”
Ian Dowds, CEO, UKOM on 1 Jul 2016
“David, it is indeed a complex market and much of what you say has some merit.

However please let us not confuse a veritable oversupply of data with the complete absence of an industry standard. While it is not a JIC, the industry, publishers, advertisers, agencies and digital marketing bodies (IAB,AOP, ISBA and IPA) have come together in the form of UKOM to deliver pretty much what you say the others have: a "(relatively) accurate, consistent, transparent, verifiable, accessible" source of data, supplied in partnership with comScore, who were unanimously selected by the UKOM board (constituents outlined above, with IPA and ISBA in advisory roles) to deliver it. While UKOM approved data is not a trading currency it is very much the planning standard that the vast majority of agencies and publishers utilize and it plays a significant role in reassuring brand advertisers, and planners, agency and publisher insight teams involved in brand display and video advertising that there is a common, fair and equitable comparison to be made in online and mobile media. UKOM would never claim to be perfect but that's partly because it cannot stand still and the accelerating evolution of mobile platforms, operating systems and advertising formats means we are continually working with comScore to deliver a workable and acceptable solution within the constraints that the industry is willing to pay (again a subject often discussed by the exec board and its commercial and technical sub boards).

We know we have a job to do to raise the profile of UKOM and its role in data approval - our work is ongoing - but data supply is not a zero sum game and the commercial models of many constituents in the market benefit from a complex supply of it. I won't disagree with you that there is too much, and that what is out there is often misused or abused, but it is wrong of you to infer that there is no industry standard. There is. It is UKOM.”