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Data: After The Honeymoon Is Over...

In a previous piece titled ‘The Indie Web – friend or foe’ we touched on the digital unease generated by the revelations surrounding the mass surveillance programs of the US’s NSA and the UK’s GCHQ – and the resulting birth of the Indie Web movement, where users can own their digital footprint.

More recently, the subject of the acquisition and utilisation of data has become a well-trodden field where marketers and humanitarians do battle.

But why is this subject so sensitive? From where does this sense of insecurity originate? Are marketers crossing a humanitarian line?

Firstly, data and humanity have had a long, complicated and often violent relationship. In fact, if data had a Facebook timeline it might look something like this…


Throughout history institutions have been gathering data for a variety of reasons. It has been a key ingredient for commercial, political, military and imperial triumph and it plays an important role in keeping our carefully constructed societies from falling into disarray and chaos – the emergency services are testament to this. However, data’s socio-political track record has subsequently led to data collection becoming synonymous with power and control.

The accessibility of both open and closed graph data in the globalized digital age draws on this complicated relationship and a sheer lack of awareness further heightens the hysteria surrounding data collection. In most cases, even the most digitally savvy among us do not know when, where or how our data is being collected. It is this seemingly clandestine activity of emotionless segmentation and trend prediction that sends fiber-optic shivers up the digital spines of the consumer.

Yet, the crux of this fear does not exclusively originate from privacy concerns, social control or historical tensions, it stems from the notion that with enough third party data, human behavior can be predicted in real time through a series of complex algorithms. Indeed, to know everything about a person is invasive, but to know something about a person that they do not know about themselves is the ultimate breach of privacy (perhaps The Minority Report was onto something). This goes against all human conceptions of autonomy and individuality and accentuates the innate fear that we are fundamentally binary beings: walking, talking data clusters.

But this isn’t anything new.

Behavioral advertising has been deployed by many brands and agencies over the past decade. The most notable example was in 2002 when U.S retailing giant Target used data from shopping trends to predict when women were pregnant. The targeting was so effective that in one instance they were able to target a pregnant women before she had told her family that she was expecting. [1]

Yet, recently marketer’s use of data has come under heavy fire with many voicing concerns that a seemingly harmless use of data will give way to an ‘insidious and dangerous violation of personal privacy’.[2]


Firstly, exposure to digital advertising increases incrementally as more people spend more time online and are served progressively targeted adverts. Secondly, the rapid development of technology significantly outpaces the evolution of our consumer protection laws, which, as Alice Marwick points out ‘in many cases are out of date and difficult to apply to our networked world’ – an issue that has gained considerable traction in the wake of the mass surveillance revelations. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the majority of organisations are taking a long time to adjust to the wealth of information that has been made available to them. To put it metaphorically, digital advertising and data’s relationship is still in its nascent phase; it is clumsy, inconsistent and lacks subtlety – or as AdAge’s Simon Demenco puts it ‘the gee-whiz honeymoon phase of the Big Data era’.[3]

So, how will advertising and data’s relationship unfold? Will we see it blossom into a refined and mature relationship that respects consumer privacy and enhances the online experience? Or, will we see consumers rally behind digital solutions such as the indie web and anti-data tracking plugins such as Tor in an attempt to shut the door on pestering data hungry marketers. At Ogilvy we believe in a meaningful approach to data whereby careful and calculated decisions based on binary evidence shape the way we go to market. We see data as an opportunity to add value to the exchange between the brand and the customer informing the approach we take in growing customer loyalty into brand advocacy.

However, too many organisations, both commercial and non-commercial, fall victim to the ‘everyone else is doing so I should probably be doing it’ approach (we saw the same thing happen with social media).  This leads to an over-zealous collection of data and ultimately a database so large that any data of value is obscured by the mounds of irrelevant data, alluding to the age-old idiom: it’s not size that matters, it’s how you use it. As AdAges’s Christopher Hansen points out, part of the problem arises from brands focusing too much on the ‘science and technology of delivery and not the message itself.’ [4]

So, when the honeymoon comes to an end and the dawning reality of a lifelong relationship kicks in, will advertisers do what it takes to make this relationship work?


[1] Duhigg, C. (2012, 2 16). How Companies Learn Your Secrets. Retrieved 10 11, 2014, from

[2] Marwick, A. E. (2014, 1 9). How Your Data Are Being Deeply Mined. Retrieved 10 11, 2014, from

[3] Dumenco, S. (2014, 10 27). Forget ‘Big Data’ Beware ‘Little Data’ — and the Horrors of TMI. Retrieved 11 1, 2014, from

[4] Hansen, C. (2013, 10 2). Let’s Use Data Not Just to Target Ads, but to Make Ads Better. Retrieved 10 11, 2014, from

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