Inside: Dot

  • Data
  • February 12, 2015
  • Ben Fahy
Inside: Dot

Apparently, data is the new oil. But, just like oil, data needs to be refined to be useful. And Dot, a ten-strong Wellington company that mixes analytics with storytelling is doing just that in an effort to find influencers, reduce churn and even beat the bookies. 

Dot started when Jason Wells, a former rep cricketer who spent 15 years at Y&R and officially left his role as ideas director in late January, and Dr Paul Bracewell, a “stats supergeek” who did his masters on cricket, his PhD on rugby and has worked in analytics leadership roles for the last 15 years throughout Australasia, devised and built a model for evaluating 20/20 cricket players. It was centred on understanding which team was winning at any stage of the match and a player's impact on that percentage. The company was sold to CricHQ in March 2013.

The pair figured they were onto something and roped in Mike Brough, who has worked with Kiwibank, NZ Post and Accenture, and Matt West, who has spent 13 years working with both local and multi-national brands on agency and client side and has set up a number of other businesses, into the business. They worked on it as something of a sideline project until around August last year, when they decided to go full-time on it. 

“We’re trying to bring data and the insights it brings to the fore,” says Wells. “... By stripping out the data that doesn’t really matter we’re left with some rich stuff. Then we present it well, so that even the ex-‘ideas directors’ can understand.”

Since it started it has gone on to build eight different products, all of which are in market, and, with so much talk about the importance of big data and customer centricity, Wells says it hasn’t had to work too hard to get meetings. It is already working across a number of different sectors, including banking, automotive, FMCG, insurance, government and sport. And “it’s always focused on the client’s business problem, whether it’s refining the people they look after the most, or finding the ones who are likely to leave". 

Bracewell is part of the famous cricketing family (if you can't play, do the stats, he says), and he says there are plenty of parallels between sports and business. Increasingly, sport is business, so the insights it can gather might give coaches and managers the upper hand, something illustrated by Michael Lewis’ great book (and ensuing movie) Moneyball or Mark McClusky's book Faster, Higher, Stronger, which shows what you can find when you delve into the stats.

“There’s no shortage of data," says Bracewell. "The great thing about the work we do with cricket is we’re looking at new approaches. So it’s about what it takes to win a game of cricket and showing the coaches what they need to do … There’s more sophistication in the area of sports. We did a bit of work with a couple of organisations and we’re just scratching the surface. The higher level sports probably are already doing it. But there’s still a lot of stuff where coaches say they know best. It’s just another tool to make your team a little better. It’s not one answer. It might just be the addition of a few small things." 

At the top level, those small things matter—whether in sports or business. And, as Brough says, big data is presenting a whole lot of exciting opportunities for organisations that will ultimately determine who wins and who loses. 

Intuition is still crucial in business, but it increasingly needs to be backed up by hard numbers. And a good example of this is Dot's product U Beauty, which uses data to find the gaps in the odds offered by the bookies. It tends to only bet overseas in sports they know nothing about, so there is less bias. But they say the NFL has been a happy hunting ground. 

“We’re up over 100 percent [on the TAB] in the last three months so something’s working. We expect it to fund our attendance at global sporting events for the foreseeable future”, jokes Wells. “… We’re still testing it out. But it’s only data that informs our decisions. We’re all sports fans, but if it becomes emotional, we say, 'no, go back to the data'.”

It’s set to have a crack at the Super 15 this season, and it’s also working in Silicon Valley with ProFundr, a site that basically acts as a futures market for sports stars. 

Even though they're keen to keep this product on the downlow because sports gambling “is a murky world at times”—and it does have the potential to turn some clients off—its success seems to be a good proof of concept for companies wanting to apply similar rational principles to improving their own odds of success. 

Among its other B2B products, it’s created Influencer vs. Advocate, which allows businesses to dedicate more time to the more important customers. At first glance, it seems similar to Klout, which provides a slightly narcissistic ranking based on online activity. Wells says rankings are easy to understand and are able to track change, but Bracewell says it’s not necessarily about what you’re saying, it’s about what you’re doing.

“We’re trying to tap into the behaviour, rather than just what’s being said.”

There’s also Leaky Bucket, which uses client data and, importantly, external data that sits around an individual to build a propensity or likelihood of churn; Me&U, a online customer profiling tool; and Shyster, a fraud-detection product that looks at the legitimacy of someone’s identity when they’re applying for products, services and credit. 

As an example of how their products can help clients, it points to the Wellington Phoenix, which is trying to better understand its fanbase and ensure it uses its limited resources more effectively.

“Teams in New Zealand don’t have much to spend on marketing or advertising, so if we can identify where the fans are or aren’t coming from it might help them allocate their resource,” says Wells. 

