The difference is in the data

The commoditisation of media management is creeping ever upwards towards the top of the value chain – data management. In a world where measurable value is everything, it all comes down to the data; how clean and complete it is and how you handle it. Despite the pleas of creatives and content evangelists, they will always be trumped by the apparent reassurance of solid numbers to the increasingly paranoid marketer.

Today’s news that Adobe’s network has been hacked putting at risk some 2.9 million customer names, encrypted credit and debit card numbers as well as product source code goes to the heart of the intense credibility war between the few remaining contenders who can play at the high-stakes data management table. [Revealed now to be 38 million!] It exposes the ultimate vulnerability of the would-be data-manager: data security.

In Forrester’s last survey of the attribution provider market (The Forrester Wave™: Interactive Attribution Vendors, Q2 2012) security was not even a consideration. Their top three providers (Visual IQ, Adometry, clearsaleing) are all relatively small players about whom it would be easy to raise data security doubts. In this report Google is embarrassingly listed last as a mere ‘contender’ and is described as “playing catch up”. Ouch.

No wonder then that Google pulled its finger out and recently launched Data-Driven Attribution after maintaining for years that a data-driven ‘silver bullet’ was not possible and that agencies should “ask clients to provide them with manual channel weightings to justify budget allocation” (I was shocked too!). Having worked with Qubit‘s behavioural attribution data for a couple of years, I have seen the benefit to clients of data-driven attribution in black and white and I would largely agree with Ian McCaig, Qubit’s Cofounder and Director of Strategy and Marketing, when he claimed recently that “[Google’s] new product – as far as attribution is concerned – is another byproduct of what we do.”

His attempt to pour cold water on the product by claiming that “Google Analytics Premium … will be looked at as [a biased] data source [until] they bring in more DoubleClick data, data from other DSPs and other ad data to enrich their model” is less convincing. As Tina Moffett, Analyst at Forrester Research, points out in her article in Forbes (“Google Steps It Up With Data Driven Attribution“, 8/22/2013) “Google’s DDA feature can include non-Google data… [enabling] marketers to track converters and non-converters, from online to offline —this is huge.”

Ultimately, as one senior Google employee explained to me some time ago, Google sees the ad management and analytics market compressing into just two “tech stacks”: Google and Adobe. Obviously they see scale as a serious barrier to entry in this market probably due to the need for impenetrable data security and 360 ad management which are certainly two of Google’s core strengths.

However, Google has no serious stake in the CRM and CMS worlds which are increasingly jostling to be part of the marketing foreground and justifiably so. Despite this recent data faux-pas, Adobe, with their completion this summer of the Neolane acquisition, is starting to look much more like the enterprise-level data-management partner than Google which is perhaps restrained by an admirable instinct to remain accessible to the little guys as well as the enterprise behemoths. To that end, it would make sense for Google to acquire HubSpot, the SME’s best-friend, if only they weren’t so vociferous about hating bought media – Google’s primary business model.

Then again, maybe helping the little guys isn’t so limiting after all. As Tina Moffett rightly continues, “attribution is complicated; it has major implications on change management within an organization, how firms measure marketing effectiveness, how consumers are valued, and how marketers purchase media and build marketing strategies.” SMEs have the upper hand here as it is a lot easier to understand the customer in the round with smaller, non-legacy databases and without having to turn a cumbersome org structure inside out. Maybe Google are playing a canny long-term game and betting on the transformation of the business world to favour small and typically self-service businesses rather than get waylaid meeting the demands of migrating legacy business titans into the digital age.

These days it is hard to argue for and prove the value of the individual components in the marketing mix without the all-seeing arbitration of attribution. But attribution is merely one part of the data management problem which lies at the heart of marketing and all business today. There is little point in adding “a touch of attribution” to an otherwise flawed data set. Last-click measurement has to move to attributed measurement which in turn has to be data-driven not simply formularised. But you can’t stop there. The challenge to businesses now is to marshall as much of their data as possible into one clean data-management solution and calculate attributed value in real-time according to a plausible and transparent algorithm. Only then can they take advantage of all that customer knowledge and plug in effectively into today’s increasingly data-driven media landscape.