Recognized by Ad Age’s Agency A-List for two consecutive years, as a leader in The Forrester Wave: Lead Agencies, and as a leader in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Global Digital Agencies, VML is at the forefront of how marketing agencies are defined. In fact, Gartner noted: “For this year’s Magic Quadrant … we focused our analytical lens on an agency’s ability to drive client growth through its keen interpretation of marketplace trends and deliver transformational technologies or approaches that meet marketers’ future needs.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in our work with Stefania Accardo, associate director, analytics & data insights, with a consolidated experience in unstructured data. We recently caught up with Stefania to talk about her work and what she sees in the future of marketing data.

SpotRight: Stefania, you often describe yourself as a data psychologist. What do you mean by that and how does that apply to your work, especially as the lead of unstructured data?

Stefania: I’d like to answer this question with a quote from Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University. He tweeted that big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it and nobody really knows how to do it. Everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims that they are doing it.

I think this is the perfect answer to understand why a data psychologist is important. Big data is a trending topic across many agencies and industries overall, and everybody has started building their own database and doing automated reporting and automated data analysis. But the human touch is what most people miss.

It’s not just talking about big data or trying to create something similar, it’s really feeling what you’re doing. Our industry is being overwhelmed with vast metrics around social listening, performance analytics and measurement plans. You hear this in every new business pitch right now because everything has to be data-driven, including the creative ideas. It’s easy to forget we need to understand what’s behind the data. What’s just behind a number that we report? Who are these people we are analyzing? That’s where the data psychologist really comes in — being curious about the people more than just the numbers we are reading.

SpotRight: That makes sense, it’s important to be able to put that human touch to your analysis. Knowing that, what do you think is the most important part of applying data and insight to the strategies that you’re helping create?

Stefania: In data analysis, people often have a misperception that it’s only part of reporting. You just read what people are saying online and then you report this information. It can be volume spikes or number of followers, but anyone can bring up that information. You don’t even need tools to understand how many people are talking about certain topics or why something is trending, because now Facebook or Twitter will tell you right away. I think it goes beyond when you have to inform a strategy or a piece of creative for the next award-winning campaign.

It’s more about understanding who the people behind the spikes are and what their social impact is, especially when we relate the analysis to crisis management. Most of our global clients have alerts set up if something negative mentioning their names starts trending online. With our unstructured insights practice, we analyze if these conversations come from the usual corporate haters or from investors — our clients rely on us to understand if they should worry about volume and sentiment. Understanding the audience behind something like this is what is most relevant to the strategy piece of our work at VML.

SpotRight helps us with audience insights to inform new business pitches and competitive analyses, and even brainstorming with creatives. We bring together information on current audiences, competitive audiences and aspirational audiences. Most of the time clients think they are targeting their specific aspirational audience, but then the core audience is completely disconnected.

SpotRight: Understanding the audience certainly is key. One of our advisors recently said, “Until the target is right, everything else is wrong.” Because you have such large clients and capabilities within the agency, practically speaking, how do you go about identifying the right insights, interpreting them, and then taking action on them?

Stefania: Here at VML we have worked on restructuring our data practice. We divide data into three main topics and the first is the most traditional one, where data equals numbers equals performance or analytics. That’s the kind of reporting I mentioned earlier, where we create a new campaign, report on it and see how it works, and then we optimize.

Next, we have the unstructured insights practice where reporting is more proactive, even before we create the idea. What are the available industry benchmarks? What are the competitive advantages? What are the trending topics? What do people care about?

The trending topics lead me to the third piece of our data practice at VML, which really builds more into the data science. It’s the combination of the performance analytics plus unstructured insights that leads us to create look-alike modeling and algorithms for more predictive analytics. That’s where we’re thinking about the innovation of data because, again, big data, everyone talks about it, but there is a lot in between. In Italian, we’d say: “fra il dire e il fare c’e’ di mezzo il mare,” which means it is much easier to SAY you’ll do something than to actually DO it.

SpotRight: No doubt! To wrap up, why did you choose to partner with SpotRight?

Stefania: SpotRight is a valuable data asset to leverage across all clients because it bridges the gap between offline and online data research. Certainly the best way to leverage this tool and fully take advantage of its capabilities is by running cross-analysis with other tools. At VML, we have access to MRI, Simmons OneView, Crimson Hexagon, eMarketer and Spredfast, and we use a combination of all these tools, mixing their outcomes with our data creativity and intuition to uncover insights.

The best advantage in utilizing SpotRight is that we can import and export data as we please. Actually, the tool is hungry for third-party data and is helping us match CRM data with social profile data and much more.

I’m also very excited by the most recent service you guys are providing with AudienceBuilder because that really helps us activate our data-driven strategies. In fact, with SpotRight, we can identify segments of specific target audiences, cross-analyze channel data and now deliver personalized marketing through realistic consumer journeys. This allows us to create something unique for our clients, deploying our tailored messaging in real time to where the audience is because of your connections to various ad platforms. Finally, after a couple years of steady talks about big data and personalized marketing, I think we are entering a very exciting moment for both data automation and consumer behavior.