Everyone knows what media people are like, don’t they? A bunch of science and economics graduates, always up a virtual stepladder in a data warehouse, muttering to themselves in computer code, thinking about campaign analysis in terms of particle physics…
Sorry, is this not a stereotype you recognise? Well, if current trends continue, you may need to adjust your settings.
One hesitates to suggest that advances in technology are turning media into a bona fide branch of science. But there are certainly an awful lot of what the tabloids might call boffins at work in this industry these days.
That kind of person, versed in data and cutting-edge analytics, may just signpost the future for media agencies as they reconfigure to fit the times.
"It is something media agencies have always done - bringing the facts to the intuition," says Richard Morris, head of planning at Carat.
"Traditional applications of data - things like quantifying an audience - are starting to become less valued, but as we enter an age of data, media agencies could really win in that space."
It is not unusual these days, even in the wider world, to hear data described as the new oil: enormously valuable, but requiring skilled handling.
"It’s only when you process oil that it demonstrates its value, and data is the same," says MEC head of digital operations and analytics Richard Lloyd. "In its rawest form, it doesn’t really give you anything. It’s once you start to translate it into insight that you see what it is worth."
Ongoing evolutions such as demand-side platforms for automated buying and selling of remnant digital inventory represent the appliance of media science at its most acute. The promise is one of data-driven targeting of audiences down to an individual level, with the corresponding implications for campaign effectiveness and ROI.
"That real-time bidding side of things absolutely does feel like a science," says Martin Kelly, managing partner at real-time specialist Infectious Media. "It is very data-driven, and we very naturally find the people we tend to recruit don’t come from agency backgrounds; they are statisticians, developers."
All the major networks have staked out a patch in that field - Publicis with VivaKi, WPP with MIG, Havas with Adnetik and so on - although most have work still to do. VivaKi’s Dashboard function, which can track consumers’ responses to campaigns in real time, is another data-driven, group-level innovation.
Group initiatives sometimes bear little relationship to what happens on the ground, but at agency level, staff skillsets have also been changing fast, with data at the heart of the shift.
"We just went through a batch of graduates, and of eight, three had maths degrees, three had economics degrees, and three had masters degrees," says Morris. "There’s definitely a technical requirement coming through in the people we are employing."
Possibly apocryphal rumours abound of former NASA employees at large in the agency world. Lloyd, formerly of Microsoft and Omniture, is himself a technologist in a media role. He works as part of a recently-constituted insight and analytics team that runs right through MEC, from digital through traditional platforms.
"In digital advertising, we probably collect as much data in one hour as the Barb panel might collect in a year," he says. "We are tracking pretty much every single consumer in the UK and every single ad interaction they perform, so it is millions and millions of data points every single day."
It is no revelation that digital media generates information in vast volumes and requires specialists to get the best out of that information.
"Our clients now demand us to have a complete heads-up on all their data, be that digital or offline," says Thaer Namruti, PHD's director of analytics. "Our planners realise the importance of enlisting the data guy much earlier in the conversation, so their solutions line up with the client’s expectations."
Applying data insight
Equally significant, however, is the way digital insight is bleeding into the wider media arena and how other platforms are poised to move in the same direction.
"There’s certainly insight we glean from digital that we can feed back into the offline domain, such as the macro, industry-level trends we pick up from search behaviours," says Lloyd.
"And the data we get from digital, we may be able to get from TV once that is served through the internet. I know Sky is talking about being able to target individual houses through the set-top box. Likewise, with print, the iPad is a fantastic opportunity to deliver a publication at an individual level."
What nobody is saying, however, is that these new fringes of science, or the experts who explore them, can be expected to replace the art that goes into media planning.
"I do think that innovation can come as much from new technology as it can from traditional media creativity," says Paul Frampton, managing director of MPG Media Contacts. "The number of people we hire with technical and statistical backgrounds has doubled year on year.
"Having said that, in the past couple of months, we have been looking at making sure we make the same investment in our strategic team. The reality is that you have got lots of numbers and you need people who can understand them, but there has to be a balance."
Another way in which such technology proposes to transform media agencies is by overhauling laborious logistical elements of the planning and buying process that once required individual attention.
"Data allows the possibility of better flow in organisations, and it can reduce costs in areas clients don’t necessarily value: administration or spot times on satellite channels - things that that used to be hand-cranked," says Morris.
Agencies aren’t necessarily in a position to decide whether or not to embrace cutting-edge systems; ever-broader moves into advertising technology by companies such as Microsoft and Google more or less oblige it.
But one thing they can do - and are starting to do with gusto - is staff up with individuals who can see the data-focused future coming.