Flying Seraph
Where Big Data Will Bite You

I heard a Big Data advocate talking just last week – a fellow who is considered to be a real fundi.

He proudly proclaimed that:

‘This is a new dawn for business. We’re entering a time when we have so much data and technological power available that we will know exactly what, when and how people are doing anything and everything.’

Hearing that frightened the lights out of me. I believed him when he said we’ll be able to manage the sheer quantity and velocity of the data flow. But I was truly alarmed by his narrow focus on how, when and what.

How people behave, When they behave, and What they do, is called observation.

There’s nothing wrong with observation. Observation is necessary. But, without Insight, it is hopelessly insufficient.

A confession: I’m a hoarder. Every so often it pays off (mostly I reckon it doesn’t, but I conveniently ignore that). I dragged out a Creative Brief I’d written a few years back for an instant, packaged foods brand. Here’s an extract (we were pitching so it’s my property to share – I am not betraying any confidence):

Role for Communication

To claim for XXXXX a primal, timeless and potent emotional territory associated with food. Not just eating food but positive feelings associated with its preparation, the nurture of loved ones, facilitation of social gatherings etc. Let us encourage people to recognise and savour the simple joys of everyday food moments – rather than let them simply pass us by in the name of hurry, easy, convenient, instant…

When you buy XXXXX, you’re buying into one of the rich emotional instincts that bonds humans to eating.


Everyday food has become highly functional for both eater and provider – no type of food more so than packaged, convenience food.  By observing and replaying how we eat meals, marketing has all but forgotten why we eat meals.  It’s not just for fuel; it’s not just for nutrition.  We have powerful instincts that make us desire the spiritual aspects of eating too.

Therein lies my fear.

I am proud of those two sections of the brief. I think they set out a real understanding of what had gone wrong. And give real & helpful clues as to how we might start to think in order to fix/enhance the brand. They bring out the humanity in the client/brand’s issues. The second paragraph explicitly sheets home an entire category’s woes to a misguided focus on ‘how’ people behave at the expense of ‘why’.

I am fearful that we might regress to a place where floods of data describing ‘what/how/when people do things’ drown us. Where data and technology become king. And wash away insight – the all-important ‘Why’ (or Why not).

I beg of you to keep your curiosity about people front and centre. No matter the seeming power of the evidence/data you’re given, keep asking yourself ‘Why’. Don’t be seduced by the apparent magic, or intimidated by the apparent power, of data – big or small.

Big Data will only be useful if we interrogate it until we find Big Insights.

Failing that, it will be a dangerous tool that favours observation over understanding and sets us back decades.

Please follow me on Twitter @MarkSareff

If you found this interesting, you’ll love this beautifully written piece by Dave Trott.

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