Getting to grips with the finer points of ‘big data’

‘Big data’ is a term currently in vogue in marketing circles but what does it mean and what are its practical implications for marketers and brands? Our panel of experts give their take on the subject. By Maeve Hosea


The panel:

Chair: Ruth Mortimer, editor, Marketing Week
Michael O’Connor, digital manager of professional products division, L’Oréal
Antony Eden, head of digital marketing,
Cindy Etsell, industry marketing manager, SAS UK
Steven Georgiadis, business development manager, SAS UK
Ben Grace, marketing director, Bulldog Skincare
Jade Harris, marketing manager, Dermalogica Skincare
Gareth Helm, former marketing director of Mars Petcare, consultant at Triniti
Emma Jones, head of marketing, GB, Bank of Ireland
Gareth Jones, head of online marketing, Carphone Warehouse
Richard Purkiss, CRM manager, Domino’s Pizza Group
Will Woodhams, director of marketing and PR, French Connection Group

Marketing Week (MW): What does the term ‘big data’ mean to you and your organisation?

Antony Eden (AE): I understand big data to be bringing disparate data sets together so you can get a single unified view of the consumer.

For Boohoo, it enables us to understand as much as we can about our customers as individuals, and communicate to them in an engaging and effective way.

Emma Jones (EJ): For me, the challenge of big data is how to pull it all together and build strategies around it. With social marketing, for example, there is so much data out there.

AE: There is such a glut of data that the key issue is understanding what is actionable and what is not. This huge volume of data can give you a sort of paralysis by analysis. You need to have the right people and the right agencies involved to be able to sort the wheat from the chaff.

Steven Georgiadis (SG): You have volume and you have variety and the third dimension about ‘big data’ is that you have velocity – the speed at which this data is hitting you. The ability to harness that to make quicker decisions and satisfy your customer more accurately is invaluable.

Cindy Etsell (CE): We’ve been talking about big data for 35 years so it’s really interesting to hear where everybody is and what stage they’re at.


MW: Who has control of the data in your organisations and who makes the decisions about how it is managed?

EJ: Because of the current financial climate, for my company, the Bank of Ireland, the focus is on risk management at the moment. It is not necessarily marketing that owns the data. It is held in so many different systems and platforms that we haven’t yet the expertise to pull all that’s available together and make sense of it.

Richard Purkiss (RP): Most departments across the Domino’s group use data in some way, whether it is operations using it for pizza make-times to optimise delivery, or property modelling in order to open new stores. The marketing department owns the sales data.

Gareth Jones (GJ): From an online perspective, the analysis and interpretation of the data sits with my team but not all the data resides within Carphone Warehouse itself. We work with agencies and vendors and some of the most interesting insights come from them.

Hitwise data gives us lots of insight in terms of weekly traffic share. However, the challenge we face is what we do with the data once we’ve crunched the numbers.

Gareth Helm (GH): What I see happening within marketing teams is the split between the data people and the more intuitive brand people becoming less pronounced. I think we’ll start to see a blending of those skills – you can’t let one person look at it and another person respond to it.

GJ: From a retail perspective, we need to be nimble and respond to the market pressures and do things quickly. Often it is a case of striking a happy balance between what the data tells you and what your gut tells you.

Will Woodhams (WW): If digital marketers were left in charge of digital advertising, it would be a dreary world we lived in! Digital advertising needs to be about fusing the correct message with the right consumer and that data is going to help you eventually.

AE: I have both brand and insight-oriented teams within my department at Boohoo. They include people who focus heavily on numbers and others who focus on creative delivery. It is important to balance both and bring the creative guys a little closer to the data and vice versa so that we can deliver more effective marketing.

WW: Isn’t there a concern that the data people are going to win the argument?

AE: Not always. We know that creativity has a massive impact on a campaign’s performance. We have to ensure that we bring design and insight together to get better results.

As a fashion business, we have a good understanding about what products and creative will resonate well with our customers. We then use data to segment our customer communications to deliver the most appropriate message and to optimise future activity.

Michael O’Connor (MO’C):

Like everyone here, L’Oréal has different silos including consumer advisory, marketing and corporate communications. Each department is vying for their own view of the data.

So, for example, with something like social media data, it becomes important to convince management of the value and the return on investment of that information.

