The evolution of data – from science to art

It is time to go beyond the data scientist and look to data artists to use their creative flair to solve business problems, provide analysis at a strategic level and make sure the right solutions are being implemented, says DataXu’s Bill Simmons.

The role of data scientists is on the rise in almost every industry, from marketing to medicine to finance. As of March 2015, there were more than 60,000 job postings for data scientist roles on LinkedIn, and ‘data scientist’ was named the ‘sexiest job of the 21st century’ by Harvard Business Review.

In digital marketing, the situation is even more critical. Everything is measurable, meaning many marketers are are struggling to make sense of huge volumes of data so they can’t always see its value.

DataXu was founded by a group of MIT aeronautics and astronautics scientists who wrote the combinatorial language that narrowed down possible options to make NASA’s Mars mission plans a success. After evaluating different industries, they decided to put this technology to use in digital advertising; in real-time bidding, there are a huge number of choices that all need the right actions with decisions being made in milliseconds. All this data is a veritable gold mine, especially with programmatic marketing’s ability to unlock customer insights – provided marketers know how to make the most of it.

While these decisions are algorithmic, creative input is required to make sure the right solutions are being implemented. That is why it is time to go beyond the data scientist and look towards a new expert: the data artist.

While a data scientist is used to build intelligent systems with the machine learning and engineering skills necessary to process and analyse huge quantities of data, the data artist is focused on analytical consulting. Data artists are trusted advisors, who do more than just build systems and analyse data – they need to be able to provide this analysis at a strategic level, consulting on the best ways to maximise return on investment (ROI) and solve business problems creatively. It is the ultimate marriage of left and right brain that can offer huge rewards for brands.

Some of the biggest challenges in big data do not come from analysing the numbers or finding analytical solutions. They are about finding the right solutions for the problem at hand and proving the value of marketing at a strategic level, meaning data science must become a data art.

Data artists can guide brands throughout their entire data journey, starting with setting up the right environment for analysis across the company. The first challenge we always see at DataXu is finding the right way to bring all data silos from different systems into one place and to make it machine-readable, paving the way for truly data-driven marketing and giving brands access to their own gold mine of information.

Once all this data is collected and normalised, there are three different levels of analysis marketers need to contend with, starting with using data to improve performance on specific campaigns. This day-to-day work looks at different aspects of every campaign, like the different audience segments brands are reaching to drive results, for example.

The second level looks at that age-old question of attribution, trying to determine which tactic or channel gets credit, and how much, as well as how to improve the customer experience at multiple touchpoints. By analysing past campaigns, data scientists can visualise the customer journey in full, from start to conversion, and determine a fairer share of credit for each channel that goes far beyond first- or last-click attribution. This kind of in-depth analysis offers brands invaluable insight into how different channels are performing and why, influencing the way they design and run marketing campaigns in the future.

Data artists can help marketers with creative analysis, helping brands make more calculated decisions to achieve better ROI

Although most data scientists are well-equipped to handle the day-to-day data needs of their marketing teams, as well as looking at more high-level attribution analyses, there is another level where the data artist truly excels.

This kind of analysis looks at the marketing mix in its entirety, including every channel online and offline, to answer the crucial questions that plague every CMO: how much do I invest in each channel? How do I optimise every one? What percentage of sales can I expect from this campaign? What is the causal effect on sales if I change marketing investment levels? These decisions require the right combination of creative touch and statistic-led insight to answer.

These questions were once difficult to answer, but the data artist can now help guide heads of marketing with creative analysis, helping brands make more calculated decisions to achieve better ROI on their marketing overall.

It is vital for every player in the industry to move beyond the standard uses of data and towards higher-level insights that can prove and build ROI. Not only can brands benefit from this detailed look at their data and customers, but it is also vital that media agencies and tech vendors build up their own data teams further to better advise their clients.

With 1.5 million queries every second, and billions of decisions made daily, programmatic platforms offer a data artist the chance to do more than just analyse the data they already have, but analyse and keep up with future trends in the industry as well.

This kind of future-proofing needs more than just rigorous number-crunching – it needs people with the right creative and strategic thinking to make the most of the data.

We have come up with some of our best solutions for our brand clients, such as SAP, Vodafone and Ford, through brainstorms between marketers, C-level executives, and data experts, combining marketing know-how with data-driven insights to get the best of both worlds. This is where your data team, or a trusted partner with the analytical insight necessary to make sense of all your data, can and should show their real value.

After all, marketing is all about solving business problems creatively – it’s time your data team reflects that too.

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