Tony Weber is the newly appointed chief data officer at Wunderman Thompson North America, an agency he joined worked at originally in 2017 as principal consultant where he led digital transformation initiatives through leveraging data, technology, analytics, and business intelligence platforms to enable customer-focused decision making. The data-driven marketing veteran joined the company from Time Inc. where he drove subscription and retail purchase capabilities for the consumer magazine business as VP for Digital Marketing, Analytics, and Capabilities. Tony took up his new responsibilities in Q4 of 2021 and his intentions are for the division to lean into its capabilities to better assist customers during this period of rapid change.
We picked Tony's brains about his approach to data-driven creativity, its best practices, potential blind spots, and more.
LBB> What’s the number one question that clients are coming to you with when it comes to how they can better use data to enhance the creativity of their content and experiences?
Tony> More often than not our clients aren’t explicitly asking ‘how can I better use data?’ Rather they are asking questions like ‘how do I create a more personalised experience?’ or ‘how do I find the individuals most likely to buy my product?’ These are implicitly data questions, even if they are presented as a creative or customer experience challenge. Our task is to make those connections and infuse insight and the ability to activate into our experience design.
LBB> How can you make sure that data is elevating creative rather than forming a wind tunnel effect and knocking all the interesting or unique edges off that make something distinctive?
Tony> I see no reason why data would impede distinctive creative or ideation. Used and understood properly, data should open up possibilities in what creative can accomplish, provide insights into who your users are and unlock opportunities to connect with them in unique ways. It should not, however, be used as a crutch or a shortcut. As powerful and predictive as data can be in illuminating who people are and how they behave it can’t always anticipate what ideas will spark the imagination or what cultural moments will resonate. Data and creative should be in continuous dialogue with each other, intersecting and adapting to the needs of our clients and society overall.
LBB> Can you share with us any examples of projects you’ve worked on where the data really helped boost the creative output in a really exciting way?
Tony> We worked with a consumer electronics brand that was looking for new and more relevant ways to communicate with its customers. Using a blend of bespoke research and advanced modelling we were able to develop relevancy-based segments that connected with the motivations and values of buyers in their market. We were able to identify underserved segments that could serve as white-space for the brand, and by scoring individuals against those segments we were able to personalise the creative assets in-market in a way that enhanced the buy message with signals aligned with their innate desires. It provided an additional layer of nuanced personalization that was addressable and pertinent that built upon their strategy without upending it.
LBB> More brands are working to create their own first party data practice - how can a brand figure out whether that’s something that is relevant or important for their business?
Tony> Every brand should be looking at first-party data as an enabler and differentiator. It will become increasingly difficult to rely upon third-party data as technology and privacy regulations evolve, and the walled-gardens have fostered a dependence upon their data sets that should give any organisation pause. The important question isn’t ‘if’ but ‘how’, specifically ‘what’s the right approach for my brand?’ A CPG or healthcare brand may - and probably should - take a different approach than an automotive or hospitality brand might. Brands with robust e-commerce or loyalty programs will have advantages that other brands might not. When we work with brands we review the competitive environment, regulatory restrictions, available technical ecosystems, customer expectations and operational readiness to determine the right approach, and develop roadmaps that are thoughtfully mapped to build the capability in a way tailored to the client, while unlocking value as you progress.
LBB> We talk about data driving creativity, but what are your thoughts about approaching the use of data in a creative way?
Tony> This is an excellent question, and one we pose to our teams and clients quite a lot. Creativity is about using your imagination to generate original ideas, and you can apply that to the application of data as easily as you apply it to canvas if you are skilled, curious and inventive. We sometimes rush to solve challenges with tried and true methods because as data people we take comfort in facts and proven methodologies, but if you can take a beat and ask ‘What if…?’ you may find a spark of inspiration that could lead down a unique path. Toolkits and AI continue to evolve in ways that open up possibilities for those willing to experiment. And I always encourage collaboration across disciplines to stimulate that sort of thinking; many of the most clever ideas are the result of diverse perspectives as much personal ingenuity.
LBB> "Lies, damned lies, and statistics" - how can brands and creative make sure that they’re really seeing what they think they’re seeing (or want to see) in the data, or that they’re not misusing data?
Tony> There are a few things brands can do to tackle this, but it all starts with not automatically accepting data at face value. We all have cognitive biases that colour our interpretation of information, and the internet is ripe with data points being used incorrectly to reinforce those. Whenever possible we should interrogate and verify our interpretations, which requires a culture of healthy scepticism and honesty. And let’s acknowledge that data has its limitations. It’s important to ensure that we are capturing the right data in the right way, are maintaining proper governance and hygiene of that data, and continuously reviewing how that data is being used. Measurement frameworks get stale, technical changes cause breakage, and consumer behaviours shift in unexpected and sometimes imperceptible ways, and as data professionals it’s our responsibility to help protect brands and creative from falling prey to preventable mistakes.
LBB> What are your thoughts about trust in data - to what extent is uncertainty and a lack of trust in data (or data sources) an issue and what are your thoughts on that?
Tony> There are certainly plenty of examples of data being poorly sourced or improperly used and interpreted to justify some distrust. And as I’ve mentioned previously scepticism can be a healthy thing when working with data. However, I think one must look at every incident and data set individually within context and that most people don’t subscribe to a narrative that data cannot be trusted universally. It’s important that data professionals demonstrate diligence and ethics and learn from the mistakes of others to maintain the integrity of the data and solutions we utilise to take action for our clients.
LBB> With so many different regulatory systems in different markets regarding data and privacy around the world - as well as different cultural views about privacy - what’s the key to creating a joined up data strategy at a global level that’s also adaptable to local nuances?
Tony> We try to stay one step ahead of the regulatory environment by instituting governance and thoughtful data policies and practices globally. We would rather be on the leading edge by demonstrating ethical practices that are sensitive to evolving expectations of how companies handle personal data. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I think the key is having a culture that values privacy and responsibility and encourages proactivity and transparency.
LBB> In your view, what’s the biggest misconception people have around the use of data in marketing?
Tony> I think some people look at data and modelling as alchemy, practised by a geeky priesthood utilising mysterious rituals. The way many in our field talk certainly feeds into that! We tend to lean into the sophistication of the data sets and casually throw out terminology to describe our systems and methodologies that are esoteric (or irrelevant) to marketers. We need to talk about data as information and insight and focus more on the things it can do more than the thing itself. If data is accessible, reliable and well-organised it should be relatively straightforward for anyone with the right tools to use it to drive value and generate growth.
LBB> In terms of live issues in the field, what are the debates or developments that we should be paying attention to right now?
Tony> The metaverse is a buzzy word right now, but our world is becoming increasingly immersive and that has implications for everything from how advertising and customer service functions in a virtual space to how we leverage ML and AI to generate those experiences. There are ethical and privacy considerations as that develops, not to mention the degree to which data-driven, digitally-manifested experiences take the place of human craftsmanship. Similarly, decision-making driven by AI can lead to tremendous efficiencies and scale, but if not can also optimise towards unforeseen outcomes if not developed with care. And then there’s the need for data science skills and data use training, which is already impacting the job market and the ability of companies to recruit and compete. How do we as brands - and as a society - keep pace with the rate of transformation and adapt? It’s an old question, but I anticipate the rate of change will continue to accelerate. We'll need to be lithe to make the most of it.