The lingering whiff of sulphur in the air

(Please note that this episode was recorded – and these show notes were written – on Thursday 8 September, before the announcement of the death of Queen Elizabeth II.)

The first Small Data Forum of the @TrussLiz era sees the podcast team convene IRL on the morning of 8 September for the first time in aeons – and in a professional, West End Studio, to boot.

Nothing to do with the fourth Prime Minister (not to mention fifth Chelski manager) since our ‘umble podcast started crackling over the digital airwaves. More to do with a desire to get together IRL more often post-COVID, as well as a heart-felt yearning to “up” production values, as decent as Zoom may be. Plus an opportunity for a post-pod lunch at our favourite Italian haunt, Olivelli on the Cut.

All trussed up and no place to go

With a new Prime Minister in place, Thomas asks who fancies prognosticating on the latest incumbent of Number 10. Sam leaps in. He’s concerned about the far right, ideologically-driven agenda of Truss et al. While memes in recent days – from #ThickLizzy to #NotMyPM may be variously misogynistic and laser-focused – Sam pinpoints the Truss administration as “continuity Johnson”.

Ironically for a new team replacing de Pfeffel’s hated, ADHD-raddled regime, Sam believes Truss made a profound mis-step with her first two speeches, one to Tory Central, the other to the waiting world. Both at the Gathering of the Tories and outside #10, Truss first name-checked BoJo and all the “amazing” things he achieved, from a bungled Brexshit to “the fastest COVID vaccine rollout” (until – very soon – it wasn’t).

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Gina Miller aims to bring good governance to British politics

Gina Miller

The Small Data Forum podcast is both delighted and honoured to bring seasoned campaigner, Gina Miller, to the latest in our occasional – but increasingly frequent – interview series. SDF co-founder and co-host Sam Knowles talked with Gina on 9 February, in the week in which British politics tumbled still further into disrepute.

Two days before we spoke, Labour leader Keir Starmer and MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, were surrounded by a rag, tag, and bobtail coterie of anti-everything protesters. The potty-mouthed crew were apparently fired up with confidence by premier Johnson’s “rough and tumble of debate” gibe at Starmer in the previous week’s Prime Minister’s Questions. During that session, in which Eton’s finest rifle accused Starmer of failing to prosecute serial paedophile, Jimmy Savile, while the Labour leader was Director of Public Prosecutions. This attack – which the PM’s advisors all recommended he avoid like the plague – took the low level of political discourse in the U.K. to new depths.

Sam starts by asking Gina to explain to SDF listeners why she’d founded her new political party, True & Fair, and what she hopes to achieve with it.

Gina believes that Britain’s system of politics is outdated, no longer fit-for-purpose, and so in dire need of reform. The lack of systematic checks and balances mean our national politics lacks transparency, accountability, and good governance, and her objective in creating and launching True & Fair is to address these failings head on.

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This is the end of the year, as we know it

“It’s been a funny old year,” muses Thomas as we three kings of the Small Data Forum podcast begin our last ramblechat of 2021, with Thomas sounding like a football manager trying to sum up the most bizarre of seasons.

His erudite pun quotient – talking of Johnson’s wretched government of 24-hour party peoplePfeffelling along – is a treat for podcast fans old and new.

Sam believes that Thomas’ question as to whether we should see this oddest of odd years as “Plus ça change …” (and so “… plus ç’est la même chose”) is spot on.

Accusations of a series of catered parties at Number 10 are becoming more tangible and less tittle-tattle by the day – parties hosted when London was under Tier 3 restrictions and “mingerlin’” was definitely verboten. Screenshots and grainy footage of canapés and revellers crawl out of the digital woodwork to add the fire of verity to the smoke of accusations.

Spokesperson after government PR flack is being hung out to dry, resign, and spend more time with their families. The lies are mounting up like yet another set of Covid mortality statistics, and the mud sticks to everyone but the leader himself.

For Neville, the PM is deploying Steve Jobs’ notorious “reality distortion field”, and if Johnson declares black is white or up is down, everyone around him is required either to agree or get out … preferably by the back door so that no waiting media can spot and snap them, adding to the evidence pile.

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Media and marketing industry data under an expert microscope

In the third of our new (but growing) series of Small Data Podcast interviews with data mavens, Sam is joined by media analyst Ian Whittaker. Ian is the current City AM Analyst of the Year – a gong he scooped for the second time in 2021. He has more than 20 years on the clock, assessing the financial performance of media and tech stocks. Ian’s understanding of the numbers and data underpinning media and marketing businesses is both broad and deep, and he writes regular columns for both City AM and marketing industry bible, Campaign. We spoke at the start of September 2021.

L-R: Ian Whittaker and Sam Knowles

Ian is optimistic that the media and marketing industry – at least in part – is making good use of data and analytics to target consumers more efficiently and effectively. Most have moved beyond the bombardment many consumers experienced not so long ago, and some of the bigger players – including consumer goods behemoth P&G – are combining the logic of data and the magic of creative to good effect. That said, some, both client- and agency-side, still have their heads buried deep in the sand.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t road bumps along the way, from the deprecation of third-party cookies (when Google finally decides to turn them off) as well as legislation and regulation, regular topics of Small Data Forum dialogue, from GDPR to CCPA.

Ian believes that the future belongs to “those who hold the data”, meaning more power for the FAANG five, as well as retailers from Wal-Mart to Target and their mountains of first-party, customer data. It’s both the middle-ground and smaller players who will lose out, Ian believes, as the oligopoly goes from strength to strength.

Ian’s not sure if Apple vs Facebook is an actual war or more of a phoney war. When consumers are asked by parties with vested self-interest whether they want to be tracked by advertisers, only 5-30% say they do. But there’s no spontaneous consumer uprising against trading personal data for targeted marketing.

So, while Cook and Zuckerberg have deeply-entrenched, strongly- and honestly-held beliefs, Ian wonders whether ‘Apple vs Facebook’ might be more of a war for hearts and mind than a fight to the death. Incidentally, Ian thinks Apple could prevail over Facebook, thanks to its deeper pockets, larger market capitalisation, country-sized cash reserves, and its greater ability to withstand losses. It just won’t come to that.

On the potential for “another Cambridge Analytica”, Ian is sure there will be one – a scandalous data breach for nefarious purposes – but he’s keen to suggest that the furore about the original was more about for whom the data was misused (Vote Leave and Trump) than the data breach per se.

Second comings

Sam mischievously suggests that, with POTUS 45 rumbling about standing again in 2024, we may not have too long to wait. And though it’s hard for an incumbent to lose a U.S. election – catastrophic pandemic responses notwithstanding (“It is what it is!”) – both Biden’s age and his decision to follow through Trump’s policy on Afghanistan make it likely he won’t be seeking a second term.

Ian’s assessment of Martin Sorrell’s second coming at S4 Capital is particularly interesting. Although S4 is not alone at doing very well through and with data and analytics – particularly in comparison with the media agency holding companies (like Sorrell’s previous baby, WPP) which were built in the pre-digital 1980s and 1990s – there are two elements to S4’s secret sauce.

First, a ruthless approach to automating and digitizing everything. And second, the way Sorrell’s new baby buys and folds good assets into the family. Unlike the agency model (cash and earnouts), S4 gives 50% cash and 50% shares in the holding company, baking the long-term success of the acquired into the long-term success of the parent business.

Fascinating that something as simple as incentivization should be so revolutionary.

Beyond Sorrell, Ian believes we should watch keenly the progress of both Next 15 Group and You & Mr Jones. Successful use of data and analytics is central to the future success of agencies and brands. But another important facet will be brand.

The pandemic has led to a renaissance in trusted brands – witness the strong performance in the last 18 months of houses of brands, from P&G and Unilever to Colgate and Kellogg’s. Big tech regularly uses brand advertising – often, Sam points out, in very traditional, analogue media such as broadsheet newspapers and out-of-home – and AirBnB is the latest exponent of brand advertising over search.

In 2022 and beyond, Ian concludes there will be increasing balance brought to the Force, with the yin of data and analytics being balanced by the yang of brand.

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Many thanks to Ian for his time and for this interview. You can subscribe to his regular newsletter here. His City AM columns are here and his LinkedIn profile is over there.

The next episode of the Small Data Forum is our 50th, to be recorded in late September live and direct at our favourite Italian, Olivelli, in the South, Waterloo, South London.

Publication of SDF 50 planned for Monday 27 September.

The robber barons are at it again

Jump the shark

Thomas greets the first episode of the Small Data Forum to be “AT” – 1AT, indeed; the first recorded After Trump – with some cheer.

That said, this month’s often-passionate look at the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life doesn’t give us much cause for optimism that all that much has changed. In our VUCA world of multi-factorial problems, our Teutonic tipster bemoans the meaningless trend in which complexity is constantly reduced to in and out, black and white, this and that.

What is undoubtedly good news is a new format coming soon – perhaps even later this week – to @SDFPodcast: the first in a new series of interviews with interesting people.

First in the Nerf-Gun firing line is Professor Darren Lilleker from Bournemouth University, described by the BBC as “a man who watches Westminster” and by Thomas as “my doctoral supervisor”. His dissection of the state of permanent campaigning by the demagogues of modern politics will be well worth a listen.

Although it had been bubbling under for some weeks, breaking news on the morning we recorded this latest episode was that the fracas between the Australian Government and Big Tech has gotten serious.

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