When Gene Roddenberry was casting round for characters to populate his series 'Star Trek: The Next Generation', he created the android Lieutenant Commander Data.
The smartest, strongest member of the crew, Data frequently saves the Enterprise from disaster. His flaw is that he cannot fully understand human idiosyncrasies or empathise with human emotions.
You can see where I'm going with this crude analogy to marketing. Data is fantastically powerful, when it is born out of understanding and allied to insight.
But where once there was just data, now there's 'big' data. And big data seems to inspire a certain wild-eyed, table-thumping desire that reminds me of the early days of digital: a real 'I'm not sure why I need it or what to do with it, but I want it and I want it now' urgency that inevitably means far too much money is being invested in something ill-defined and poorly applied.
In our feature, TMW's Anna Foster says: 'Big data seems to be a campaign created by the tech industry to freak everybody out.' There's certainly plenty of evidence of big companies investing in myriad databases that don't mash and losing sight of the customer among all the numbers and profiles.
Now, Nokia is looking to City analysts to help interpret its marketing data. Some marketers will baulk at the idea of embedding this type of hard-core analyst, but there's no doubt that more sophisticated, real-time data insight and planning techniques are all part of the marketer's remit now. Finding the big data is no longer the problem; knowing what the hell to do with it all is.
Which is why it is vital also to keep a firm focus on instinct and intuition. Yes, marketing arses can be amply covered by all this big data; it's great to wave about in meetings, to use as a prop to justify any decision bolder than 'same as last year'. And in thoughtful hands it can help transform businesses.
Navigating through the rhetoric, understanding why big data might be useful and how it might be limiting, is as important as having the money to commission it. But investing in big data simply won't pay back without a very human empathy for consumers and a real visionary creative flair for communicating with them. There is no algorithm for brilliant marketing.
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