Alex Steer

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The 'fallacy' fallacy

746 words

I've mentioned a couple of times here recently that there are plenty of people in the marketing industry who try to sound smart by trying to make other people's smart pronouncements sound dumb. (Try saying that three times quickly.)

Sadly this piece on Digiday is a textbook example of shoddy thinking in this genre. It's called 'The "Big Data" Fallacy', which obviously drew my attention. Early on in the article, we find this:

Investing in a DMP is something of a credibility test, with advertisers under pressure to make this “big data” technology the central component of all marketing strategy with other pieces, including multiple DSPs and networks, plugging in to the DMP. The problem with this strategy is that it is based on a fallacy — big data is just regular data, and its something every business should already be built on.

Whoa, nelly.

'Its [sic] something every business should already be built on.' That would make it not a fallacy, then. In fact, it would make the statement - advertisers should make data a central component of their activity - a truism.

Just like if I come out and say, 'the sky is blue' (when it is), that's not a fallacy. It's just the bleeding obvious.

It rolls on:

Successful online advertising is not about accumulating data, but actually doing something with it. The DMP and DSP are elements of a larger solution. Marketers don’t need a single data platform – they need a comprehensive marketing operating system.

It would be neat if I could demonstrate that this were a fallacy. It's not - just an unsubstantiated claim. If the problem is that data is already there and not being used, the exact constitution of whatever makes it usable doesn't matter, as long as it does the job. So you immediately start to wonder what the agenda is here.

I'm going to try to avoid quoting the whole article, so I'll stop here:

The age of big data is really no different from what businesses should have been doing all along. Data is prevalent in every organization... This is important data for marketing, but it represents just one component in a well-balanced strategy. Data only provides value when matched with media, so advertisers actually need access to media operating in tandem with their data.

Okay, once again, I've no idea where this comes from. There's no premise in the argument that justifies the leap to 'data'. So one can safely assume that the author has a vested interest in connecting data to media operations. And the author works for MediaMath, who do precisely this.

There's nothing wrong with a sales pitch. In many ways this blog is itself a kind of sales pitch (albeit an odd, roundabout, geeky one), since I work with data and information in the marketing industry. But at the moment the whole domain of 'big data' (and yes, I'll do a post on that term at some point) is full of people trying to demonstrate that their way of doing things is brilliant and everybody else's is wrong. Which would be fine, if it were true.

But it isn't - or, at least, it's not demonstrably true. Big data in marketing is more or less the wild west, with lots of models going round being more or less unproven. Be wary of anyone who tells you otherwise. There are proven models and there are proven models, but to my knowledge nobody has the kind of rigorously tested normative information yet that you'll find in market research, let alone the actual hard sciences after which a lot of big data practitioners are modelling themselves. (You remember, just like lots of financial engineers used to, before they accidentally blew up the economy.)

All of which means that when you see a blog post, article, conference presentation etc. that opens by dissecting someone else's 'fallacy', you should be aware that there are huge vested interests at play. And there's a good chance that the victim of the dissection wasn't fallacious at all.

I call it the fallacy fallacy: the erroneous tendency to assume that, because someone is in competition with you, he or she is wrong. It's lazy and we all need to stop using it.

# Alex Steer (20/06/2013)