Big Data’s path to ubiquity at media companies

By Earl J. Wilkinson


Dallas, Texas, USA


The labeling of the week screamed “Big Data.” Yet I came away from the recent Big Data For Media Week in London thinking more about culture, efficiency, and audience than data itself — all jobs that need to be done better at media companies faced with a tsunami of change.

An idea exchange at the Financial Times brought detailed discussions among peers about data best practices.
An idea exchange at the Financial Times brought detailed discussions among peers about data best practices.

In my opening remarks to the Big Data For Media Conference at Reuters headquarters in Canary Wharf, I talked about my personal biases about the subject. I dared the speakers to push me off of these biases. Here is where I stand post-conference:

  1. Data is about culture and strategy. We could do an entire conference around the politics of data within media companies. The London event reinforced this.
  2. For data to become democratised at media companies requires a champion in the right place within the company, probably a non-data executive. At The Guardian, that is the director of strategy. At the Daily Telegraph, that is the chief information officer. At the Financial Times, chief data officer Tom Betts sits on the company’s board of directors. Tom’s position seems the exception to the rule internationally, but let’s see where this is in two years.
  3. Every company needs an elevator pitch for data aimed at employees. I saw this struggle at study tour stops and talking with conference participants. The data champion has to drive this and say it over and over and over.
  4. Smaller data-related victories will lead to bigger data-related victories. This goes back to the politics of Big Data. You could say the same of anything you want democratised. Give credit to others (even when they don’t deserve it). Be strategic on whom you target to champion data.
  5. Stakeholders glaze at “data.” Instead, show how data drives audience, revenue, and efficiencies. Near the end of the five-day Big Data For Media Week, someone joked to me that this was really a conference about content and audience – fueled by data. I took that as a compliment.
  6. We need to move beyond the science of data toward the art of data. In the totality of Big Data For Media Week, we saw many clever applications of data. The week was a balance between the data people who like the science, and the strategy people who know how to artfully use data. The recent INMA Webinar on Newsday’s use of data to improve subscriber retention is a good, practical example of this.

Database marketing on steroids. What I was struck by all week in London was that the applications of Big Data sounded like “database marketing” from 25+ years ago – except the tools were much more powerful, and the user interface much simpler. A previous generation of media executive would salivate at tools to make those dreams of yesteryear a reality.

Different speeds. I was struck by the vastly different speeds of media companies using data. On stage were Poland’s Agora and India’s Dainik Bhaskar, at least two years into their data strategies – clear direction, data teams growing, cultural battles, wins, and losses. On stage was Schibsted, which was a first-mover in data, probably ready now for an AI conversation. In an off-the-record session at The Guardian, we learned the company is very deep on their data journey, yet the honesty and forthrightness was so stark that attendees wouldn’t let people finish their presentations, as they were peppered with so many questions. Then there was the CEO who came up to me and asked: “So, how do I tackle this mountain?”

Fire my editor. A publisher whispered his key takeaway from the Big Data For Media Week: I’m going to fire my editor. It is clear that Big Data allows a publisher to know everything about audiences, and the editor is as good of candidate for “chief audience officer” as others at media companies. Yet an editor unwilling to reflect the wishes of audiences has no place in today’s environment – they have to know data, be curious about pushing new dimensionality of data, be willing to act on data, and must rally others around the data.

Efficiency as a core reason to embrace data. Another whispered conversation centered around the business pitch for Big Data to CEOs, CFOs, and boards. This answer caught my attention: My company will be smaller in the future, so we need to become infinitely more efficient; an investment in data systems and people is the path forward. While not particularly inspirational, becoming smarter and more efficient about marketing communications and content architecture can only warm the hearts of CFOs.

If being efficient while shrinking is the low end of Big Data, the high end – artificial intelligence – leaves me scratching my head. Where does it fit in 2017?

A study tour visit to IBM Watson in London represented a deep dive into artificial intelligence (AI) possibilities for media companies.
A study tour visit to IBM Watson in London represented a deep dive into artificial intelligence (AI) possibilities for media companies.

What to do with artificial intelligence. AI is the latest “bright shiny object” for media. We visited IBM Watson in London, and I came away mesmerised by the future opportunities of machine learning. Yet my imagination can barely get beyond bot development in 2017, which is likely the entry-level use of AI today. Is AI for media companies today more about solving deficiencies and slowness in the Big Data universe? Or is it a replacement for how people interact and buy? A senior level executive with a major magazine told me to forget about AI in the short-term – it doesn’t break into his Top 20 list of priorities.

Using data to get things achieved. Finally, I couldn’t help but watch the balancing act all week between the data people and the strategists in the room and on stage. I saw a lot of passion about data from the data people, and that’s good.

Yet something deeply personal was gnawing at me.

For much of its history, marketing was a big part of INMA. There was a rabid community that believed fervently in marketing. Yet most CEOs translated “marketing” to being a labourious process – with a community of people dedicated more to the science behind the process and less to solving audience, revenue, and brand challenges. I literally watched CEOs roll their eyes when “marketing” was mentioned.

I argue that the emerging data community in media runs the risk of going down the same path.

Data needs to be a foundation to address issues vs. worshiping at the altar of data. Occasionally, you will have a CEO who believes fervently in data – just as you would occasionally find a marketing-savvy CEO. Yet it is the exception to the rule.

One senior level data executive told us that if he does his job right – placing data at the center of the company, evangelising, and making it the air in which the company breathes – then he won’t have a job in five years.

Data success is pushing it to ubiquity. If data is the new oil, then its ubiquity in a media company’s strategy is imperative. If you are talking about data at the executive management level, then you have not yet imbedded it into how your company does business.

When we watch a car race, how much time do we spend talking about the oil being used? No, we talk about the car and the driver and the strategy.

We are not there yet with data and media. Yet that is the direction we’re headed.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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