He says it might look at what’s stopping the fans from coming to the games. Weather could be part of it. Or it could be the perception that the team might lose. So, if they find out that the Phoenix have beaten that team three times in a row at home, it gives them something solid to promote.  

Some clients already have many of these systems in place, of course, especially when it comes to churn, but Wells says it’s found that “if you get client data and supplement it with a couple of other data sources, then the data they’ve got becomes so much richer … There are a number of companies that are data rich but they might not know what to do with it. Fresh eyes are important.”

At this stage it doesn’t work with any larger data collection or research agencies, although there are data sources it will buy if it makes for better insights. He says about 80-90 percent of the product will be similar across different clients or categories, with a bespoke element for each one. So, with the Influencers vs Advocates tool, for example, it “can add a bit of something else to it, or mash it up with something else”.

Agencies often struggle to create successful products as their campaign mindset sees them move onto the next shiny thing, rather than focusing on iterative improvements, something discussed in Leif Abraham's Madison Valley. Wells, despite his own advertising heritage, says Dot is aiming to be a product-based company where it can insert something into a client’s business and watch it tick along, but to get to that point it needs to introduce itself to the market through service work, “so we can go in and understand what they need and come up with a product that will help them in the future”.

Part of that is taking complex data and simplifying it, something that is becoming increasingly important. And Dot, with the help of West’s design agency EightyOne, is well and truly on that train, visualising data and creating infographics for some clients like The Phoenix (and for the StopPress readership).

“I think people need data to look simple. And nice,” says Wells. “Then it means that people higher up might get it. The chief executive might not have that much time [to look at the data], but if it’s visually engaging, they get it straight away ... We want to get to the stage where someone would put one of them up on the wall.”

When Cannes chairman Terry Savage visited New Zealand a few years back, he said that while data and creativity might be uneasy bedfellows, modern agencies need to get their heads around it.

"Data is nothing without data visualisation … If it’s done in a boring way they’ll switch off. So it’s about finding ways to creatively present data,” he said. And, as an example of that, he says Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was "basically just data presented in a meaningful way". Campaigns like Amnesty International's Trial by Timeline and Intel's Museum of Me are other examples of data being presented in a clever way. 

Data is also leading to efficiencies and adaptive planning, like the Lion-winning campaign for Kleenex in the UK, which addressed the challenge of selling tissues to people that have flu. Kraft has also found success using data to find trends and then tailoring content to it. And, as Wells says, if you can spot the trends, you can tap into them.

“When you go through the data there are always a couple of things that pop out. Or it can reaffirm something you’re already doing. It's certainly not a silver bullet, but it adds weight to what you do.”

Wells thinks the prevalence of data is a good thing for agencies, because the insights are more robust that may have been in the past and creatives generally like a tight brief. So, with the advent of contextual digital advertising that changes based on data (or, increasingly, the recipient) and, more broadly, the rise of the ‘if this then that’ movement, there’s plenty of scope for data-led creative executions.

Data journalism is also coming of age and esteemed vessels like The New York Times, The Economist, The Guardian and, more locally, Stuff and The Herald are embracing it. And while Dot hasn’t dabbled in any interactive representations of data just yet, it’s planning too soon.

The line between creepiness and relevance is a fine one, and there are a number of stories about glitches in the matrix, whether it’s the 50-year-old male triathlete getting baby product offers after buying some Vaseline, parents finding our about their daughter’s pregnancy through direct mail or Facebook’s automated year in review bringing back some bad memories.

Many of these scenarios are related to comms and while Wells says Dot doesn’t want to be doing ads, it can alert brands when they need to be careful. Automation and trigger-based comms are becoming increasingly prevalent, but he says there’s no substitute for a human eye—and, with four partners with different backgrounds, he says they all approach it differently.

“We still need to interpret the data,” says Wells. “You need to make sense of the findings. We build the model, but you need to put a real-world perspective on it and show what it actually means. If you want to use the insights, you need to say 'this is the sort of action we need to take'.”

As Bracewell says, there’s “a lot of data out there but it’s important to think about how you’re using it, who’s using it and where you’re getting it from". 

Wells or Bracewell wouldn’t be drawn on revenue or growth, but it’s just hired another Dr to bring the total up to ten staff (all based in Wellington), and, as Bracewell says, “14 months ago we didn’t exist, so we’re doing alright". And as the phone keeps ringing, they say they're recruiting like crazy. 

It’s not quite at the stage where it can buy a corporate box for the Cricket World Cup, but unsurprisingly, it will be crunching a few numbers during the tournament and, appropriately enough, it's focusing on dot balls.  

So who’s going to win? Bracewell and the team have developed a ratings system that shows how many runs teams would’ve won by if they batted second and then recalibrates it based on who they were playing and where. It ranks Australia first, South Africa second and New Zealand third. Maybe the TAB has been paying attention. 

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