What da Vinci can teach you about unlocking big data


Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance man, stated that humanity precedes and enables utility. As Sérgio Brodsky writes, that logic is still true and, in fact, a fuzzy, qualitative mindset is the key to unlocking ‘analysis paralysis’ in a world of big data.

This article first appeared in The Value Issue’, the August-September 2015 issue of Marketing, with the title ‘Humanising big data’. Subscribe to never miss an issue.

The statement ‘information is power’ was never so relevant, especially in these days of data-driven competitive advantage. Just like 15th century Florence, however, today’s Silicon Valley has also become the epicentre of our era, partly because of the contributions made by a few ‘corporate-humanists’.

That is because determining a standard deviation, mean or frequency distribution will have little to no value if it cannot be interpreted beyond mathematical terms and translated in human terms.

This is because the crunching of numbers may quantify, but not necessarily improve, our lives.

Thus, qualitative practices and mindsets are what can unlock the eventual analysis-paralysis that terabytes of data has brought to the workplace.

According to Kaj Lofgren, managing director of The School of Life, Melbourne: “As technological advances accelerate all around us, it is increasingly essential for our values, ethics and identity to become more conscious rather than less, in order to adapt technology to who we really are, rather than the other way around. It is fundamentally a question of self. We need to determine our genuine human needs before we can build technology or interpret data in a way that truly serves us.”

Google, for example, has its own in-house philosopher (Damon Horowitz), global brand consultancy Wolff Olins has recently hired prominent novelist Mohsin Hamid to be its chief storytelling officer and Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, famously influenced his company’s brand from the elegance and simplicity of one of his greatest passions, calligraphy.

That is not to say geeks are losing their edge – not at all. Chief growth hackers keep popping up. But in order to sustain their data-advantage, companies must start nurturing ‘renaissance talent’, where more generalist worldviews can enhance and, in fact, help justify the thousands of dollars companies are investing in cross-data platforms, social listening and programmatic tools.

And, when it comes to marketing departments, this means encyclopaedic cultural knowledge and in-depth human behaviour understanding. Why? Simply because data does not exist in isolation, but in relation to an existing cultural and social zeitgeist.

Sounds fluffy? Then you may just be ignoring the fact that marketing has become the most dominant force in our civilisation, whereby understanding humanity and its culture becomes the true source of value. Marketing, as the most encompassing of all social sciences, is uniquely positioned to drive the technologies, scientific advancements and business models that will then actualise different people’s desired lifestyles.

People buy into ideas, shop on trends and consume philosophies through similar mental processes to those they apply when purchasing their next holiday, car or pair of shoes. Those in science who are aware of this, or marketers with an interest in life sciences, are already making waves. A fruit of this data-culture convergence is 23andMe, a privately held personal genomics and biotechnology company that uses social networking as its USP (unique selling point) to attract consumers interested in connecting with people sharing similar DNA, which will then fund genetic research.

As it turns out, the mechanics of 23andMe has created an unprecedented opportunity to capture a much deeper layer of data, coming straight out of our DNA. Would you be surprised to learn Google invested almost US$4 million the year after the company was founded?

Moreover, the biggest participatory movements of the 21st century were brand-funded (ie. Pink Ribbon), sustained by mass media tools (ie. the Arab Spring through Twitter) and greatly served the purpose of statistically organising public opinion. As a consequence, businesses become the true non-governmental organisations driving broader agendas, and the best barometers of our society.

As written by Sze Tsung Leong, co-author of The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping: “Not only is shopping melting into everything, but everything is melting into shopping.”

This assertion does not mean we are evolving as a civilisation, but provides good indications of our modus operandi. And this is where more ‘enlightened’ marketers can make a difference by designing campaigns and strategies that both generate profits to their companies and clients, as well as create shared value to society. Data science has gifted us with all the resources one could wish to be able to understand the world. Sentiment can be verified via social networks, speech via call centres, travel patterns via electronic travel cards or even human culture via Google Ngram.

Conversely, to ensure traction brands too need to have more ambitious agendas for what we value in this world.

Wouldn’t it be something to see cosmetic brands producing gender inequality educational content, partnering with vloggers to not only sell their products, but also empower those with physical disabilities, or even sponsoring missions to deliver food to African conflict zones?

And all that generated from data-led deeper insights that recognised certain consumer behaviours across an overall value chain? Those are global societal ambitions for otherwise vanity-driven businesses: now that’s looking above and beyond numbers!

Consumers, not companies, build brands. This is a fundamental marketing truth that cannot be denied. Consumers, through media platforms, give brands value by developing perceptions and expectations for those brands. But this is not a surprise since human experience has always been mediatised, first by organising and then delivering us the world.

Therefore, medienphilosophie (German for the discipline of philosophy of media) should also inspire social listeners to act as social commentators, data analysts to voice the headlines of their concerns through more data journalism and digital strategists to free themselves from shackles of screens and instead rejoice with less obtrusive technology (like the smart jewellery made by Kovert Design) and re-learn how to live in the moment once again.

Such an attempt to evolve the role of media in human perception and thinking could ensure the brands we buy from will indeed deliver on specific wants and needs, but also consider related moral quandaries. Amazon, for example, has already filed a patent for what it calls ‘anticipatory shipping’ and, if the system is perfect, your next browse will consist of one product only, the one Amazon and you jointly decided you’ll buy.

Does it make life easier? Yes. Does it make life better? Not so sure… This type of technology certainly addresses our burning desire for instant gratification by giving us more of what we know we already like before even asking for it. It also decreases opportunities for discoveries, however, entrenching our tastes and gradually decreasing the very factor that has made us so innovative and raised our civilisation’s profile, our cultural biodiversity.

But it’s not all doom and gloom; data has also facilitated brands to embrace and re-energise the ancient idea of mindfulness. With consumers increasingly interested in a more focused approach to life, marketers across categories can provide new ways to look at familiar things – encouraging people to engage differently and more attentively – detoxing us from distractions and enabling more contemplation.

This is gently changing marketing metrics from quantity to quality, nurturing more responsible consumption and having powered movements like slow-food or practices such as upcycling. UK retailer Selfridges, for instance, has created storewide ‘no noise’ spaces described as an initiative that goes beyond retail, inviting individuals to celebrate the power of quiet, see the beauty in function and find calm among the crowds.

The above are just a few examples of this sweet spot where data harnesses its value by untapping humanity’s consciousness. According to Lisa Nirell, author of The Mindful Marketer: How to Stay Present and Profitable in a Data-Driven World, marketers have to step back and, “Stay in the present moment to deal with the complex tasks in front of us.”

Leonardo da Vinci used to be self-defined as a painter-philosopher, a somewhat contemporary equivalent to design-thinkers. All of the painting, drawing and mathematical techniques he created were responsible for fuelling scientific advances. It was his endless intellectual curiosity about life’s multiple facets, however, that fuelled a better society.

Even though the programmatic automation of marketing is nigh, the nuanced nature of our decisions still requires the fuzzy logic of input and judgement that can only come from people. If the foremost Renaissance man stated that humanity precedes and enables utility, why would we reverse the logic that enlightened our very own history?

Sérgio Brodsky
BY Sérgio Brodsky ON 23 September 2015
Sérgio Brodsky is an internationally experienced brand marketing professional having worked for some of the world's greatest strategic communications agencies. Sérgio is a proven thought-leader, speaking at industry events, lecturing and regularly being published worldwide. He is passionate about cities and culture and the role of brands and technology in society. Sérgio is multilingual and holds a BA in IP law and an MBA in global brand strategy and innovation. Follow him on Twitter: @brandKzar.