R/GA Data Guru Brings Biostatistics Background to Marketing Analytics

A Q&A With Sue Davidson, R/GA's Senior VP of Analytics and Accountability

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Sue Davidson, R/GA
Sue Davidson, R/GA

It's not uncommon around R/GA's New York office to see execs wearing the Nike+ Fuel Band, the data-generating wrist device the agency was instrumental in developing. Sue Davidson, senior VP-analytics and accountability at the digital agency, is one of them. With her focus on measurement and analytics in her work, it's no surprise she's adopted a quantified lifestyle.

"I love uploading my data and looking at my pattern of activities, remembering the things that I was doing when I was earning the most points," said Ms. Davidson.

Hired earlier this year to head up R/GA's worldwide analytics group, Ms. Davidson has been assessing how data measurement and analysis will help the agency provide product development-related services. That means working with product developers to measure the viability and potential business impact of their creations.

"That's a pretty large shift from just measuring and optimizing communications," she said.

Her goal is to determine reasonably accurate information to make near-real time decisions. However, that requires a balanced approach. "You have to make sure that you're asking the right questions," she said. "It's also about setting up the right methodology ... really understanding the data and what it's going to be used for."

While her focus these days is on digital data, earlier in her career Ms. Davidson was working with far more organic data sources. Around 2000, she worked for the Environmental Protection Agency conducting economic analysis of drinking water contaminants. Her work was used to inform lawmakers of the risks and financial burdens associated with substances found in water, such as arsenic.

And her first data romance? It came while studying winged nocturnal creatures. "I was a scientist studying communications and behavior of rainforest bats," said Ms. Davidson, who has an undergrad degree from the University of Michigan in resource ecology and management, and an master's in biology and animal behavior from the University of Maryland. "I always say that working with consumers is easier than working with bats. You don't need as much rigor and precision in marketing and analytics as you do in science."

She also has an MBA in marketing and strategy from MIT Sloan School of Management. There, she realized she could apply her earlier analytics work to studying consumers.

Ad Age: How does your background studying biostatistics help in your current work? What are some similarities between bio-statistical and consumer data?

Ms. Davidson: Biostatics is a fantastic entree into marketing analytics. Biologists create extremely complex experiments giving them broad exposure to the different types of testing we use in marketing analytics -- such as A/B and multivariate testing. It also helps to have a strong hypothesis-driven approach as analysts often come up with ideas and then seek evidence to validate the outcome.

Ad Age: The Nike Fuel Band is big at R/GA. How can companies like Nike put to use the information gathered through quantified life products like these?

Ms. Davidson: I wear my Nike Fuel Band all the time, except when I have to charge it about once a week. I love uploading my data and looking at my pattern of activities, remembering the things that I was doing when I was earning the most points. I also enjoy comparing myself to my friends and colleagues at work. The competition makes me set higher goals, hit the gym more and even take extra shifts walking the dog.

For brands that create activity trackers, it would be advantageous for them to provide to the user a thorough analysis of the data, generate insights from the data, and then provide valuable content back to users. The content could be anything from personalized training videos to relevant articles on health and wellness.

Ad Age: There's increased talk lately about the value of first-party data over third-party data. What are the pros and cons of third-party data compared to first?

Ms. Davidson: First party data should always be tackled since it can be an easy source of competitive advantage that your competition can't access. However, if there are things that you don't know or are unclear, third party data can be used effectively to bridge the gap. One of our goals at R/GA is to help develop platforms or programs that generate interesting data for our clients.

Ad Age: You did some cool work studying contaminants in water for the EPA. What was the outcome?

Ms. Davidson: I worked on a few pieces of legislation in the early 2000s that helped remove certain contaminants, like arsenic, from our drinking water. As part of our analyses, we had to do cost-benefit analyses to help determine what the acceptable level of a particular contaminant might be. We estimated that thousands of lives a year would be saved when these contaminants were removed so it was always a celebration when the rules were passed by the government.

Ad Age: There are so many corporations seeking data scientists these days. Could that have an impact on the level of data-related knowledge in the public sector?

Ms. Davidson: It absolutely could impact the public sector. As students pursue deeper analytics training and, in doing so, increase their student loan debt, many will not have the option of public sector jobs, despite the interest.

However, the analytics knowledge gained working in the private sector is making its way into the public sector. The transferability of skills may be one of the coolest aspects working with data and what makes analytics such a great career choice for smart, curious people wanting to have an impact.

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