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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