IPG’s former data chief Arun Kumar: How data collection can be improved without too much regulation

It’s an undeniable fact that data has evolved into a primary ingredient in any marketing or advertising effort over the last 10 to 15 years. And the sophistication of data collection and analysis has advanced at similar hockey-stick-like levels.

But Arun Kumar, arguably one of the more important executives to help usher in this era of data to the buy-sell equation during his time as head of data and technology for holding company IPG, believes that the missing ingredient in all efforts around data is ethics.

In his book, The Data Deluge, which comes out next week, Kumar argues that as data and data collection and analysis got more sophisticated, somewhere along the way, ethics took a backseat.

“Ethics is actually a great motivator for excellence,” said Kumar, who’s now a consultant after departing IPG in early 2023. “And I think that as we got more sophisticated, we got carried away by the things we could do as opposed to whether the things that we were doing are really done very well so as to benefit the people that they were intended for.”

The book offers an insider’s POV of the dysfunction between media agency and client around data use and ownership, using an unnamed airline client and agency as they try to work together to find new audiences — a term he derides because it’s a way for agencies and brands to ignore actual customer needs. Wrongful use of data, and the hoarding of it by the various parties, ends up being largely responsible for consumers getting bombarded by messaging that in the end often turns them off to the brand, he said.

This interview has been edited for space and clarity. 

In your description of consumer versus audience, you point out in several several places in the book that there’s a lot of talk about them, but really their interests are at best tertiary.

We have this fundamental belief that because they get access to a product or a brand, we’re serving them. That’s not really true. A., we don’t spend enough time thinking about whether these data sets have helped us truly understand people better and give them something that they couldn’t have got without that data. And B., we haven’t really thought about, when I’m interrupting someone, what context is that person in? Is that the right environment for that person? We perverted the technology and the ensuing data to serve the interests of ourselves — and by ourselves I mean the entire industry, including the platforms. We never thought about, well, the intended [consumer] has seen your ad five times and hasn’t responded. Maybe they’ve already bought, or maybe you’re not the company they’re interested in. We rarely think about that. We spray and pray. And then we do models and prove to ourselves that there has been a lift.

I personally don’t have a problem with irritating consumers in order to show an ad — if we’re clear in our hearts and minds that we are not the saviors that we claim to be. Don’t take this holier than thou attitude of saying, ‘I’m interested in audiences because I want to give the consumer what he or she wants.’ What the consumer wants is to not see an ad more than two or three times.

At various points in the book, you raise your hand to say you were part of the problem. So at what point did you realize you no longer want to be? What changed to lead you to writing this book?

Data does not exist without the subject. If you don’t exist, your data trail doesn’t exist — there is no data. So in short, data is created by us. And yet we don’t have the protections and the policies that, for example, the oil and gas industry has. We need to make sure that we get the right value out of it, but also be conscious that the data that we generate has an impact. 

I want to focus on minimization. I’ve actually started reading about the Bauhaus school of design in Germany in the 1920s, and how they talked about how do you minimize but how do you also scale it such that more of it can be produced — how can it be standardized without losing form and function? I think there are a lot of parallels to what we can do, but we just need to get some standards in place. And we need to stop treating data as a way by which one of us can get over the other. It needs to be what you do with the data that should be the product, not the fact that you have data versus somebody else.

You cite the need for standards, but you also ague that some regulation has already gone too far. What’s a good middle ground?

Regulation has been framed in such a way that it has helped the very companies and players who have the most. So you’ve almost created … a set of laws which actually encouraged monopolization. It’s been surprising to me that despite multiple rounds of legislation that people have not seen that they harangue big tech, but they somehow fail to figure out how to make it a level playing field.

The areas they should be focusing on is, what is the standardized privacy policy that needs to be written? What language should be used on it? How can data be processed? The first thing is, they’ve got to acknowledge something: advertising and marketing are fundamental economic activities of a society. You can’t not acknowledge that and pass big laws which have no basis in how the advertising and marketing industry actually works.

If you had the change to do your career over, what would you do differently? 

I would be looking for the exact opposite of what I thought my brief was eight or 10 years ago, [which was] how much can I hoard about all the people [I’m focused on]? How do I get more? How do I know more? Now, I would think about the reverse of it. What is the least that I need to collect, so that I can make an impact positively in someone’s life? … Sometimes, in the hunt for granularity, we tend to forget the outcome. The outcome is to drive the brand sales forward … without pissing people off in the process.

And I feel like that can be achieved. Some of the younger CMOs actually coming up are a lot more focused on it and understand better, what are the areas where performance doesn’t work so well and where brand is needed? I think performance people understand the brand better than many brand people understand.

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