MW: Do you need separate creative and data people or is it about retraining marketers so they can be both creative and data-oriented?

Ben Grace (BG): I think it’s important people become more rounded in their skills and link the two. At Bulldog, we find our most valuable insights come from deeper relationships with our customers. On our social media platforms, numbers are less important than the depth of information and how instinctively we can interpret that information to create insights.

GH: From my experience it is small-sized businesses like yours that tend to have more of a one-to-one relationship with consumers. Big data is enabling big companies to have that possibility.

Jade Harris (JH): At Dermalogica, we want to maintain a personal relationship with customers and we fear that big data could mean losing control over that. Even though it means segmenting and making the message more targeted, I think there is the risk of losing your personality.

RP: Rather than retraining the creative guys to be more data analytical, you need to present that information to them on a level that they can understand.

GH: Interestingly, it is things like Twitter and Facebook that makes big data quite sexy for a creative person. It enables them to feel comfortable with big data but still have their intuitive brand buzz.

MW: How important and useful is real-time data?

WW: It presents more challenges. I could be receiving massive files of all the data I need throughout the day but I would not be able to get the business to agree to have someone analyse, process and act on it.

GJ: You can have all of this ‘real-time data’ flooding into your business like a tsunami but the key point is how you are going to respond to it. The challenge isn’t about the analytics but how your business is set up.

If looking at what people are talking about in the Twittersphere and responding within an hour is real-time data, then Carphone Warehouse is doing it.


SG: I would call that near real-time. True real-time is when someone on your website is having a different experience from someone else, based on data available there and then. For example, in a contact centre context where you are supporting your agents with some pop up information and changing a consumer’s experience ‘on the fly’.

MW: Is data allowing you to develop personalised marketing?

EJ: I would say data is allowing us to become more targeted with our communications and product offering, through profiling and segmentation of our customers.

WW: A pair of chinos from Reiss is currently stalking me online. Everywhere I go, there they are, shadowing me. I want to know if French Connection can do something more intelligent than this style of behavioural advertising. I want to know how advanced we can get.

BG: That’s a case of data being mis-used to the ultimate level. Rather than looking at what you have done historically with the brand, it is a case of a cookie being dropped on your device and chasing you around the web.

MO’C: A lot of people don’t like being followed around the web. Other examples are real-time personalisation, where you might find yourself doing a Google search for the weather report and then get an ad about rain jackets.

GJ: This relates back to the discussion about creative people and analytics people. Clearly there is someone within Reiss who has a performance perspective on this, who is seeing as an opportunity to sell those chinos to you. However, if the data is not managed properly, it is going to have a big impact on your impression of that retailer – and that’s where the brand people come in.

It is important to educate people [about cookies] as a whole through the industry and clamp down on the stuff that irritates people: the behavioural retailing and chasing people around the net

MW: The new EU Cookie Directive comes into force this month – how will it affect your ability to personalise marketing?

EJ: There is a regulation around cookies where we have to be open and honest about whether we are using them, and give the user the option to turn them off or on.

GJ: We are talking regularly about this with our compliance teams but there is still a bit of fuzziness about what the obligations are. We have audited the website as well as all of our digital touchpoints in terms of cookie usage and have amended our privacy policies accordingly. However, we are not really sure how much more we need to do to fall within the letter of the law.

SG: The best implementation I have seen is It has done it really neatly while protecting its ability to collect data.

GJ: You can be open and honest and upfront but I am not sure that there is a general understanding among consumers of what these cookies are and what the Information Commissioner’s directive is protecting them from.

AE: Yes, there is the danger of the negative customer journey. If you ask Joe Public about cookies, they will have negative perceptions about them, and that tarnishes their positives – such as the Amazon customer journey experience where relevant products are suggested to you when you go to its online store.


MW: Do you think there needs to be an education process from your brand on what you are doing with cookies and how that improves the customer experience?

RP: We are looking at doing some developments that will enhance the use of cookies. As long as consumers understand the benefits of that – for example if it is easier for them to order pizzas – they will go along with it.

AE: But how many customers are actually going to look at what your cookie policy is? I don’t think it is the individual retailer or the brand’s responsibility to do that education piece. It is more important to educate people as a whole through the industry and really clamp down on the stuff that irritates people: the behavioural retailing and chasing people around the net.

