When data becomes your friend

With AI reaching new heights, the "relationship era" is about to take hold, predicts editor Emily Wexler.

ST.Cover_Sept15This story appears in the September 2015 issue of strategy.

Two and a half years ago, Duke University professor Dan Ariely updated his Facebook status with this: “Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it…”

Well, a lot can happen in two and a half years. A 16-year-old becomes an adult, and they start to master things they previously fumbled around in the dark with.

While this industry is far from mastering big data, we’ve come a long way in a short time. Brands and agencies have been laying the groundwork, gathering the stats and hiring experts in the field, and now we’re starting to see the fruits of that labour.

This is evidenced in some of the recent examples of how brands are weaving data into creative campaigns. Take Nike, for example, which created over 100,000 personalized animated spots for Nike+ members with stats on that individual’s workouts throughout the year. As a runner myself, there’s no greater sense of accomplishment than seeing all the kilometres you’ve put in – a pretty simple insight, brought to life in a clever way using data.

As time goes on, it’s only going to get more complex. Each year we ask industry pundits to weigh in on what they think will be the “Next Big Things.” A few of our pundits this year pointed to artificial intelligence.

Once a far-off idea from a science fiction novel, AI has been sneaking into our world for a while now, and getting more advanced. And when you mix AI and big data, you get machines that actually know you – perhaps even better than your friends and family do (after all, they don’t see your private internet browsing behaviour…).

I’ve always been a fan of books and films that paint a portrait of the future, and in my opinion, there have been none more realistic in recent years than the movie Her. Some might scoff at the idea of forming an intimate relationship with an operating system, but are our lives right now that far off? How many of your friends do you have a closer relationship with via text and Facebook than you do in person? What if that friend didn’t have a physical body – are they that much less of a friend? All brands want to be “friends” with their consumers, but it seems in the future, they legitimately could be.

In our Next Big Things feature, JWT’s Patrick Schroen talks about a world without a web browser – something that was also predicted in Her. We’re starting to see this with the advent of Siri, who often gives us a single answer to a question instead of thousands of results. So imagine that Siri was like Her‘s Samantha, and she has an intimate relationship with you – she knows exactly what you’ll want when you want it and won’t present you with anything else. If you thought disruptive ads were already passé, just wait for the “relationship era,” as I’m calling it, to really take hold.

So if you think the advertising model has already been turned on its head in the last 10 years, it’s nothing compared to the imminent explosion of personalization we’re about to see. Hold on to your hats.