Global Brands Talk Big Data, Big Problems

Rome conference reveals industry growing pains

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In the actual hotel where Mad Men TV characters Don and Betty Draper were to stay during their fictional visit to Rome in the 1960s, 200 advertising players from around the world this week convened for a three-day big data summit, ending Thursday (Oct. 18).

Unlike the Drapers, very real brands were in attendance: 20th Century Fox; L’Oreal; SapientNitro; Google; Facebook; Hulu; Comcast; Nielsen; comScore. Attendees often spoke about a digital measurement landscape that’s fraught with fragmentation and subsequently stunted.

“I think we have an overly complex ecosystem,” said Doron Wesly, research and insights lead for Tremor Video. “I don’t think we are necessarily struggling with it. But we need to solve this.”

Magid Abraham, CEO of comScore, called out a more distinct confusion that he feels brands unneedingly endure—whether or not digital advertising works.

"The issue a lot of brands run into is that they use marketing mix models," he said. "They are accustomed to traditional [gross ratings points]. When they add in digital GRPs or online impressions, they don't really find a statistical effect. That's a reason for the skepticism (about online display). That doesn't mean digital doesn't work. What they spend on digital is tiny—so the effect is tiny. It's statistically challenging to detect that. You are essentially distorting the true correlaton between sales and digital impressions. Therefore, you make it even harder for the digital advertiser to to show an effect…But we are making progress."

Others were less upbeat about harmoniously correcting the often atonal digital world. Especially when it came to whether the industry would ever operate under a currency standard—i.e., a universally recognized metric such as viewed impressions, as one of many possibilities, so brands clearly understand the value of what they are buying.

Once that feat is theoretically accomplished, brands might shift more spend to digital in general and retargeting in specific. For it to happen, though, researchers like comScore and Nielsen and platforms such as Google and Facebook and many other data-gripping players would have to find a mutually beneficial reason to come together—in a Kumbaya-styled effort perhaps led by a third-party org like the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB).

“It’s a dream,” said Oliver Schiffers, head of data and analytics for SapientNitro Germany. “It would be idealistic and not pragmatic to think that someone can set standards. The IAB cannot set a standard. It’s about the smallest possible currencies like impressions, click-through rates…those are so outdated and have so little value to the demand insights for brands and advertisers. They have to be the lowest possible equation. And they will never be invented.”

Lucas Hulsebos, global business unit director of MetrixLabs Netherlands, was essentially on the same page, while pointing to how getting to standard metrics flies in the face of free-market sensibilities. “Every medium wants a bigger share than they already have,” he said. “That makes it very hard for them to reach out to each other.”

Here are three other key takeaways from the fourth I-Com Global Summit:

1. Hey tech folks, big brands execs may not want your data dashboards.

On Wednesday, L’Oreal’s svp of content and strategic partnerships Deborah Marquadt and 20th Century Fox International svp Bettina Sherick both opened up about the barrage of dashboards thrown at them. In short, they concurred that the dashboards look impressive, but the execs have too much else on their marketing plates than to worry about tweet rates, Facebook likes and web impressions. Please simply equip our agencies with those bells-and-whistles, they said, and let them update us appropriately.

“Maybe we want to stop showing them the next really nice dashboard,” Wesly from Trevor Video said. “They have their Google dashboard, the X dashboard, the Y dashboard. Maybe that’s too much?”

2. “Big data” puts more heat on the Nielsens, comScores and Kantars.

“I think there’s going to be a real big challenge for the research industry to respond to big data,” said Andy Habgood, managing consultant at MetrixLabs. “It’s going to be tough for them to turn it into something useful.”

An insights director for a popular multimedia online platform, while speaking under the terms of anonymity, added: “I’m encouraged from what I have heard because now I know there’s real competition. You can just see that Nielsen and comScore are actively trying to [beat each other]. Since there’s competition, there will soon be new products brewing. It’s a sign that things are moving in the right direction.”

3. Similar to the print news industry lamenting in recent years about how it didn’t bundle subscriptions with website access circa 1996, the data marketing world looks back at the proverbial “what could have been.”

Players in Rome said that this industry for years has tried to shove circular metrics like GRPs from the traditional era into the square holes of digital measurement.

“People talk about restarting the process,” said Habgood from MetrixLabs. “We’re not restarting the process. What we did was immediately talk about a digital GRP. There’s a fundamental question that if you want to develop a common currency whether or not the GRP is the right thing to do. Or, are we just defaulting to that because TV is the dominant media? So we already tie ourselves up in a knot because we’ve become focused on creating this common currency when the currency might be completely wrong for digital.”

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.