Kenneth Cukier: How marketers can win the big data revolution

Ahead of his keynote address at the Data Storytelling Conference, Kenneth Cukier, co-author of bestselling book Big Data and data editor of The Economist, speaks to Marketing Week about the challenges of big data and whether the internet of things and wearables are here to stay.

Q: What is the biggest challenge facing marketers because of big data?

Making sense of data is difficult – but the office politics will probably be harder. Marketing executives will need to make the case to their C-suites and boards to get new financial and personnel resources, and that’s never easy.

Ultimately, bringing big data into a company changes its culture from relying on instinct and luck to trusting empirical evidence and facts. It is a test of leadership whether one can get the company to move in that direction – away from management by ‘Hippo’ (the highest-paid person’s opinion).

This means getting IT to collect more data, clean it and share it. It means hiring outside experts to compliment internal skills. And it also means holding back one’s astonishment and paying the grossly inflated salaries for ‘data scientists’, which are on par with London property prices.

Q: How can businesses develop key performance indicators for using big data?

The real value will only be uncovered over time. The smartest thing a firm can do is encourage experimentation among all employees in all departments and let lines of authority and business units blur. The biggest mistake would be to define the projects too narrowly and constrain the possibilities.

Yet once a company goes down the route of learning from data, there’s no turning back. The efficiencies are huge in optimising all aspects of corporate performance and identifying ways to turn one’s proprietary internal data into new businesses, novel revenue streams, or a form of ‘currency’ to trade with other organisations to reap economic value.

Q: Are wearables and the internet of things (IoT) important trends or distractions for most businesses?

Just as computers, the web and smartphones changed how customers and companies interact with each other, so too will wearables and IoT. Every company needs to start thinking about how their business can be improved if software, data, algorithms and connectivity are added to what they sell.

For example, what sort of products could be transformed into services if they had a computer chip embedded? Who might a firm’s new competitors be, or what new markets could it enter? These sorts of questions underscore how every company needs to devise a wearable and/or an IoT strategy. After all, this isn’t the future: these products already exist, albeit in their initial forms.

Q: Who should be responsible for big data and what skills are necessary?

It would sound great if marketers could be in charge of big data in companies but that’s a recipe for disaster – as bad as if it were handed to the IT department. What you want from big-data leadership is long-term strategic interests and resources.

Overall responsibility should reside in a ‘control tower’ that reports to the CEO but works with all business units, including marketing. That’s the only way to get resources and knock the heads that need to be knocked to get things done.

Being able to communicate big data findings will be almost as important as the technical skills. That said, in future, all business executives will need a working familiarity with big data and algorithms, in the same way as they understand basic accounting today.

Go to conferences.marketingweek.com/ds to find out more about and book tickets to Marketing Week’s Data Storytelling Conference on 10 September, where Kenneth Cukier will deliver the keynote address, ‘Navigating the expanding world of data’.

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