To Catch a Marketer: How This Law Enforcement Data Firm Moved Into the Ad World

Ogilvy Group U.K. Helped Relative Insight Take its Criminal Data Analytics to Brands

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Ben Hookway, CEO of Relative Insight
Ben Hookway, CEO of Relative Insight
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For several years, Relative Insight has used its sophisticated language data analytics system to root out criminals online. Now it's taken those tools, employed by law enforcement to find fraudsters or child predators, and applied them to help marketers understand who's really saying what about their brands online. It all started with a little help from Ogilvy Group U.K.

Relative Insight's comparative language algorithms, which it developed over ten years along with Lancaster University's linguistic and cybersecurity departments, helps law enforcement clients spot people who might be posing as someone else in social media. The phrases, linguistic style, syntax and grammar used by actual teens, for example, have nuanced differences from someone trying to come off as a teen.

"In child protection, the situation arises sometimes that an adult is pretending to be a child, so we can tell the difference between a 13-year-old girl online and a 35-year-old man doing a very, very good impression of a 13-year-old-girl," said Ben Hookway, CEO of Relative Insight.

But it turns out that the system can also discern what sort of person is talking in very different scenarios -- like discussing beauty products online. "The difference between saying 'wearing makeup' and 'applying makeup' can be really significant," Mr. Hookway said.

The team at Relative Insight, based in London, didn't always have designs on cracking the marketing industry, but when Mr. Hookway met with "a friend of a friend" who worked for a creative agency in Manchester, he discovered that word clouds -- an arguably crude means of understanding and visualizing what people talk about online -- were common in the social marketing world.

"It got me thinking," he said. The firm went on to do some pilot work exploring how its law enforcement system might illuminate social media conversations for brands. A brief meeting with Nicole Yershon, director of innovative solutions at Ogilvy Group U.K.'s Labs division, led to the firm's inclusion in one of the agency's series of educational programs for staff, this one focused on data.

"The meeting with Nicole was kind of a big deal," said Mr. Hookway. Indeed, during an Ogilvy Labs session last year involving Relative Insight, a participant tweeted about the company, prompting inquiries about its language analytics from marketers including Microsoft and Nokia.

"The world of marketing and agencies and air-kissing and all that stuff is about as far as it can get from the world of cyber security and language analysis in academia," Mr. Hookway said. So, one thing Ms. Yershon did to assist Relative Insight's inroads into the marketing industry was to help the firm determine how to explain itself to marketers -- to make an elevator pitch, so to speak.

Microsoft and Nokia now work with Relative Insight, along with Dove and agencies Ogilvy, Havas and Saatchi & Saatchi.

For clients including Nokia, initial projects have involved evaluating online discussions to see how brand messaging is perceived.

The system measures the import of specific words by weighting them compared to benchmarks for various sorts of average speakers. "We can tell you how your consumers talk in a specific age range compared to another age range," said Mr. Hookway. A brand might then tailor communications to certain audiences according to that analysis, he said.

The approach differs from a simple search for, say, fans in social media. "Typically a brand will say, 'Let's look for language around our brand which is positive,'" said Mr. Hookway. That's tempting for marketers but can lead to faulty assessments, he said.

"This ad industry is awash in agencies doing jazz hands," Mr. Hookway added. Until recently, the company has steered clear of hiring people from the advertising world. Instead, he said, his pitch is "we catch bad guys."

But as the firm builds its marketing industry clientele, it has begun hiring people with marketing backgrounds. In late October, Relative Insight announced its appointment of David Pattison, an ad industry vet who founded Omnicom-owned media agency PHD, as an advisor to assist the company in its move towards marketing.