“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.
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.
Recorded just a week after Facebook’s rebranding announcement, this latest episode of the SmallDataForum podcast is less about “Greeks bearing gifts”, and more about the Greek and other connotations of Meta, the new company brand bringing together all of Facebook’s apps and technologies for the leap into the metaverse – although this wouldn’t be the first time Facebook’s commercial strategy is being likened to a Trojan Horse.
In keeping with the Classic Greek theme, and the various meanings of meta – some of which appeared to have been overlooked by the rebranding strategists, such as the word meaning death in Hebrew – I share my thoughts on Facebook’s After/Underworld cast, with Mark Zuckerberg as Hades, Nick Clegg as Cerberus, and Sheryl Sandberg – well I’m undecided between Hecate and Persephone. Much to the amusement of classicist Sam, whose knowledge of the Odyssey and the Book of the Dead is a lot more profound, than mine.
For Sam, this is less about mythology, and more about good old crookery: a classic misdirection strategy by “pound shop table magician” Mark Zuckerberg to make Facebook’s manifold legacy problems disappear down the magician’s hat. Kevin Roose at the New York Times calls it Mark Zuckerberg’s Escape Hatch, to rebrand himself as “above-it-all-futurist … a visionary technologist rather than a destroyer of democracy.”
It’s been a long time coming, this in-person get-together of the three SmallDataForagers (I assume that’s what you call someone moderating a forum?) to celebrate our Golden Jubilee.
1,955 days, in fact, since our fateful first encounter in the now sadly defunct Hospital Club in Soho. And nearly 650 days since our last Olivelli feast, just before Christmas 2019, when the world was a different, less pandemic place.
That is of course all small fry compared with the 5,788 days that Angela Merkel has held the office of German Bundeskanzler. More of her and German politics later.
So, a long time coming, and well worth the wait: great company, inspiring conversations – the three of us don’t just have now 50 SDF episodes to reminisce over, but also a shared professional history of one time (Sam, Thomas) and other (Neville) working in the London office of what is now Real Chemistry, a power house of digital analytics alchemy driven business insights in life sciences.
As rebranding is such a thing, and in light of our professional interests (not least Sam’s second book), perhaps we should start calling ourselves the SmallDataBigInsightsForum?
Demonstrating resilient continuity in the face of pandemic disruption, we also reconvened at the Picturehouse Central members bar high above Piccadilly for one of those rare occasions, a live in-person podcast recording.
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 AMAnalyst 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.
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.
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.
Like (slow) buses, you wait for years for interviews to turn up on the SmallDataForum podcast, and two turn up within but five months of each other.
With Thomas taking the first plunge with his doctoral supervisor, Darren Lilleker, back in March, it was Sam’s turns to become inquisitor with Anne Hardy, Chief Information Security Officer at US-French data security firm, Talend (lovely animation on the homepage).
Our conversation focused on the necessary balance between regulation and self-regulation of Big Tech. After some spectacular failures of anything approaching good governance – from Facebook and Cambridge Analytica to the Trump and Brexit campaigns, familiar topics to aficionados of this podcast – the tide is turning on consumer privacy and the uses and abuses of personally identifiable information (PII data).