Top Of Mind

The Future of Advertising Isn’t Big Data. It’s Earned Data.

June 2014

In the future, ads will need data, but data will not need ads.

For a business that sells creativity, advertising has shown a startling failure of imagination aboutits future. The prevailing opinion seems to be that the future of our industry is just more ads, though served with a magic sauce called Big Data. Aside from being a convenient buzzword, however, what is Big Data really?

Let’s get specific. I would argue that, as with media, we should be thinking of data as bought, owned, and earned. We’re all familiar with the first kind – and the questionable return on that investment. An example of owned data is Nike+. Because 20 million people are happily getting value out of the service, the data they generate is also earned. Most importantly, the best use of this data is not ads. It can inform direct and judicious communications to the user through the platform (which they visit three times a week on average). The data is such a clear signal of intent that it can also inform product development. If you believe Messrs. Levy and Wren, the best way to future-proof a holding company is to merge it with another, to make Big Data bigger. If the agency’s role has always been to help the seller’s stuff seem more appealing to buyers, data’s role in this game is to help us guess what a buyer might want and then serve up the right ad at the right time.

Google has grown into the biggest media company on the planet with a coldly efficient algorithm that does just this, by making better guesses based on what people are already looking for. What Levy and Wren are worried about is a future where sellers – their clients go directly to Google and the other big digital media to reach buyers.

They should be worried. In the future, ads will need data, but data will not need ads. Data will have better things to do, like making people’s lives better. But what if, as with Nike+, both marketer and customer have a vested interested in sharing a data set? The customer willingly offers his data because he knows he’ll get something valuable in return. The marketer knows that will encourage repeat visits and purchases.

That’s the essence of earned data. Figuring out how to earn it is our challenge as agency folk if we want to be relevant in the future.

We live in a culture that has become exhausted with advertising as it has long been practiced. Buyers have decoded the language of advertising and have lost interest. And there are too many things to buy on too many screens. You can talk about Big Data all you want, but if the “relevant” ad I’m being served is just one of 20,000 jostling for my overburdened attention, what’s the benefit?

In every category, companies are developing software services. Our world is rapidly filling with connected devices and sensors that are being using to track, inform, transact and socialize. Soon the world will be swimming in even more data. Instead of using technology to navigate all that data, we should be using technology to incentivize people to share with us only the stuff that matters most.

Reprinted from the Spring 2014 FutureVision magazine, “The Connected Future Is Now.” To request a printed copy, email

Author: Nick Law, Global Chief Creative Officer, R/GA