By David Teich
In 2014, MDC Partners launched Assembly, a media agency built on sophisticated planning and buying capabilities.
It’s safe to say that at Assembly, data and technology are at the center of things. And in April, the company brought on a new hire to help – as the company put it – “elevat[e] data and information into superior insights and actions.” Sarah Power, Assembly’s first Chief Strategy and Research Officer, recently chatted with Cynopsis Digital about her new role at Assembly, and about just what it means to make use of advanced analytics in the age of big data.
Tell us about Assembly.
The way that Assembly is different than other companies is that, because we’re new, we were able to build from scratch – and so we were able to put data, analytics and technology right at the center. For us, data is the sun, it’s the center of everything we do, and then everything else we do is the moon that circles around it. And I think lots of other agencies were built on more traditional models – their big buying groups are their sun, and everything else has become their moon.
What are the benefits of employing such a data-centric approach?
We’ve built a team of data scientists with robust backgrounds, and we’re able to do very complex analytical analyses that help us understand our audiences better than ever. And because the way that we’ve structured and staffed, we have people who know how to ingest so much data that we have access to billions of people. More traditional approaches give you panels of maybe 20,000 people – or, at worst, focus groups. But we’re able to look at and learn about audiences, and that allows us to target and learn in real time on based on behavior, so that we can more effectively and efficiently deploy our clients’ money.
In what ways can you learn in real time?
We’re visualizing consumer journeys. We’re able to look at log-level data, and really understand what combinations of touch-points are leading to conversion more quickly than others. And we look at publisher-level data. So we can start to see that there are changes and tweaks that we should be making to our plans in real time to drive conversion numbers – and it also helps us to then understand what audience is. We’ve been able to learn how long it takes from initial exposure to action. This informs what we should do from a retargeting standpoint, and what messages there should be at various times based on actual behaviors.
How important is it for the industry to recognize the importance of data, and that it’s possible to boil so much information about consumer behavior down to numbers?
I think there’s a healthy level of cynicism from some people, who think this is impossible to do. I think what’s happened is that there aren’t enough people who know how to work with data and explain what’s happening with it. So sometimes it looks black box, or it just looks like magic. But when you really have people who know to manipulate data, who know how to put different sets of data together, and who understand how to use visualization techniques that allow you to look at things in a fashion that isn’t just linear – it’s amazing. I think it’s important that people really do believe in the power of it, and make sure that they’re getting smart about it, and that they have enough people within their organization who know how to do that.
What’s the ideal background for someone working at a data-driven agency? Does a company run a risk if it hands data-centric responsibilities to existing employees that don’t necessarily have a huge education in the space?
I think that it’s important to pull in people with all kinds of different backgrounds. I don’t thinkpeople need to have media backgrounds in order to do this job well; but they have to be data experts, visualization experts, statistics experts, depending on what the need is. And I think that trying to take existing people without the appropriate training would be an issue. I do think there are ways that we can train people into what they need to do, but companies need to invest in the training to fill the gaps, and not just ask somebody to step in and do that job.
As we move into an age of big data, where analytics can do more for us than ever before, how important is the creative aspect?
I still see a need for unbridled creativity. I think that data helps you figure out where you should play, but not necessarily how exactly you should. So there’s still a need for creative strategists. But I think data has led to the need for a different type of strategist or idea person. There’s a need for strategists who are more comfortable with data, and can make data-based decisions. You kind of need to have it all.
Do you ever worry that some people might think that an over-reliance on data will come at the expense of a creative human touch?
I think that data can inform. I don’t think algorithms have ever created any of the world’s best creative campaigns. [Laughs.] So I do think there is a need for a big creative idea that needs to be tied to a brand’s purpose. But I think that what data does is help you understand what the execution of that should idea look like – whether it’s in sequential messaging, or in determining the role of different channels. Data helps creative understand more specifically how the advertising they’re creating can fulfill the consumer need.
How important is programmatic buying to what Assembly does?
Data, analytics and technology are at our core, and programmatic makes us smarter, and allows us to do things more quickly. So it’s core to what we do. And we’re 100% transparent, and so we open our books to anybody who wants to look at them. We’re using AdFin to audit what we’re doing. We’re big believers in programmatic and automated buying.
Are there ways in which programmatic technology is still improving?
It’s still not completely perfect, because it sometimes needs be more manual than you would want it to be in order to get all of the data feeds working together. But it helps us to expand on insights that we otherwise might not have thought to explore.
For a company looking to increase its proficiency in advanced data and analytics, what are the biggest challenges?
I think that a big challenge is finding and retaining talent. Also, everybody needs ad tech companies, but there aren’t enough of them. I think that’s key, just finding those people.
What are some of the things companies need to be aware of when looking for the right ad tech company?
I don’t know even know how to answer – there are so many. I think one of main things is having good relationships with lots of different people. It’s important to understand who they’ve worked with. It’s not easy, honestly. It’s important to be okay with testing and failing – not on your clients’ behalf, of course. But it’s important to have a kind of a test bed where you can kind of see how things are going to work before you go live with them. It’s good to have a culture of experimentation.
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