A couple of years ago, at the World Communications Forum in Davos, I shared a platform with Marshall Sponder, who insisted that PR firms would need to embrace big data in order to remain competitive. His argument was compelling, sufficiently so that I cribbed his big idea and made it number one on my own list of priorities when it comes to designing the PR agency of the future. The industry has been making slow but steady progress on this front—most of the major agencies are at least thinking about how big data can help them help their clients. The news his morning that Cohn & Wolfe has joined The Data Alliance, WPP’s in-house big data solution is another indication that data’s time has come. A conversation yesterday with Cohn & Wolfe CEO Donna Imperato and the president of the firm’s digital innovation group Chad Latz, suggests that the major obstacles to integrating big data into the creative process are overblow and easily surmountable. The first is the question of who will pay for it—because while to cost of insightful and actionable information has come down dramatically in recent years, it is not free. And there is little evidence that clients are willing to allow PR agencies to pass the costs along. But Imperato makes two excellent points. The first is that integrating big data into account planning, using its real-time insights to adjust programming in midstream (something PR can do more readily than advertising), and measuring the impact of PR on consumer behavior will all lead to better quality of work and a greater—and more demonstrable—impact on the client’s business. Marketers may not be prepared to pay more for data, but they should be willing to pay more for communications activity that has a measurably greater impact on the bottom line. The second point is that while there is some cost attached to investing in big data, there is potentially a far greater downside for failing to do so. PR agencies that fail to understand the value of big data will lose out to those who do, and if the PR industry collectively fails to embrace big data, it will lose market share to other disciplines. Another question is whether the “creative” people in PR will embrace data or see it as somehow restrictive or limiting, a discussion Latz describes as “the Mad Men versus math men debate.” On this topic, Cohn & Wolfe makes an interesting test case. The firm is best known for its work in consumer and has an enviable creative heritage. In its “manifesto,” the firm claims that “convention is our enemy” and promises to “imagine more.” But it also promises to “dig deeper,” and it is clear that it sees data and insights as part of the creative process—a stimulus to even more creative thinking. Latz says that members of the firm’s creative community have been among the most enthusiastic advocates for an increased commitment to more and better data. As an industry, we are still figuring out what big data can do for us. With moves like this one, we can figure it out faster. If we get it right, it will transform our work process and work product and change our position in the marketing mix and the management sphere.