Just as marketers are trying to come to terms with big data, the world’s most sophisticated financial minds are finding creative ways to escape from it. At Sense Worldwide, we work with consumer giants like Nike, PepsiCo and Samsung, but we also work with private equity companies on the prowl for big takeover opportunities. I have news for the marketers out there: the bean counters are coming up with some of the most radical research briefs we’ve seen.

For example, one private equity company is buying daily satellite images of shopping mall car parks to predict footfall. They find it more accurate than any econometric model. Quite a few analysts pay people to count ships and trucks. There’s often little correlation between the reported amount of, say, ore reportedly coming out of a mine and the number trucks that pull up there. A certain hedge fund legend has an even simpler way of tracking data on a certain coffee chain. He noticed that their receipts have a universal sales number on them. Every day he buys a coffee and a muffin, then plugs his receipt number into a spreadsheet, and gets a pretty good estimate of sales volume. Marketers, if you want to save money on research, learn from a billionaire.

We recently worked on a large buyout where we used social media analysis to predict future growth for the target company, and checked their quant research using our network of 5000 influential creative thinkers around the world. The sentiment, and the thought leaders, both indicated that the brand was on the wane, even though it had reported record sales. Our private equity client factored in the marketing cost to buoy the brand back up, and passed on the sale.

Why have the spreadsheet jockeys looked up from their screens? Well, you may remember 2007, the year that the financial industry was almost destroyed by mathematical models. Nobel-prizewinning economists built valuation algorithms like Black-Scholes that few truly understood. But a few bankers were suspicious of them. When analysts pitched high-margin mortgage products to Handelsbanken, its CEO did a radical thing. He got on a plane and went to see the homes backed by the bonds. He concluded that they’d all been bought by speculators, and passed on the deal. Handelsbanken had a good financial crisis. Bear Stearns, who bet the farm on financial models, did less well.

Say what you like about bankers, they’re not stupid. They learned from their mistakes. While marketers still use qualitative research to inspire hypotheses which they take into quant, the financiers are doing the opposite. Yes, they still use surveys and algorithms. But if they can’t make sense of them in the outside world, they’re rejecting them and going with their gut. Maybe some of their methodologies will sound a little weird. But when the Masters of the Universe look at the brand valuation models touted by the likes of WPP and Interbrand, I promise you, they’re boggling at the idea that anybody would take that stuff seriously.

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