MediaCom's Andy Littlewood on the Paradox of Big Data and More

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"What exactly is a Head of Knowledge?" I recently asked Andy Littlewood, who holds that title at MediaCom.  "It's someone who gets a lot of questions!" he replied.  It is his responsibilty, he told me, "to make sure our clients benefit from the full knowledge we have; that means getting clients the right tools, systems and data to inform their decisions."

Littlewood started his career at MediaCom in Scotland, spent some time at Aegis and PHD, then returned to MediaCom as the Chief Data and ROI Officer in Australia before moving to the U.S. in 2015 as the Head of Knowledge NA.  We recently talked about his responsibilities as the answer man of the company.

Charlene Weisler:  What type of data do you capture and use?

Andy Littlewood:  We capture and leverage every kind: business performance, audience, location, web interest, shopper.  There are no limits to what we might consider useful, given our clients' needs and business objectives.  Each data set is assessed based on the unique value it can provide.

Weisler:  How has the industry changed since you first started?

Littlewood:  Brands still want to build lasting, profitable relationships with consumers.  What's changed is how that happens, including how much more complicated everything has become.  Marketers started with one or just a couple of advisors and then sought a stable of specialists (when the internet first emerged and digital was thought to be an entirely different world).  Now clients are coming back to the idea that there is greater value in an integrated approach.  Programmatic and other tools have kicked off this same cycle again, and I'm not sure that these new processes are in service of building brands or just driving cost efficiency. 

Weisler:  You have international experience.  Is there a difference on a global level in how data is used?

Littlewood:  The U.S. definitely has more data, but with that comes more challenges.  I call it the paradox of big data: it's great to have location data sets of 50MM plus, shopper data sets that cover most households and many other options, but what we often forget is that each data set only reflects one aspect of the total consumer.  Not enough time is spent really validating the use or accuracy of big data sets, their skews and their true predictive value.

Weisler:  How can you tell which data is good and usable and which data is not?  I assume it varies by project?

Littlewood:  Test it.  A data set is only as valuable as the information it provides.  Each data component has a cost and can be combined in elaborate ways, but is the cost really worth it and does it drive your business or brand?  Structured testing is the way to find out.

Weisler:  What has the response been from your clients to the data results?  Has it changed their strategies and focus?

Littlewood:  Every client we have is trying to achieve growth in competitive marketplaces.  The data results we generate are often the extra inches that help them get ahead.  Every client is responsive to data insights that drive their business.

Weisler:  How do you tailor the language of data to make it less wonky to your various internal and external client groups?

Littlewood:  I live by a very important maxim:  If I can't explain it to my mom (nearly), it's not ready for communication.

Weisler:  How do you think privacy is perceived in data usage?  Has it changed with recent events?

Littlewood:  Consumer consent is at the heart of so much of what we do today.  Marketers want to pay for real consumers interested in their services, and consumers want to see relevant messaging and understand how their information is being used.  Additional privacy requirements ultimately help bring trust back to the equation.

Weisler:  How will privacy concerns impact your future work?

Littlewood:  Policies that emphasize privacy, data quality and governance have a positive effect.  With limits on spurious or poorly collected data the quality of the remaining data will improve, which is good news for marketers and consumers alike.

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