Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s Cambridge Analytica

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In this, our occasional ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ series, we take a look behind the bullshit that we’re hearing on a marketing topic, have a chat with the people in the know and share what we’ve learned and whether we should all be concerned. Or if we should, as the Sex Pistols put it, never mind the bollocks. This issue, Ian Truscott sits down with Misia Tramp – VP of customer experience strategy and insights at digital marketing agency Metia – to discuss Cambridge Analytica and the (mis)use of social data.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, we’re all left wondering if they were the Roman Polanski of the marketing industry – their reputation and fame punctured by the heinous crime of abusing the innocent and rightly hounded out of town. Or, have Cambridge Analytica been vilified for a perfectly legal activity? Sacrificed on the altar of hype and the news agenda, caught wrong-footed by a change in the public mood? 

Or is it something in between? A U2 moment, when one day in 2014 we all woke up to find that their latest album had been downloaded to our iPhones in an act of dictatorial benevolence by Apple, causing outrage, raising questions about privacy and the power of this big corporate over the device that plays such an intimate role in our lives. They didn’t go bust like Cambridge Analytica. It dented U2’s legacy, but actually changed very little.

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Our guide on this is Misia Tramp, my go-to on such matters. The British-born, Seattle-adoptee is a 20-year veteran of using data to drive strategy and innovation. A successful entrepreneur, team builder and inventor of metrics, she was one of the early adopters of gaining insight through social data, helping organizations become data-led – since the dawn of these platforms – when her researcher instincts were quickly alerted to the value of what we’re all sharing on social.

Misia has advised them all, from big corporates to non-profits, and has a career built on studying the trends we see playing out in the media today. Ask anyone about Misia and besides her appetite for fun, one of the first things they mention is a “brain the size of a planet”. I’m in good company.

I meet Misia in a restaurant on a converted barge on the Thames, moored behind London’s Paddington Station. She’s breathless, running slightly late during a hectic schedule on an infrequent trip to London, but she has time for a chat. Her passion for her research spills out immediately as she arrives, as she shares with me a teaser of her current work before she’s even ordered her soya latte.

Our discussion turned to picking over the rotting carcass of what remains of the Cambridge Analytica story, as I’m really interested in her take on how that went down, and we also discuss a recent Mark Ritson accusatory article that pointed the finger at marketing with the claim that marketers’ silence on Cambridge Analytica speaks volumes.

What’s your general take on this whole Cambridge Analytica thing?

I think it’s an overreaction, fueled by politics and the media. It’s not a true reflection of the consumer’s point of view.

It did however underline what our research has shown. We’ve run focus groups that tell us that consumers are relaxed about sharing data when it is appropriate, effortless and intelligent and makes a service more convenient. What they don’t like is when the data is used stupidly, like offering the consumer products that they have already purchased, or is used in a creepy fashion, like remarketing when the consumers feel they are being followed around the internet by crudely targeted ads.

You refer to politics, do you think the reaction was more about what the data was being used for – two deeply divisive political campaigns that had shocking results in Brexit and Trump – than a genuine surprise and shock that this data is out there?

Yes, the use of the data is what has brought this to everyone’s attention, the attribution of its use to two very surprising votes that have been quite divisive, and Cambridge Analytica found itself on the wrong side of the popular point of view. 

But, I don’t think it’s a surprise; consumers are not as naïve as the news media portray. In my research I am seeing that consumers are aware of the data they are sharing and are willing to share it out as a fair exchange for convenience or access to services. It has simply reminded people that perhaps they should do something.

It may seem surprising, but there’s no evidence to suggest a mainstream change in people’s online behavior to become more proactive about privacy.

And are consumers doing something? Has anything changed?

No, the public were told to be outraged by a hyped-up media.

It may seem surprising, but there is no evidence to suggest a mass, mainstream change in people’s online behavior to become more proactive about privacy; consumers continue to be passive and accept that data is used. Consumers continuously say to us, “If I cared that much [about privacy], I wouldn’t do the things I do” and are accepting that data is the price for services like Facebook. However, it’s clear that people got more politically engaged by these events, which points to your previous question, that consumers really saw this as focused on politics, not privacy.

In a recent article Mark Ritson called out the marketing industry on this issue, as normally marketing folks jump on a story like this, and he says “that marketers appear reticent to take a stand”. Do you think that’s true?

I really liked that article, but no I don’t think marketers have been reticent to take a stand and been deliberately quiet. I just don’t think they see it as a marketing conversation, it’s seen as a political issue. 

Rightly or wrongly – and it’s a subtle distinction – clearly Cambridge Analytica were using marketing techniques, so it is a discussion for marketers, but perhaps if the scandal had involved a famous soap powder using its social media presence for what the press would see as evil, then maybe we’d be having a different debate that was closer to home.

So, did we as a marketing industry throw Cambridge Analytica under the bus?

Well, you could say it’s bad luck for them to be singled out and be bankrupted by this. There isn’t just one firm using social data in this way, doing what marketers have done forever, and maybe Ritson is right – maybe the industry should have spoken up. 

But, on the other hand, while it seems they didn’t do anything illegal, they sailed pretty close to the wind and that’s a risky place to be in the public’s perception right now. They should have known better.

Use common sense. Don’t assume that if it’s legal it’s OK. It doesn’t matter, if you feel funny about it or your consumer thinks it’s shady or creepy – don’t do it!

In the same article Ritson suggests that Facebook did nothing wrong, do you agree?

Legally, I agree with Ritson, they didn’t do anything wrong according to the T&Cs – that nobody reads! However, bloody hell, they did get it wrong. 

Incredibly, two firms that must know much better failed to react and get ahead of the story. It’s a classic social media fail that we’ve seen from way back when United Airlines went viral in 2009 for breaking guitars. Today you are judged by your reaction and Facebook got this wrong – and are still trying to dig themselves out of this hole.

Compare this with KFC in the UK, who around the same time due to a logistics problem ran out of chicken. There was a huge reaction from the public on social and mainstream media. But KFC reacted fast, were transparent and honest. Ticking all the best practice boxes for a social media emergency response, it was designed to reassure with a message that they consistently conveyed through their own channels and which was picked up by the media. From my research, the KFC incident had no impact on their brand sentiment and they actually turned this into an opportunity to show their brand personality.

What’s your advice to marketers looking to use social data in their research?

What I hear time and time again in our research is that consumers want to be treated fairly, for their data to be used in the context in which they shared it and what they feel they have implied agreement to. This implied agreement is not clicking 'OK' to terms and conditions, but a perceived reasonable use of their data.

My first suggestion is really simple: use common sense, not the letter of the T&Cs and opt-ins, and don’t assume that if it’s legal it’s OK. It doesn’t matter, if you feel funny about it or your consumer thinks this is shady or creepy – don’t do it! Ultimately, would you like to receive your communications in this way?

For more from Misia, follow her on Twitter.


Ian Truscott is an accomplished B2B content marketer, having held marketing leadership roles within global software vendors in both the US and Europe, before growing a content marketing practice within an international agency, developing a methodology that enabled clients such as Nasdaq, General Motors and American Express to realise the value of content marketing. Ian is applying this same passion for content as head of marketing for censhare AG.

Go backstage with Ian here, or read more of his articles


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