Why my job is only half Big Brother (and other stuff we should just be honest about)
On the last night of a recent Scandinavian roadtrip, we had dinner with some Danish friends. After some excellent stegt flæsk med persillesovs, we got to talking about our respective careers. Once it was my turn, the discussion turned to a broader one of privacy and online advertising. While I was just trying to decide between getting the æblekage or the karamelrand for dessert, it struck me: our line of job might need some better PR.
Of course, up until then I’d had the occasional confused look at birthday parties when explaining what it is I do, but then again, who really listens to strangers’ stories at parties? And sure, I’ve endured the same vague looks from my girlfriend discussing the events of our day during dinner, but she’s a therapist, that comes with the training. Yet this particular conversation somehow provided me with overdue perspective.
A taste of our own medicine
The reason for all the suspicion regarding online analytics and marketing, I realized, is not only that it’s complex and ever-changing: the same applies to medicine. Yet my brother, a soon to be doctor, rarely gets party-ambushed with questions spoken like ‘So you are the guys behind those ads of the pants I already bought, but follow me around anyhow?’. White coats establish trust; cookies establish questions.
Fact is, we just don’t always deliver. Why would you, as a user of the internet or apps, give me access to all kinds of personal details and behaviour, if I am just going to treat you like any other customer instead of an individual. There is no incentive, no visible reason; what’s more, we incite the opposite where we should be creating value for them. So now, where I first just smirked at that pants-related question, I try ‘Well, if I do my job right, you’d see a matching shirt’. Most of the time, this steers the conversation in a more interesting direction.
Proving our worth
With the upcoming legislation GDPR, we as a field will have to prove that we need data. Not because we are curious, but because knowledge is the key to bringing service closer to (potential) customers. We need to show that marketing is not filled with sales-hungry people that stalk you, but a group of creative minds that are continuously looking for better ways to get their message across. We need to demonstrate that a data analyst is not a gossip with a nerdy background, but someone equipped with the scientific curiosity to discover meaningful patterns.
Often, articles warn us from the dangers of big data in Big Brother-like scenarios. If we start living up to our promise, they are only partly right. 1984 states: ‘Who controls the past, controls the future.’ – which basically is just a very abstract definition of predictive modelling, no argument here – ‘Who controls the present, controls the past’. The latter feeling of control should remain with the customer. We just have to provide the right match.
 Orwell, G. (1949) . 1984. New York: Harcourt