Navigating With A Broken Compass – Reappraising Our Approach To Data


Navigating With A Broken Compass – Reappraising Our Approach To Data

Early this month, I returned from our Global Strategy Council meet where we unveiled an updated version of our engagement-planning tool. True to the development in the western markets, the proposed version of the tool is fairly advanced in its use of data. It uses audience data overlaid with shopper data to figure out barriers to purchase and the best media available at that stage of purchase cycle. My first reaction was – can’t do it in India, we don’t have data. While the tool itself is easy, the data required isn’t.


The unfortunate truth is that despite our growth and buoyancy, in India we are still driving into the future, largely based on our gut feel. The market data infrastructure in India is quite broken, so is our attitude to data usage. This doesn’t sit well with the size and potential of a market such as ours.


For instance, all of the last two decades we made a big deal of the estimates of 300 million middle class consumers. Brands and businesses made serious investment decisions based on this estimate, only to realize later that the proverbial number of 300 million was rather misplaced. It indeed was. A simple crosscheck with census data will tell you so. According to the 2011 census, only 56 million people claimed ownership of a four-wheeler and 254 million claimed to own two-wheelers. The size of the middle-class then cannot be outside this bracket. And this is still an estimate.


In lack of a healthy data culture, we are making big decisions on shaky grounds. We are committing crores of media monies based on data from a few people-meters. In fact, this meager data is dictating most of our television content and their storylines. There are so many categories, for which even basic data such as penetration, market size and market share is not available. Brands are happy to spend big money on media, yet shy away from investing in brand tracks. What’s the point in spending 10 crores on television when you don’t even know what it did for the brand?

A report pinched from here, a favour from there, is how this approach works. Perhaps it comes from our cultural conditioning, our inability to pay for pure knowledge. Remember, we are used to borrowing a newspaper to read rather than buy it.

Availability of data and our propensity to invest in it is just one issue. Its not that once we have the data, we use it in the best possible way. We are typically reluctant to share it around. There is a duality in our approach to data. We often swing from one extreme to the other. Either we surrender ourselves completely to data or reject it abjectly in favour of our gut feel. On one hand, we don’t want to spend a dime on it.  On the other, we selfishly hoard data. I can see at least four behavior patterns in our approach towards data.



This emanates from an overconfidence of having seen it all. What can data teach us? The stories of marketers deciding on a campaign based on what their family thinks and advertising agencies writing ads for their own colleagues have their roots in this. Believing in your gut is good but being blinded to what lies outside is not. Many times data opens our minds to the new. For instance, the image that rural India is equal to agriculture is hardwired in our minds. But working on a rural India project we realized that only 34% of the rural output is farm based, 66% percent is non-farm. This single piece of data changed our thinking and portrayal of rural India completely.



This behavior epitomizes the saying by an American academician, W. Edwards Deming – In God we trust, all others bring data. It’s like the meme doing the rounds on the Internet where a car drives straight despite a clearly visible hairpin bend, because GPS didn’t have data for that spot. This approach is a nightmare for creative agencies; it values quantitative ad-test techniques more than creative ideas. Even shared cultural behavior needs data proof here.



One of the fallouts of data scarcity is the syndrome of data possessiveness. We love data so much that we don’t want to share it. Many clients and agencies alike, sit on hordes of data as precious real estate. It takes several mails and phone calls, and finally a tap from the top to share the precious numbers. Yes, data can be a weapon, but not if it lies in our hard drives. This behavior gains prominence around the EFFIES season. Data suddenly becomes the most closely guarded secret by the clients and the most avidly chased objective by the agencies.



This is about seeking ‘free love’. Everyone loves data but no one wants to buy it. We hoard every bit of data that’s available for free. A report pinched from here; a favour from there is how this approach works. Perhaps it comes from our cultural conditioning, our inability to pay for pure knowledge. Remember, we are used to borrowing a newspaper to read rather than buy it. This approach equates data to world knowledge and believes it’s the role of some good Samaritans to keep feeding it to us.


Our approach to data swings between extreme emotions of disdain, surrender, selfishness and thrift. Of course, there are companies that invest significantly in data and use it systematically. But we all know that they are a few and far between. For the rest of us, it’s important that we find a healthy sweet spot between these approaches.


We can’t abdicate ourselves completely to either our gut feel or data. Data doesn’t replace judgment, it informs it. We must remember that. We also need to recognize that data is enriched by different interpretations. This needs a shift in mindset from data hoarding to data sharing. For all of this to become a reality, we need collective commitment and investment. We need better data and access for more people. Here’s the role for data providers who must price it right. We all have a role to play in building a healthy data culture. We all need to stand up for data. We can’t be navigating our expedition with a broken compass.


(This article first appeared in The Economic Times)

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