PII: Innocean’s Shamsa Jafri Talks Data Quality And Quality Data Scientists


This is the fifth installment in “PII,” a series featuring the talent that makes the wheels turn in our data-driven advertising world. Read previous interviews with Nazanin JazayeriAndrew Klein, Ella Chinitz and Freddie Liversidge.

Before Shamsa Jafri joined Los Angeles-based agency Innocean in February, its data and analytics practice was lacking, restricted to activities like report polling and data collection.

Over the last nine months, Jafri helped build Innocean’s analytics practice into a team of seven engineers, strategists and predictive analysts that inform media, creative and strategy across the agency.

“We use data to look for nuggets of information – areas our competitors aren’t thinking about –and underutilized opportunities,” she said. “We’re breaking down the walls from a data perspective, connecting the dots and are able to tell not only what has happened but why it’s happening. Then we’re figuring out how to do more of that and course correct if necessary.”

To grow her team, Jafri isn’t just looking for people with data science skills.

“What I look for is curiosity and passion,” she said. “I can teach you how to run a formula or an algorithm. I need somebody who wants to constantly evolve and break down data barriers not only on the agency side, but on the client side.”

A global independent agency, Innocean offers integrated media and creative services for clients such as KIA, Hyundai, Finish Line and Champion.

Jafri spoke with AdExchanger.

AdExchanger: How did you upgrade Innocean’s analytics practice? 

SHAMSA JAFRI: Understanding pain points and business positions is the foundation of everything we do. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. We customize everything.

We’ve built quite a bit [of technology] in-house. Out-of-the-box solutions weren’t fitting our clients’ needs. Data protection is a big concern right now. To leverage third-party solutions, you have to give up your data. How do you keep as much as you can in-house?

At the same time, we want to leverage the experts out there, so we’ll partner with anyone from Adobe to Google to Tableau.

What personal qualities make you thrive in this role? 

A passion for loving data and being able to create a story out of it. That’s what gets me going and out of bed every day. If you don’t have a passion for this, it’s going to become very stale very quickly. To be honest, you won’t be good at it.

Knowing there’s always a client concern or a problem to solve for is exciting. The really exciting part is being an investigator; trying to get to why, what and how to change it. We live in a world where there’s data everywhere, but how do you cancel out the noise and focus on the signals? How do you connect the pieces together to stitch together that story? That’s where the magic happens.

What do you like about a small integrated agency versus a large agency like Ogilvy, where you worked before? 

Working at a large agency is great. You work with diverse clientele. But you get pigeonholed. You don’t get to wear that integrated hat. As a data scientist, you need to work across departments or your data and analysis will fall flat. At a larger agency there are so many silos and technologies that overlap and contradict themselves.

At a smaller agency you’re able to establish a single source of truth. You can control how data is structured, the tech used, how that information is distributed back to clients and within the organization. You have standardized reporting and insights. You see a shift within larger agencies to go to a model where data science becomes its own center of excellence for that very reason.

You’ve worked in analytics on the brand side and agency side. How does it differ?

If you work for an agency, you don’t have all of the first-party data critical to developing your model. On the brand side, you have all of your first-party data, but you’re lacking second-party data because there’s a firewall between the agency and brand.

What do you like about using data to inform creative?

Providing new opportunities in unchartered territories. Data tells us where there are opportunities the competition isn’t thinking about and we haven’t thought about. The potential is in underindexed opportunities.

We use data to constantly optimize. How do you make something great even better? How do you evolve it with multivariate testing or algorithms that listen to what consumers are saying?

What does data mean to you in your daily life?

Data is life or death for me. My husband suffers from multiple sclerosis. I developed a model that allows me to identify at what point he’s about to have a flare.

I took his wearable technology data, weather data, analyzed how many hours he’s working and sleeping, what he’s eating and his exercise. How is he walking? Is he able to walk today? Is he slurring in his speech? I’m not a doctor, but I can use my skills to keep him in remission for as long as possible.

Is data-driven advertising creepy to you?

There was a creep factor a few years ago when we started to monitor individual privacy policies a little laxer. But today consumers have the expectation for their brand to know what they’re looking for.

Gap would always send me stuff around boy’s clothing. I don’t have a boy. I think they’re starting to figure out their algorithm and they’re sending me things for two daughters. I’m glad that they’re following me because they’re saving me time.

What could advertisers and agencies do better? 

Understand the details that go into data science. Agencies hire one data scientist and think that will solve all of their problems. That’s not reality. You need a team of diverse skill sets. You need technology, but you can’t set it and forget. It’s a combination of good, clean, integrated data, people and technology working together.

Spend 80% of your investment on smart individuals and 20% on technology. I always see the reverse happen. They spend multimillion dollars on technology and no one knows how to use it.

What advice would you give someone interested in a career in digital advertising? 

Go for it. You’ll not only love the data aspect but you’ll get to share your ideas, get different perspectives and dabble in creativity, strategy and client relations. There’s not enough people that consider that as their top pick and it’s a missed opportunity.

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