Politics, culture, and the game behind Big Data

By Earl J. Wilkinson


Dallas, Texas, USA


Somewhere close to the 40th speaker during Big Data for Media Week in New York, repetition of stories was getting the best of me. 

Yet where there is repetition, trends emerge. 

Big Data for Media Week, co-produced by INMA, had a mission to surface best practices in next-generation data analytics by the media companies in the “fast lane.”

There was a Big Data for Media Conference at Thomson Reuters. There was a Data Journalism Summit at the Associated Press. There was even a caravan of data vagabonds masquerading as a study tour across six stops in Manhattan. 

Study tour participants heading into a thought-provoking session with data strategists at News Corp.
Study tour participants heading into a thought-provoking session with data strategists at News Corp.

Only in the fifth and final day of this Big Data Week did I fully see the game within the game. 

The surface point of the week was data analytics best practice. But the better story was the deep cultural and political struggle — a sort of DNA overhaul at media companies focused on Big Data’s place at the management table. 

Collectively, they were all telling a similar story even if the story was at different stages of evolution. 

The politics of Big Data may be more interesting than Big Data itself. At least as it relates to growing the concept in culturally reticent media companies.

I saw one major company make a board- and CEO-level decision to drive a data culture down into the organisation. The data analytics people execute, and the legacy part of the company rushes to catch up. 

At another major company, Big Data has a senior-level mentor who has injected it into the organisation and it’s growing exponentially. It’s a sort of middle-out strategy. 

And then there are the many advocates sitting in the audience (200+ people across Big Data for Media Week) who are starting small — often from the bottom — and trying to grow Big Data’s influence within their companies. 

Most of the Big Data for Media Week speakers were revolutionaries. It was heartening to see a heart-and-soul willingness of very senior-level executives help companies (and executives) at different stages of their Data Evolution spark change. 

Data strategists at Bloomberg detail how the company is embracing a Big Data culture change.
Data strategists at Bloomberg detail how the company is embracing a Big Data culture change.

The advice to growing Big Data’s influence within a media company went something like this:

  • Start small. 
  • Pick your projects. 
  • Prioritise winnable projects. 
  • Declare victory. 
  • Loudly communicate the victory. 
  • Give credit to key stakeholders (cement their buy-in). 
  • Think bigger and always think of the next step. 

There are too many examples of legacy media companies timidly sticking their toe in the water of Big Data — perhaps one ex-marketing person doing A/B testing on subscription offers. Maybe it worked, and that one person leaves the company. Maybe it worked, but the victory wasn’t communicated well enough. 

The core difference between legacy companies and digital companies is the degree to which Big Data is infused in management’s DNA for product development, growing advertising market share, reducing acquisition costs, and lower subscriber churn rates. It’s either ubiquitous, or it’s a massive struggle by people used to managing by the gut.

One only needs to look inside the hallowed halls of media companies in New York in the past 18 months to realise the impact of data analytics on talent acquisition and retention. That bug is only now starting to hit London and other media capitals. 

Even the great companies like News Corp, Hearst, and Axel Springer — with all of their might and investment power — suggest pushing data’s centrality is a challenge. Yet there is optimism at the gates of revolution.

The Huffington Post, on the other hand, was founded on the basis of data. The Washington Post and Financial Times are turning the corner. Schibsted has turned the corner, yet even they wonder if they are moving fast enough.

I heard one executive muse out loud whether the Data (R)evolution should be driven by a “data person” or a “strategy person.” I had to sit through a week of sessions to understand that nuance. There are pros and cons to both. 

INMA will continue to push best practices in next-generation data analytics — through conferences, through reports, through study tours, through presentations. Yet it is the politics of growing Big Data’s influence within a media company that deserves more attention — perhaps worth a seminar unto itself.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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