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Stop Relying on Data to Solve All Your Marketing Problems

Leo Burnett Dubai’s Ali Amarsy has a better idea: What would an Indian aunty do?

Last month I was given the opportunity to speak at the Dubai Lynx. It’s the Middle East & North Africa’s most prestigious advertising festival and awards ceremony — think Cannes by the Sahara.

My presentation was on the Main Inspiration Stage, which is typically reserved for hot-shot international creative directors and Google’s typical sales pitch, so I knew I’d have to work extra hard to set myself apart and share something memorable and valuable.

So I spoke about data. Sexy, I know.

But it had to be done, because frankly our industry has become so infatuated with data that everyone believes it’ll solve defining the target, coming up with insights, writing the ad, placing the ad and tracking the ad.


I had the attention of the region’s top decision makers, planners, business leads and creative thinkers, so this was my opportunity to drive my point: data and algorithms won’t solve all your problems on their own.

The issue is: Our industry has become data first, human second. If that. Yes, data and algorithms are super resourceful and can make smart suggestions, but they will always need human intuition to elevate their output and make something truly valuable out of them.


I’m arguing for better balance, where data and people work hand in hand so that you don’t have banner ads for cruise vacations on news articles about boats sinking in the ocean.

Our obsession with data means that, right now, this what our process looks like:


Yes, data should take away some of the grunt work, some of the uncertainty, some of the uniformed opinion, but only to give us more time for creative strategy, conception and crafting.

One great case of good balance between data and a human touch that weaves it all into something much more valuable is how Indian Aunties handle matchmaking. Matchmaking in an Indian context—where families, cultures, third cultures and religion are all juggled alongside regular dating inputs and metrics—may be one of the world’s toughest tasks.

What Indian aunties do is gather data and consult it as they make decisions and recommendations based on their gut, which itself is informed from a deep understanding of people and culture.


So I invite people in our industry, who’ve made data priority No. 1, to not get so caught up, and ask themselves: What would an Indian aunty do?


So, for example, when you see that every year bullying as a search term spikes in November, don’t just follow the data and drop your anti-bullying campaign then. Take a step back, and ask yourself: WWIAD?

Taking the data and your understanding of people and culture, you realize that bullying is something that builds over time, something that kids take time to acknowledge and speak about. Also, November is eerily close to back to school. So the “Indian Aunty approach” would dictate that you start talking bullying when it’s actually happening, before the search, before the data is even created.


The same approach provides great results when we look at the month of Ramadan in the Middle East. With everyone in the house fasting until sunset, with so many family members popping by to have iftar (the meal to break the fast) as a group, and with mother-in-laws watching their every move, Middle Eastern moms are throwing the equivalent of a Super Bowl party every night.

So up to 3 weeks before the month has begun, mom is game-planning her purchases, her time in the kitchen, her outfits, her guest lists, her seating arrangement, as well as her own month of spiritual enlightenment.

She’s firing on all cylinders. But even supermom runs out of gas, and about two weeks into the month, after 14 mega-feasts, she’s searching for simpler meals, shortcuts, tips and tricks.

Looking at the data alone, you’d think about talking up instant noodles to her as she starts running out of steam. But that’s too direct an approach. If you ask yourself WWIAD, you look at the cultural strain this mom is under. She can’t but be at her best, because everyone’s watching and this is game time. There are no excuses, she won’t even allow herself to fall short.

So the real way to help her, and earn a place in her heart, is to in fact give her simple ways to do what she perceives as too complicated but would still like to get done.

If you truly want to be mom’s sidekick, help her keep her superwoman cape on, without exhausting her any further.


So, if we are to integrate WWIAD into our process, it would look more like this:


The model brings in the the power of data, the knack for people and culture that aunties are known for, and the experience of an ad man to develop a strong strategic direction that harnesses all these strengths.

Balancing both data and human intuition is where our industry can find its most brilliant moments. You start with a truth based on a hunch and work with the data to find the solution.

So, next time you’re faced with a challenge, I invite you all to reconsider your relationship with data, and take a step back to ask yourself: WWIAD?

It’ll lead to much more engaging and valuable work—I’ve got the data to prove it.

Ali Amarsy is head of strategy & effectiveness at Leo Burnett Dubai.