Small Talk About Big Data With Ogilvy's New Data Chief

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Big Data is a haystack, and Cullen's fashioning a pitchfork.
Big Data is a haystack, and Cullen's fashioning a pitchfork.

Am I the only one sick of hearing about Big Data? I don't mean the actual oceans of new data being churned by ever-more capable technology for the benefit of humanity and marketers' conversion rates. I mean the two words that are automatically stamped on any new intersection of “unstructured” data  and cloud computing. Be honest. If someone asked you to define Big Data in a sentence or two, could you do it? I couldn't. Luckily, my job affords me the opportunity to pick up the phone and crib wisdom from big-time industry brains without forking over a five-figure retainer.

Todd Cullen would certainly blanch at being called a big brain. He's a mild-mannered, unassuming Midwesterner who loves baseball and plays the electric bass. He also spent most of the past decade--the formative years of Big Data--at Acxiom, one of the world's primary collectors and disseminators of consumer data. He culminated his career there as VP of Global Data Products. This week, Cullen became the first Chief Data Officer at Ogilvy & Mather, and one of the first with that title in the agency business. He will assume responsibilities for expanding the global data and analytics practice, which was established by Dimitri Maex, promoted to managing director of OgilvyOne New York last year.

If anyone can explain Big Data, Cullen can. So I called him. He could. Here are excerpts of our conversation:

Where does all the confusion over Big Data come from?

People confuse data with technology. There are a lot of tech companies pitching new tools and platforms and marketers get intimidated. They need to do something about it, but they're intimidated because it's tech. Data's been around forever. It's just that there's a lot more of it, and there is technology available now to deal with it.

So how can marketers get their heads around it?

By thinking of Big Data as all the actual data, but now tech-enabled.  Because of all the personal communications devices out there—mobile phones, Nike Fuel Bands--new data is being created every day that has never existed before. Marketers have been using data for years, buying lists, for instance. Now there are different types of data, unstructured data.

And new machinery to manipulate it. Together, they form “Big Data?”

Exactly.

So when we're talking data behind Big Data, are we talking about the so-called unstructured data, like social media reviews, that don't fit on a spreadsheet?

No, all types of data. It's fairly simple. Marketers should start by just accepting the fact that increased data and technology are givens. They are going to have to deal with it no matter what. It's more about getting access to the right data. There's no way any single marketer, or even any large data provider like Acxiom or Experian, can ever use all the data out there, right? So if a marketer accepts that as true, then the issue must really be about finding the needles in the haystacks. The haystacks are Big Data, the needles are the right data.

Just so we're clear, those haystacks are comprised of …

Your own first-party data plus intent-based, in-market data outside your purview, such as customers interacting and talking about your brand on third-party sites. Securing access to the right data means finding what's valuable in your own data set as well as what's outside your enterprise, and a lot of it is coming in a form that doesn't look anything like a list.

Are the haystacks just going to keep getting bigger?

Yes, with something called personal data. It's data that's collected about me indirectly, like my geographic location collected by cell towers. That data is sitting somewhere. It's a new frontier that hasn't really been explored yet that's about to blow up in six months or so when Google and Apple come out with smartwatches.

 

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