What happens when we trust data too much? Does intelligence become its opposite when we rely on integers over inspiration? These are questions that Steve Lohr (of New York Times lore) flirts with in his year-end column, “Sure, Big Data is Great. But So is Inspiration.”

His point? To an extreme degree, the choices we make and the actions we take will be data driven, which deliver operational and strategic advantage but could weaken the inimitably human capacity to detect shadows, if not patterns. Machines are undoubtedly better at the latter, processing vast volumes of data to find proverbial needles in the haystack. But it’s our ability to think with both head and heart that often leads to the most innovative solutions.

Steve Jobs was an innovator of head and heart. He was no fan of market data: “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” Henry Ford may have held a similar view. He’s famously quoted as saying that if he had asked customers what they wanted, they would have said faster horses. The authenticity of the actual quote is now disputed as possible industrial legend, but it rings true to the character of an innovator who, like Jobs, was uncompromising in his demands for simplicity to drive quality at scale. (Famously, the Model T was available in any color so long as it was black and the Apple products were stripped of their floppy drives well before we had ceased to use such things. All in the service of simplicity and clearly driven by instinct, not empiricism.)

The point is that big data, while a powerful enabler for business decisions and real-time action, will never replace the heart that goes into the choices we make. Sometimes the shadows matter as much as the patterns.

But don’t mistake me for a Luddite fearing the rise of the machines. What Lohr doesn’t explicitly address in his article is the crucial role data plays in enabling digital marketing operations—not only for the purpose of sifting through vast rivers of data to make business decisions, but to enable real-time marketing itself.

The reality is that marketing simply moves too fast to rely on anything less than data-driven decisions. Here, real-time activity informs the content and offers you deliver, which requires machines to do the analysis and matching. You may think of it as two intersecting cycles: one focused on strategy and ideation and another focused on operations and execution. Inspiration has a substantial hand in the former, but the latter simply moves too fast.

This past Sunday, the Times took another swing at the data debate with an opinion piece that pits the quants against the humanists in the battle for the truth (“Can Social Media Sell Soap?”). The point is that, in the age of hyper-measureability, gone are the days of inspiration and anecdote as the drivers of marketing success. We’ve entered the age of the quants. But it acknowledges that knowing just what to measure remains elusive: “The impact of new technologies in invariably misjudged because we measure the future with yardsticks from the past.” It’s a quote that will be henceforth posted on my wall as a reminder of the challenge we have as digital marketers. The game has changed: the rules, the rewards and the metrics.

But in the end, if you ask me, crucial insights may be hidden in the data. But the truth is a matter of both head and heart. The quants have the advantage, but I haven’t given up on the humanists yet.

  1. 7 January 2013 at 6:03 pm
    Doug Hadden says:

    This is a far more sensible analysis of the use of big data.

    A couple of additional points:

    1. Big Data and innovation

    Big data is more likely to provide information to adjust processes and improve existing products. It is unlikely to generate ideas for disruptive innovation.

    2. Steve Jobs was not always right

    But, big data can help you discover faster if you have made a mistake.

    3. Apple doesn’t use Big Data?

    My view is that Apple uses big data for operational purposes. Why else would Apple collect location data? Apple has a successful retail operation – needs big data for that.

    4. Denial of reality

    The truth is, even in the high tech sector, managers have been suspicious of data points that contract their preconceived points of view. Traditional data analysis suffers from doubt because there is often not enough of it to demonstrate usable patterns. Big data helps overcome the suspicion that there isn’t a pattern or there is something wrong with data collection.

  2. 9 January 2013 at 2:30 pm
    Jake Sorofman says:

    Thanks, Doug. These are great points. I think the key distinction is between design and operation, conception and delivery. In the former, inspiration must combine with data to drive breakthrough answers. In the latter, data likely prevails. But we talk so much about the data-driven processes that it’s easy to lose sight of the innately human ability to use intuition and imagination for strategic purposes. Apple surely uses big data, but Jobs, I would argue, was inherently a humanist in his approach to strategy and innovation.

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