Data superheroes, code artists and visualisers

20 June 2013 Stephen Hay Regional Director, APAC

We all have our stereotypical view of the data analysts. A bit nerdy perhaps, highly intelligent, and that pale skin tone that comes from long hours under the office lights. Most of all, it is almost impossible to understand anything they tell us. How wrong this is! Data analysts are the marketing superheroes of the 21st century.

We are awash with data; wherever you go, shopping, travelling, communicating, you create data about yourself. Whatever you do online, you create a trail of exhaust data. To give you a feel for the scale of this, and assuming you make it to the bottom of this page, in the time it takes you to read this article, consumers in Hong Kong will have generated almost 23 Terabytes of data about themselves. That would need over 1,400 iPads to store all that data, and that’s in just 10 minutes if you are a slow reader like me. Welcome to the world of big data.

Big data is not just big, it is huge and it needs different approaches as to how it is analysed, processed, and presented to the people who need it to understand and make decisions. We need some pretty special people to help us make sense of it all. With the sheer scale of it, the dynamic demands for real-time marketing and real-time decision support, churning out printed reports or producing dashboards is simply not enough.

Visualisation is the art of representing what the data tells us – what’s really happening simply and beautifully. Not just one or two dimensions, say as a chart, but in three or four dimensions, like time. Or insights overlaid onto a different world of images, videos, maps, and augmented reality. This does not just allow a marketer to interpret something that is very complex, very simply. But it also starts to create a more emotional connection with a marketer and the customer as it conveys and articulates a story.

Storytelling, emotions, visualisation; aren’t they words that are normally bounced off the walls of the creative studio? Precisely! And that is our first clue as to what sort of skills we need for the future. Just as we have always expected a creative director to get into both the heart and mind of the consumer, we now need our analysts to do the same thing. Joining the dots and connecting our insights with that customer, what will make the customer laugh, smile, jump with joy, and of course buy something.

In the future, on top of all the skills we have always expected our analysts to have – the coding skills, the SQL, the advanced mathematics – our data superheroes are going to need to have a lot more of the following sorts of characteristics:

  • Creativity: Old-world creativity was the domain of art and copy; now it is about the ability to create and synthesize something beautiful and meaningful from simply numbers, that can both educate and inspire.
  • Initiative: Armed with the truth that data provides, the spirit and confidence to challenge what has gone before, and the ideas to drive change and development. One of my proudest moments was to watch one of our most junior analysts in a meeting take down a major client MD and successfully turn his thinking on its head.
  • Intense curiosity: A strong desire to solve puzzles and understand why things happen; the drive to dig deeper in search of answers.
  • Spatial intelligence: The capability to visualise in the mind’s eye, navigating the virtual world that data constructs and seeing all with your eyes shut.
  • Passion: The burning need to share their insight and love for what they do and what they find, infecting others with the same passion for what data can do and the business/customer benefits it brings.
  • Ethics: The ability to think beyond laws and rules, a sense of what is the good and beneficial use of data, and what is wrong or immoral.

So just where will we find these amazingly talented people? Probably, all around us. Your current analytics team would be a good starting point. Many teams are not organised, managed, or motivated to encourage people to display this sort of capability. Changing the way they work and contribute would likely unlock some of these hidden strengths as surely as spinach does it for Popeye.

All around us we see skills like this, but these people just don’t currently do data. Building a little bit of simple analytics into almost everyone’s job description and then sitting back and watching will soon help spot natural talent that can then be cultivated and developed. And as a spin-off benefit for everyone else, they will learn a profound respect for the art of data, what it can do, and those amazing people who make it happen.


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