Data and radicalism in advertising

This is Gareth Kay’s recent presentation to the ICA, and it’s very good.

Five things in it that I loved:

  1. ‘Low degree of difficulty’
  2. ‘Muscle memory’
  3. ‘Ingenious and effective’
  4. ‘People at the heart’
  5. ’100 small fires’

Read it and you’ll understand.

Now, I love this because I work in part of the industry that has a reputation as the enemy of creativity. The part that helps clients use hard data to make marketing decisions. Wherever that line is crossed between maths and magic – whether it’s copy testing or targeting or decision analytics – you’ll hear the same grumble. That the suits are taking over, that logic is killing creativity, and that it leads to what Jim Collins and John Hegarty brilliantly call ‘wind-tunnel marketing’ – where everything looks the same. When Douglas Bowman quit Google in 2009, he hit out hard at its culture of testing.

When a company is filled with engineers, it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? Ok, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.

So, okay, here I am, writing from the dark side. The side that wants to take all your great ideas and put them through the maths-mangle. Is there anything we can add to the effort to bring back some radicalism in advertising? I think so. Here are my three tough lessons from the marketing technologists to the ad agencies. In the spirit of radicalism, they’re pretty blunt.

1. Grow up

If you work in advertising, you work in marketing. While your job’s to challenge lazy thinking and inject human truths, you need to be able to see the world from your client’s point of view. And the reality is that clients are under more and more pressure to deliver growth, with fewer and fewer resources. If you work in a developed market, chances are you’re going to be generating that growth by stealing share for the next few years, not from growing your market. We’re talking small, grinding, hard-fought gains. Your clients are going to want to measure the impact of every little thing they’re doing so they can keep their jobs and their budgets, and lots of companies are stepping up to help them. The way things are, your clients are easily swayed by arguments made on the basis of numbers – even bad ones. So you can complain about measurement paralysis, and be ignored. Or you can start advising your clients on identifying the right¬†opportunities and finding the right¬†measures rather than just the easy ones, and be the agency that keeps doing daring, different work (that works) when everyone else is churning out the same timid rubbish.

2. Know your enemy

I’ve said this before on this blog, but here goes. You need to advise your clients when they’re picking their data analysts and marketing tech companies. On this side of the logic/magic line, we’re as nervous as you are about surging demand for ‘big data’, because we know the scene’s going to get packed out with charlatans. So make sure you’re there, helping out evaluating proposals and meeting the analysts and tech strategists. Make sure they’re people who get marketing, who have experience agency-side or client-side as well as in IT. Make sure they’re people you can work with, who care about using data to help clients be creatively brilliant.

3. Streamline the right way

Advertising research done well doesn’t kill creativity – it helps justify its breathing space. That’s true of all the new tricks digital marketing’s got at its disposal too – data joins, rapid segmentation, A/B testing, viral reach metrics, the works. The stuff that saves marketers money saves advertisers time by quickly getting to problems that need solving. And those tend to be the problems that connect most closely to the sort of truths that lead to really radical advertising.

The right problem doesn’t just mean the most specific problem. Yes, a lot of new tools let you split problems into their smallest possible moving parts. Used unwisely that leads to pedantry. But used well it can help you get to work faster, run tests in parallel, light your 100 small fires quicker. So find people who are going to use it wisely – and who care about keeping a broad perspective and hunting for the less obvious solutions.

We’re here. We count stuff. We’re helpful. We’re argumentative. We’re nice. We’re radical. Now let’s get on with it.