10 Things We Learned at Variety’s Big Data Summit

George Dewey 20th Century Fox
Photo by Chelsea Lauren/Variety/REX Shutterstock

So much data, so little time. That was one of the major themes that emerged from day one of Variety’s Big Data Summit, which drew top industry execs to the InterContinental Hotel in Century City.

The volume of data available about consumer behavior emerging from online sources, set-top boxes, smartphones and old-fashioned retail sales has become a tidal wave that threatens to overwhelm even the most sophisticated analysts. The need for expertise in sorting through the deluge for kernels of insight is turning data scientists into the A-listers of media and entertainment.

“The analysts are the rock stars of your business,” said Tim Mahlman, global head of AOL Publisher Platforms. “You can get lost (in data) if you’re not smart about it.”

The promise and peril of working with big data was parsed innumerable ways in sessions that focused on TV measurement, advertising sales, film tracking and content creation.

Among the highlights:

Tip of the spear

Numerous panelists noted the need for the entertainment industry to put as much emphasis on using granular data in decision making as it does to tracking ratings and box office.

“Twitter is the world’s largest focus group,” said Chris Moody, Twitter’s VP of data strategy. “There’s a much bigger opportunity in moving data to the leading edge (of product development) rather than measuring after the fact.”

Later in the day, UTA head of research Dave Herrin said the same thing in a different way regarding film tracking: “We need to think of tracking not as predictive tool but as away to make informed decisions along the way.”

Magic time

Magic is definitely in the air as industryites forge new data-enhanced ways of doing business. Viacom president-CEO Philippe Dauman, who gave the keynote address, spoke of the “magic” of stitching together audience information from multiple sources.

Twitter’s Moody spoke of reaching the “magical point” of having the computing power to analyze the acres of data that Twitter churns out every hour. Chris Robichaud, CEO of PMK-BNC, talked about the “magical moment” that comes when clients understand how they can use “bite-size” bits of data to advance their careers. “We’re using this to do tens of millions of dollars in talent deals,” he said.

Data paranoia 

Colin Carrier, chief strategy officer of live-streaming platform Twitch, identified a new media malady he dubbed “data paranoia.”

With so much information flowing in, execs face the fear that if they don’t pour over every bit they’ll miss the one slice of info that will transform the business. At Twitch, they combat that by going out of their way to de-centralize the flow of information among execs. “We only have one goal — to grow our business,” he said.

Short-term shortcomings

The turbulent environment in the TV and advertising market has Wall Streeters down on the media sector. That’s missing the forest for the trees at a time when more people are engaging with content than ever before. “Wall Street is way too short-term in its perspective,” said Irwin Gotlieb, chairman of media buying giant Group M, echoing an earlier comment from Viacom’s Dauman. “At the end of this tunnel is a very, very bright light,” Gotlieb said.

Digital larceny

Fraud is the scourge of digital advertising, buyers and sellers agreed. “It’s funny that we’re so focused on looking for the one guy who’s ready to buy a car when there’s $6 billion worth of click fraud going on right now,” said Amy Carney, Sony Pictures TV’s president of advertiser sales, strategy and research.

“Star Wars” is a data tsunami

Data-mining in preparation for the Dec. 18 premiere of the latest “Star Wars” pic is a full-time job for many people at the Disney.

“It’s such a massive amount of data — it’s energizing to my team,” said Wayne Peacock, Disney’s VP of analytic insights and business intelligence. “There’s no angle of that film we can’t look at from a social perspective.”

Big data has feelings too

In a sea of spreadsheets, it’s easy to forget that all of those numbers and percentages and indexes all boil down to the hopes, dreams and whims of real people.

“There’s a human being at the end of every data point whose voice is being expressed in some small way,” said George Dewey (pictured), head of digital marketing for 20th Century Fox.

Standards matter

Panelists across disciplines spoke of the problems of comparing apples-to-oranges sets of data and the struggle to make sense of the many methodologies for crunching numbers.

“We have to standardize our approach to data as an industry,” said Elias Plishner, exec VP of digital marketing worldwide for Sony Pictures Entertainment. “It’s a huge issue that needs to be addressed.” Fox’s Dewey agreed and offered a helpful solution: “You should probably just adopt ours.”

Don’t tell mom

People behave differently according to the social media platform they’re using, which affects data research. Chris Bruss, president of digital content for Funny or Die, noted that videos involving controversial or risqué subjects perform better on platforms that are a little more tightly controlled by users like Tumblr, compared to Facebook where “your mom and your third grade teacher and everybody you’ve ever met is there watching,” Bruss said.

They just keep coming

Think there’s too much content out there now? Just wait. Panelists representing Buzzfeed, Maker Studios, Fullscreen, Conde Nast Entertainment, Spotify and others made it clear that when it comes to new forms of original content in the works — you ain’t seen nothing yet.

And in a bonus item offering perspective from the other side of the world, Le Vision Pictures CEO Zhang Zhao spoke about using location-based data to bring audiences to the multiplexes. “People in China need a reason to go to the theater – for them, it’s a social experience,” he said. A mix of social media and in-theater marketing is key. “We created the first teen franchise in China by marketing where we know our users are online,” he said.

Variety’s Big Data Summit concludes Thursday.

(Pictured: 20th Century Fox’s George Dewey)

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