Numbers vs People: Understanding the Fundamentals

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The Housing Crash of 2008 seemed to happen suddenly and unexpectedly. I say “seemed” because few things truly happen unexpectedly, and few things are as closely watched as the US housing market. Except for, maybe, the US elections.

What we know now is that, while the housing market was so closely monitored leading up to 2008, it was monitored in the wrong way. Or, rather, it was monitored based more on a belief in the way the market was supposed to act, rather than the way it was actually acting. Economists believed so strongly in their bedrock beliefs about the underlying nature of US housing that they didn’t make adjustments for what was actually happening around them.

So, when the crash happened, it was a huge surprise to everyone, except for the precious few who put their beliefs on the shelf, were willing to admit that maybe they didn’t know everything, and looked at the real world and what people were actually thinking, feeling and doing.

It seems that this just played itself out again with this election. Different characters. Same plot.

Across the political (and emotional) spectrum, we all share a specific and acute sense of surprise about the election of Donald Trump. Both the polls and popular sentiment seemed to tell us that there was little chance that Trump would pull this off. Many expected an early night and a Clinton victory. The science of blending polls that seemed so magical just four years ago told us what to expect, as did a long list of well-respected commentators and strategists with years of experience.

Of course, they were all wrong. People with far more technical acumen that I will look into these models and maybe adjust them for future elections. But one thing we know for sure is that the models that relied on how-things-usually-work didn’t do the job they were supposed of telling us how-things-will-go.

Many of us in marketing and advertising rely on data. After Obama’s wins, especially in 2008, there was a renewed vigor around data and analytics. We all wanted a Five Thirty Eight for our brand. Today, I think we need to have yet another wake up call.

We can never, ever solely rely on a model to tell us what is going to happen. We can never, ever look at numbers about what happened in the past and pretend we know for sure what will happen in the future.

And mostly, we can never lose sight of the blindingly-obvious fact that numbers are nothing and people are everything. Sometimes people say one thing, but are trying very hard to communicate another. Sometimes two people say the same thing, but for very different reasons. Sometimes people say something that they really just hope is true.

I certainly am not going to (today) suggest a new way forward or a magic bullet solution. That is a much bigger task. But I do know that we need should take a minute and make sure we learn something here about our assumptions about consumers, their decisions or the marketplace in general. Those assumptions form a foundation for the work we do and the paths we chose. Advertising is always about the future—something that we want to make happen—so there has to be some core understanding of how things are now. When we don’t examine those assumptions, and match them against what people are actually doing and thinking, we end up with a misunderstood marketplace.

And misunderstood marketplaces lead to surprise outcomes that should have been clear all along.

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