Finding a balance in adland

Shane O’Leary tries to broker peace by finding common ground in adland’s debate between nerds and artists. Should data really take precedence over the big idea?

The battle lines have been drawn, sides are being chosen and the world is polarising. On one side, you have the ‘data is the future’ proponents. To them, data is gold and programatic, targeted advertising based on consumer’s behavioural history is the holy grail. Those who rely on the big idea, take up arms to defend their craft.

They say really great ideas are not clinical. They are imperfect, they come from messy processes and may rely on random connections, lateral and linear thinking.

It is a slightly magnified representation of the data/creativity discussion, but the age old question of whether marketing is science, art – or both – rears its head again.

BBH founder John Hegarty wrote a scathing piece outlining his view that “daring rather than data will save creativity”. In adland, what is new is over-prioritised. We see it with social media too. Without wanting to sound like a luddite (or a fool!), adland has definitely become overtly focused on and the lure of big data.

Given a Damme: What algorithm could come up with Jean-Claude Van Damme doing the splits for real between two Volvo trucks? On the other hand, some fail to see how tech has liberated communications in allowing businesses to grow from zero to enormous – without huge spend. The perception here is that data equals boring analytics.

Data helps to unlock insights. But alone, it is worthless. While it can lead to insights, it does not create great ideas. You may know who you need to reach, when you need to reach them and how to measure success, but consumers cannot be engaged with data. Forget about artificial intelligence taking our jobs and rendering adland useless. The heavy lifting of creativity has to come from a human.

If you are pumping resource into data at the behest of creative thinking time, you run the risk of being too concerned with optimisation rather than innovation. You risk giving the world ‘a faster horse’. By only talking to the people the data tells us to, we fall prey to the reductionism that sometimes goes along with data-driven marketing.

Sharp’s research told us that wastage is not always to a brand’s detriment. Yet still many ignore that and fall into the trap of becoming mechanics tweaking an over-optimised engine instead of creators with scope for imagination and experimentation.

And then there is the other side of the argument. There certainly is a latent bias within some parts of advertising to the way it has always been done. Tasked with building a brilliant brand campaign, what modern creative would not want to know the deep, unspoken traits of their audience. So what is the answer? It is simple.

Data and creativity should be comfortable bedfellows. They should overlap and combine to make our industry better, not quarrel and backbite to make things worse. The fact is that we are at a stage of Darwinian change in marketing and in the face of declining relevancy we really cannot afford to be divided.

Marketers should heed Jack Welch’s words: “find ways to get – and use – data more quickly”, but use it to spur creative conversations and inspire innovation rather than taking the numbers as gospel. Netflix is a prime example of using data to infuse and invigorate creativity. Their algorithm is powerful as it is constantly being fuelled by millions of hours of viewing. They know how many episodes of Gilmore Girls you binge watched last Saturday and the minute you switched off Black Mirror.

House of Cards and Stranger Things were created based upon insights from data mining. The Netflix bot drove everything from genre to character demographics to the excellent social media marketing that surrounded these shows. That is the science bit. But these insights are only the starting point. No algorithm could replicate the menacing mannerisms of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, create a beautifully shot 80s sci-fi drama, or understand how to bring the characters to life in a social feed.

Spotify is another great example. Their recent global outdoor campaign won huge plaudits for its creative use of data, playfully highlighting the more bizarre user habits it noticed throughout 2016. Give it a Google and you will get the idea.
We cannot forget that creativity creates value by delivering emotion, fame, salience and, ultimately, difference. Ironically, creativity is also a force multiplier of effectiveness and is vital for giving a brand a competitive edge. Yet the growing belief in ‘data-only solutions’ means we tend to lessen its importance.

Aristotle once spoke about the ‘golden mean’, or society’s almost biological need to find a desirable middle between two extremes of excess and deficiency. In my opinion, marketers would do well to note that down as a sound piece of advice. Let us end the argument now and work out how to find the right data/creativity balance.


Shane O’Leary is a freelance marketing strategist and tech journalist


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