Branding data is tough—and not just because many eyes glaze over when you start to talk about it. But in today’s media marketplace, it wouldn’t be wrong to think of the data world as a spreadsheety version of a gold rush, with everybody scurrying to stake their claim.
“At the early stages of anything, most people who are in that thing don’t understand it very well,” said Rick Erwin, president of consumer insights and targeting at Experian. In the gold rush analogy, Acxiom and Experian are the ’49ers—the guys who got there first, started buying data for the direct-mail market in the last century and showed everybody else how to do it when digital data collection became huge a few years ago. Advertisers have realized that big data is powerful; they’re also learning that it’s overwhelming.
“A lot of the value that’s created in the industry has nothing to do with the raw data—it has to do with combining the data into a better predictive model,” explained Scott Howe, CEO of Acxiom. His mission, he said, is to weigh and identify data correctly.
In essence, the Acxiom brand tries to soft sell the reality that consumers are on the grid. “A consumer should be able to say, ‘I don’t want to participate,’ but they shouldn’t be able to expect value for that,” he said. “I watch the Super Bowl every year for free on television. The reason I watch it for free is the ads.”
Privacy is a big part of branding for the two giants. Erwin touted the stringency of Experian’s internal standards for the info it buys, taking pains to avoid data of dubious origin. Because while credit info is regulated, marketing isn’t, and the companies keep those divisions walled off from one another.
“[Credit data] is regulated to a point where if it were to ever be even accidentally intermingled with the marketing data, the regulations … would immediately apply to the marketing data,” Erwin said. “That would kill the marketing data business.” Experian is a huge company, with a presence in 60 countries and $4.7 billion in revenue last year.
Acxiom, too, wants consumers on its side. Its strategy has been relative transparency. Register for the company’s About the Data tool, and it will show you what Acxiom thinks it knows about you—you can even correct it, so you will get fewer George Foreman Grill ads. And another part of both companies’ pitch is inevitability. Your data is known, therefore it’s for sale. Take your cut, or don’t.
“Think about the airline industry in the ’70s,” suggested Howe. “There were people who said, ‘I don’t care about the perks, I don’t care about the free beverages, I don’t care about the leg room, give me a better price.’ And at the end of the day, I’ll take the cheaper seats.”