Q&A: McCann Truth Central's president on the cookie-less future, the myth of age and the loneliness of Gen Z
McCann Worldgroup's Laura Simpson is perhaps the ultimate data geek. The new president and chief intelligence officer at McCann Truth Central is charged with launching, across the agency network, its “Truth Engine," which is an A.I.-driven cultural intelligence platform that houses over 30 million proprietary data points along with proprietary research reports from across McCann Worldgroup agencies.
The platform helps McCann strategists instantly visualize findings across dozens of studies with representation from 30 countries around the world. It allows the agency to build custom audiences and compare attitudes and sentiments across groups, helping to reveal human “truths” like the following found from Truth Central’s recent “Truth about Diversity” report: Over a third of men globally would change their gender to improve their success in life.
Simpson, who has been with McCann for 16 years, was previously head of trends and insight for McCann London before taking on this newly created role and had worked with major global clients such as L’Oréal, Mastercard, and Nestlé. She will also guide the creation, usage, and connectivity of McCann’s internal proprietary assets such as those from MW Truth Central, and integrating them with Interpublic Group’s Acxiom’s data in addition to external third-party assets.
To find out more about Simpson’s new role, Truth Central, and the Truth Engine, Ad Age caught up with Simpson and Suzanne Powers, global president and chief strategy officer of McCann Worldgroup. This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
What do you hope to accomplish in your new role?
Laura Simpson: I'm definitely going to be looking even more at McCann Worldgroup as a whole and making sure that we're maximizing opportunities across the network when it comes to thought leadership and data collection, making sure we are joining up the dots and making the most of the resources that we have internally. For example, McCann Health has an amazing amount of data, research, and insights around doctors and the medical community.
That's really interesting to clients outside of pharma as well, because now following the pandemic, every brand is a wellness brand at this point. So how can I help to join up all of those dots across thought leadership and research to make sure that we're maximizing those opportunities certainly is one thing.
I have another goal around what we call measuring the meaningful role that brands play in people's lives. And I've been working on a pilot with someone else on my team, Gideon Wilkins [Head of Research at McCann Central], and he's been pioneering interesting ways of measuring effectiveness by using a conversational style at scale. So conversational interactions about the role that a brand plays in a person's life, but then having so many of those conversations that you can look at it quantitatively. It's an interesting blend of qualitative and quantitative that's a little bit more agile than traditional brand measurement effectiveness surveys, which are generally based on quite highly structured long surveys.
When was the Truth Engine launched?
LS: It's been in beta for about a year, but we have officially launched it in the last couple of months really to make sure that just everybody around the world across the McCann network is properly trained.
At the moment it's a platform that empowers all of our strategists to access and manipulate the raw data that we've collected over the last decade. Previously, it was just 10 people in my group who could manipulate that data, now it's thousands of strategists. And we also pull in some third-party data sources that we subscribe to as well as all of our published sources. There's an AI-fueled search on the platform. So it's internally focused as an enabling tool, primarily for the strategist, but soon for the entire organization.
Laura, you've been working on insights from McCann for about 16 years. How has the agency and agency network evolved in a way that it has applied these insights to the work and solutions you create for clients?
LS: When I think back to 15 years ago, it was very ad hoc. It wasn't globalized, and it certainly wasn't applied in any consistent fashion. Whereas I think what we have now is a truly global system set of methodologies and more and more, we have a set of products that we actually use to apply those insights and that research to our client's businesses.
One thing that Suzanne has done, which has been amazing, with Truth Central in particular, while we're very focused on application, I think at times there's been a danger to say, ‘Well, why don't you just work for clients? All the research you do should just be for clients.' So when they ask for something, you do it. She's always been very protective of Truth Central and said, ‘No, this group needs to be a little bit agnostic of brands. It needs to start from a place of culture and humanity, first and foremost, and then we apply that to brands. We don't start with the brand, we start with the humans.’
Can you break down how the Truth Engine works for clients and give some examples over the last year or so that shows the type of impact that it can have?
Suzanne Powers: The L'Oreal age non-issue campaign is one of our better examples because it gained very particularly from diving into some of the truths that we had around stereotypes, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors when it comes to age.
LS: It was amazing because we'd actually done this piece of research called “The Truth About Age.” One of the important things that we talked about in that research is that when you talk to women about aging, often they feel that their lives get better and better over time and they feel more confident and optimistic, and yet it sometimes feels like there's this cultural conspiracy to make women feel worse as they age. That way of framing the issue was how the creatives got to the non-issue by saying this shouldn't be an issue. Women actually feel great and positive about aging in lots of instances.
How have you been training your team to use the Truth Engine?
LS: At first, we made videos and PowerPoint decks, and then we realized that by far the best way of empowering people and training people is to make sure that we set up these training sessions where everyone uses it together.
There's an amazing quantitative director on my team, Elly, she runs these amazing training sessions where we will take a real client problem in a region on a brand, and then with a group of strategists, she will make them use it live then and there to hunt for truths and then share the truths and the data that they're finding in real-time. So rather than giving people theoretical lessons on how to use it, we made them dive in and use it straight away.
How do you define a "truth?" How do you know when something goes from a data point to a truth?
LS: We've had so many conversations about that over the last 10 years. First and foremost, it needs to begin with some robust data. There's a big difference between just a fact or something that is true, versus something that has the power to unlock something new for a client. So some of the questions we always ask ourselves are ‘Will this move people?’ and ‘Will it move the market?’
SP: Some of the magic of getting to a truth is understanding the convergence and the collision of data points that typically makes for a truth. We might use machines to get us to huge sample sizes, but then humans are looking at some of those patterns and they're picking up patterns, the patterns that create some of these themes. We always ask ourselves when we get a bunch of data back, ‘What's surprising? What's a little bit strange?’ When we start to see things mesh and meld like that, we know we're onto something.
How is Google removing cookies down the line, affecting how you get insights?
SP: I get excited about the cookie-less future because I think cookies have made us as marketers just so reliant on them. We've lost a bit of the art. As researchers, we started out by trying to figure out how do you create the right understanding from top to bottom? From a macro-level understanding of humans, and how they behave, all the way through how they relate to a category that you're within.
This combination of data sources and tools and processes we have in McCann World Group with Truth Central at the center of that creates an ability for us to do that. We have a holistic view when we put these things together in the right way. We're excited about it, but there's going to be some education for our clients and for ourselves as well, to stop relying on that stuff and take an enlightened approach to it.
LS: We are looking at ways of joining up Acxiom Data with Truth Central data to do that end-to-end rich cultural human understanding with the behavioral demographic data that we get from Acxiom. We are able to blend those data sources in really exciting ways and elevate the way we think about segmentation.
Truth Central recently released a Gen Z report. What were some surprising findings?
LS: Loneliness in Gen Z was super interesting for me. We have a question where we ask people about whether they feel lonely, even when they're surrounded by friends and family, and for Gen Z that was much higher than any other audience. I think when we tend to think of young people, we think they're very social and they're super connected.
Also, given this year of dramatic change that we've had and how hard it's been for so many young people, you might assume that they just desperately want things to go back to normal. But in our most recent COVID and culture research, where every couple of months we do a new wave of research, I saw recently that Gen Z was more worried about things going back to the way they were than society radically changing. It shows me that this is a generation that wants some pretty big and systemic changes in the world.