Business Brains

Upstart | Becky Wang, Head of Data Strategy, Droga5

Posting in Cancer

Lessons from an international ad agency director on how to transition from go-go dancer to data analyst in five years.

Becky Wang heads data strategy for the international ad agency Droga5, which counts Puma, American Express, Mondelez, Unilever and Diet Coke among its clients.

But only six years ago, you'd find Wang wearing a very different hat. She shared with us the lessons she's learned along her short path from go-go dancer to data scientist.

1. “Nobody can see you onstage when they're really far away. So it's okay to be half naked.”

We started our interview, chaperoned by a Droga5 PR rep in the conference room of the agency's Manhattan office, with some low-hanging fruit. Yes, Wang was a go-go dancer for the Sandra Berhard show.

“I was slumming around L.A., going to Nip Tuck auditions in high heels and a bikini,” she told of her circa-2007 self.

After nearly a decade in various positions at a financial tech company, Wang had moved to Los Angeles craving a more creative career. "I don't think I ever really wanted to be an actress," she reasoned, "I just wanted to be expressive."

Wang has no regrets about her time dancing on the show -- "Best thing I ever did," she acknowledged. But it was behind the stage that Wang saw more opportunity for self-expression.

2. Go where you can have true creative power.

"It was actually at an audition," Wang said of one particular scantily-clad moment, "where I was like, I don't want to be in front of the camera. I don't think there's enough creative power. There's not room for my voice."

During her time in Los Angeles. she met Laura Ziskin, producer of Pretty Woman and the Spider Man films. Intrigued by film production, Wang found her way onto Ziskin's crew. Ziskin quickly fired her as a production assistant.

"She said," Wang recalled, "'I love you, I think you're brilliant, I think you'll take over the world. But I need someone who's going to take care of me, and you're terrible at making tea.'"

Fortunately, Wang reached better footing on Ziskin's Web marketing team, where she helped promote the television special Stand Up to Cancer.

"So as I'm chasing my dreams of some day working on a film, I'm also learning about digital media and what it means to get people to participate with brands," she said.

“It was, again," she laughed at her repetition, "one of the best things that ever happened me."

3. Become an expert in an emerging field.

Still unsure of her career goals, Wang attended the Twitter 140 Conference in 2008. There she met One.Tel founder Jodee Rich. He'd just launched the social media marketing analytics company PeopleBrowser, and needed someone to help sell the service to businesses. Wang fit right in.

"For me, the framework was easy to pick up," she said, given her financial tech company background, "because it's just like finance, it's a buyer and seller market." Within two years, Wang became a relative expert in the burgeoning social analytics arena.

"It was during the social media heyday," she said. "Nobody knew how to measure it, nobody knew what it was, nobody knew how to amplify it. And I could go into any brand, any agency, and talk about how I could build audience for them."

Wang could translate data from online chatter into usable information about businesses' potential customers. She realized she was finally expressing something completely unique -- an intuitive interpretation of social media data.

4. Find the right outlet for your expertise.

At yet another conference, where this time Wang presented, she made another valuable connection.

"A recruiter approached me," Wang recalled, "and said, 'Hey, creative agencies are looking for analytics, are you interested?'"

The recruiter put her in touch with Saatchi and Saatchi, another leading ad agency. They were looking to bring social media data to their creative development process and were eager to bring her on as director of digital strategy and analytics.

Wang felt immediately drawn to the storytelling aspect of interpreting data for an ad agency.

"A lot of it is figuring out what part of the story to tell," she said. "You can roll up the data on all different levels and really just get bogged down. But how do you roll up a classification of people so you find something descriptive about them? You want to understand your consumer, you want to know what types of people buy what."

Ten months after joining Saatchi, in April 2012, Wang was in the running for a job at Droga5.

"When I interviewed with David Droga," she remembered, "I said, 'I am here to challenge what you think is common sense.' And I thought he'd either never speak to me again or he'd hire me. And here I am."

5. Find true stories.

Pushed for an example of her work, Wang mentioned a campaign with a breakfast cereal client.

Most breakfast food advertisements, she said, focus on dreariness. She listed off sample campaigns: “'Have enough energy to get you through your day,' 'Have enough energy to deal with your kids,'” and campaigns that emphasize how many nutrients the food packs in to help you survive.

Wang analyzed a sample of social media conversations. "We found that out of the 4 million conversations about the morning," she explained, "half of them are actually 'Good morning sleepyhead,' and 'I hope for a beautiful day.'"

"We have so many breakfast cereals and breakfast alternatives telling us that we need to rush through our day, that's the implied message, when half the world is just saying 'Good morning.' So why not play in that space?" Wang encouraged a campaign of morning messages that fit the way people actually talked to each other in the morning.

6. Don't apologize for what you do.

Just as she proudly owns her go-go dancing venture, Wang stands by the way she uses collected data for her job.

"I think any of this data revelation is problematic when it gets down to the individual level," she says of data mining that looks at the actions of individuals. Instead, she uses data sets that reveal composite behaviors. "It's never a problem," she said, "when it's to build a community of people."

So, she's optimistic about the way data can be used in the future?

"You're right," she responded, "I do take a sunny side view of data. Just because it's available. It's kind of like taking a sunny-side view to technology. I don't think data is really any different.

"I don't think data can change human nature," she continued, "I just think data can better inform how we understand ourselves and other people. Whether or not you have the ethical code to do the right thing with it is not a problem that data can answer, it's an education issue, a social-fabric issue."

7. Don't trust standard models.

As with her research into what people want to hear in the mornings, Wang's been pleasantly surprised by what data tells her about consumers as a whole.

"What I've found as I've moved through my career," she told me, "is I do have a particular view of how people are and what human beings are capable of."

Is that a sunny view?

"Hm," she paused. "No, I think people are complex. I think people have choice, all the time. And I think the stories you can tell people about surprising ways to make choices that make their lives better are certainly important."

She said she knows some might question whether advertising is the way to do that. She believes it is. "Because we're saturated with these messages," she said of ads, "and if we can put out good messages, which is very much I think what Droga5 does, we're doing OK."

What data analytics allows, she explained, is for a truer understanding of how people express themselves. Which fits, given the lengths Wang gone to to express herself.

Photo: Paul McGeiver

Audrey Quinn

Contributing Writer

Audrey Quinn is a Brooklyn-based multimedia journalist focused on health, tech and the economy. Her radio stories can be heard on Marketplace, Studio 360, PRI's The World, NPR's Latino USA, Deutsche Welle Radio and The Believer Magazine podcast. In addition to her work with CBS Interactive she produces multimedia science stories for online publications and is a teaching assistant at the Transom Story Workshop. Her investigative work has been awarded by the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure