How to get lucky in ’13

If you’re reading this, we avoided the Mayan Apocalypse (which, incidentally, sounds like a very nice bar of high-cocoa-content chocolate), so Happy New Year!  But it also means that we’re straight into ’13 which, as we all know, is liable to be unlucky for some. Both the South American prophecy and our own superstition are rooted in numbers.  The former derives from a series of calculations related to the 5125-year Mayan calendar.  The latter stems from the number of people present at the Last Supper.

All cultures have their own inauspicious equivalents: in China it’s the number 4 (because this sounds like “death”), in Japan it’s the figure 9 (as this is a homophone for “torture”) and in Italy it’s 17 (since the Roman numerals resemble the inscriptions found on ancient tombs).  But what they all show is that numbers are not the paragons of rational thinking that we sometimes imagine.  In fact, they can be highly emotional, incredibly symbolic and utterly illogical.

All too often in our industry, we give numbers a totemic significance that bears no relation to their actual importance or original meaning.  We bow down before econometrics without questioning the models.  We leap on tiny shifts in brand image, without asking whether they’re statistically significant.  We reduce ideas to crude Awareness Indices, which in turn mean “pass” or “fail”.  In short, we divide results into “good” and “bad” numbers, in a way that’s not so different from the superstitions that we mock elsewhere.

Of course, quantitative data can be incredibly useful.  In fact, our failure to understand the commercial numbers is one of our industry’s greatest problems.  But when we use half-assed data in an attempt to “speak the CFO’s language”, we often end up talking mumbo jumbo – and do our cause more harm than good.

So, as my opening gambit for 2013, I’d like to think that we will move away from our primitive worship of numbers this year – and develop a more robust approach, whereby data is ruthlessly interrogated, not just blindly followed.

A bit of rigour wouldn’t be the end of the world.  And you never know – our luck as an industry might just change.

  • David Alterman

    Andy I couldn’t agree with your sentiments more. Despite spending years of my life as an exclusively quantitative researcher, hunting for number based stories like a malnourished elephant looking for water in a drought, it’s only really since joining a qual agency that the lights have come on. At The Nursery we use qualitative research to find out what is really going on and quant to explain why – i.e. story first numbers second. It is a different mindset but far more in tune with what most of our clients seem to be looking for. And much more rewarding for the researchers too.
    Let’s hope the lights come on for more of us in 2013

    • Andy nairn

      Yes, I’ve always wondered why this approach (which is very common in science, for instance) isn’t more common in our world.

  • Mark Hancock

    Good points Andy – something I have been banging on about for ages. Also it would be good to stop the nonsense around ‘Big Data’ until the privacy issues are sorted out and agree – lets become numerically fluent about the things that we can control first. Then we might have a chance of being seen as an investment rather than a cost. HNY.


    • Andy nairn

      Thanks, and I agree on the need for numerical fluency first.  I wonder whether we’ll see more maths grads coming into the industry in future (not that I’m one!)?

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