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Big data, big risk

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(MoneyWatch) If you believe everything you read, "big data" can identify terrorists, predict when your daughter is pregnant and tell you who you should marry. It will track sales, anticipate consumer behavior and put you in the driving seat of customer relations.

But there's one thing it can't do: Big data will never give you big ideas.

As I sat in a board meeting last week, my colleagues enthusiastically into the market research, customer profiles and buying trends that had been collected and analyzed in minute detail. With everyone vying to demonstrate their analytic skills, the board came up with more and more questions, the answers to which would involve more data collection and analysis. We didn't so much go into the weeds as set up camp there. 

It would be wrong to say that the discussion was uncreative, but it was highly constrained. As big details were sliced and diced into smaller details, we got further from any strategic vision and purpose. We were -- are -- in danger of incrementalizing ourselves to death.

Big data doesn't facilitate big leaps of the imagination. It will never conjure up a PC revolution or any kind of paradigm shift. And while it might tell you what to aim for, it can't tell you how to get there.

Don't get me wrong: I am delighted to see the smoke-and-mirrors of traditional advertising revealed for the hoax that it has always been. I love the fact that Internet advertising is accountable in ways that, say, magazine ads never were or could be. But I also recognize that what the best creatives always brought to the table was just that: creativity. The ability to imagine something that isn't there.

The danger of big data, aside from privacy concerns, is that what it will lure companies into epic homogeneity. Collect enough data and everyone's stats start to look the same. Apply standard analytics and all the conclusions start to look the same, too. Just as marketers start to imagine they really know what they're doing, they will find that they are doing what everyone else is doing. Now it isn't just not creative; it's actively anti-creative.

When everyone gets tangled up in the weeds, the truly creative will stay in the clear, where they can get a better view.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.