MW: What kind of data that you don’t currently have would be most useful to you?

RP: It would be most useful to have weather forecasting data and the ability to plug that into real-time triggers. We know that when it is wet weather we have better sales. We could use that data for business decisions such as staffing levels or marketing triggers.

MO’C: It would be fantastic to know more about particular shifts in behaviour. For example, people who have used home hair colourants, had a bad experience and gone back to a salon environment.

JH: Our goal is ultimately to drive consumers into Dermalogica stockists nationally to purchase Dermalogica products and to experience professional skin treatments with the therapists who sell our products. I would love to know how many of the people we are touching electronically are driven into a Dermalogica skincare centre – whether that be via Facebook, Twitter, from our online efforts or through the online PR we generate.

GJ: We know a lot about how people behave online and so what we are endeavouring to understand is how that online journey affects our customer footfall and our retail sales of phones. You might find that your online sales are modest but that people are researching online and then walking into the store to buy. Google calls them ROPO – the people who research online and purchase offline.

MO’C: How do you think that will work in the future – the whole attribution problem of the website driving X number of people offline but not being able to track it?

GJ: I am a big evangelist of the mobile. I think the mobile device will be the glue that binds a lot of this together in future. Mechanisms to pay through your mobile, such as Google Wallet, will offer a way of linking what people are doing offline to online.

Real-time data presents more challenges. I could be receiving massive files of all the data I need throughout the day but I would not be able to get the business to agree to have someone analyse, process and act on it
Will Woodhams, French Connection

MW: Is the risk of having so much data that you are trying to tackle too many issues at one time?

GH: It is an interesting dilemma with the big global brands at the moment because to a certain extent they are trying to simplify and have a one-mix-fits-all strategy. Ultimately, huge amounts of local data are driving personalisation and they find that difficult. So, this situation gives opportunities to smaller players because they can be more relevant.

JH: I believe in being personal. We keep our databases separate from each other and information we send to each is carefully selected. We don’t target specific skincare ranges to specific people, we work to ensure that each customer product experience is based on prescription – whether that’s through a face-to-face consultation at a salon or by providing online personalised prescriptions.

GJ: Local means something different to us at Carphone Warehouse. Particularly with the mobile channel advancing as it is, local means what people are doing in our shop and, connected to that, what they are doing in someone else’s store that will get them to turn around and walk into our store.

MW: Which businesses do you think are using data well?

WW: Net-A-Porter – because of the way it finds its top 10% of customers and gives them exactly what they want: product before anyone else has seen it, specifically tailored to them so it feels personalised.

SG: Some of the best ones are those you don’t notice because they’re doing it so smartly without some of the negative impacts, such as feeling like you are being stalked. Shop Direct is doing very smart behavioural stuff with targeted remarketing and intelligent attribution.



Dell is using social in an interesting way. It uses a technique called product swarming where if people like a product, it will put it into production or make it cheaper in price.

BG: Amazon. Functionality is another great example of Amazon’s use of data, benefiting both the supplier and the consumer. We find that our customers are often very ethical and eco-aware. They might buy brands from a completely different category but with a similar ethos to Bulldog.

Amazon mines data to make these less obvious connections and recommends relevant products and brands. We benefit through association with these other like-minded brands and consumers are served relevant products to fit with their lifestyle.

RP: I have never seen Amazon do anything bad when it comes to one-to-one marketing. However, some brands recommend offers through email and you see right through the computer-generated element and you just lose your respect for that brand.

MW: What do you think your challenges are this year?

JH: Making use of the online space but still touching the customer. The best way to sell to our type of customer is face to face but at the same time people like to shop online. So it is about maximising that online/personal touch potential.

GH: It is very easy to get confused with this whole thing. It is a matter of keeping it simple and measured and not just jumping in.

RP: There is a lot of talk about big data as something that is going to take everyone by surprise. However, I don’t think it is a case of suddenly hitting oil.

Businesses will know that they are developing a strategy that will produce information and data so will prepare for it. Building on that analogy, you want to be able to do something with the oil so people can use it in their cars – turn your data into something useable.

WW: There is a lot about using data to drive sales and return on investment but I think we should be using this information for innovation. Use it now to find out what people will be buying next year and the year after. That is just good old-fashioned business sense.

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