Data can’t write your ad - yet

I’m kinda tired of hearing everyone talk about how data is going to save our industry. I’m tired of everyone measuring creative effectiveness against KPIs for which they are ill suited. I’m tired of watching all of the good ideas turn into splinters of their former selves in service of their data-driven masters. And mostly, I’m tired of the bad work that often springs from so-called “data-driven advertising.”

Data isn’t a strategy.

I’ve read all about how CMOs are now going to have to be data scientists as much as they are going to continue to be traditional marketers. I hope that’s not true. No dataset, no matter how robust, ever created a great strategy. The data to which we have access is almost always best used for confirmation, not creation. For validation, not origination. “Looking hard at the data and making a judgment” is not a strategy. A strategy still lives at the intersection of product truths and human insights and market opportunities and lots of other things (of which data should play a role, but will never be the primary “a-ha”). You can see signs in the data, find trends in the data (or as Nate Silver says, find “the signal in the noise”). But the development of a great strategy is, almost 100 percent of the time, a deeply human process.

Data isn’t an idea.

Data would never write “Just Do It.” Data would never send a man to parachute from the edge of space. And while data would see the difference between Macs & PCs, it would never cast John Hodgman and Justin Long to elucidate them in such charming and memorable ways. Nothing takes the place of a great idea. Nothing. Maybe I’m getting old, but I feel like there are fewer iconic campaigns being produced -- fewer brands that can practically list their advertising on an asset sheet. And I think data is to blame for that. CMOs are quicker to walk away from campaigns because they have instant access to too much data. I wonder if a campaign like Errol Morris’ Miller High Life will ever happen again? That campaign has 80 executions on Errol’s website. And it brought Miller High Life back from extinction. Will a CMO ever again have the conviction to run 80 spots of a campaign? I doubt it. The CTR would dip 2 percent or the completion rate would go down on a particular execution and the campaign would be changed...despite the fact that the perception change going on underneath the surface data was actually saving the brand.

Data isn’t an execution.

This one is tricky. I do think that data can help quite a bit on the execution side of things, but even then, it’s a slippery slope. A new reality in our world is clients coming to agencies and hoping to reduce spend by leveraging data. That can certainly happen. But it won’t be effective. I’m not saying that every brand needs to have tons of money to be successful. I’m not arguing that at all. But fracturing your spend across a bajillion data-identified targets and hitting them with an occasional programmatic banner ad just isn’t going to do anything for your brand.

There should be a new axiom in advertising. Peter has his Principle. Occam has his Razor. Murphy has his Law. Now Advertising has its Axiom: For brand success, amount of spend and quality of idea are inversely proportionate to one another.

That should be non-negotiable. And self-evident. Don’t have a lot of money? You need a lot of courage. Have a ton of money? You can get away with mediocrity (even though mediocrity should never be a starting point.) I’ve seen so many decks from so many big agencies where they promise clients that their proprietary wizbangery will allow them to stick an idea in front of more people for less money. And I’m so not impressed. Show me the last brand that was built through banners. The bottom line is that quality should never take a back seat to quantity. And I feel like, so many times, that is what data forces us to do. If your KPI is eyeballs (interested or not), data can help. But if your KPI is goose bumps, data isn’t gonna get you there.

Data is a big word. It encompasses a lot of things. And there are tons of data points that are being used appropriately and are moving our industry forward. Spotify is actually using data in its ad campaigns, and it is BRILLIANT! I think where data falls down is for smaller clients who think they should reap the same data-optimization benefits as gigantic clients. And that just isn’t the case. Data is the new black. It is here to stay in advertising and marketing. In the right hands, it can be used to enhance strategy and creative and delivery and effectiveness. But it isn’t a replacement for those things.

This article feels like the most old-man-yelling-at-kids-to-get-off-his-lawn thing I’ve ever written. And as with anything, there are shades of grey; there is a judicious use of data that can help everything. But advertising is chock full of a bunch of cats -- always enamored by the latest shiny object. Data has been that object for a while now, and I’m yet to see it make our industry any better. Unless you consider the uncanny relevance of that tiny little mobile ad that you accidentally hit with your thumb while trying to read an article an improvement? “HEY, GET OFF MY LAWN!”

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable. He tweets @joeparrish

Joe Parrish

Joe Parrish is partner and chief creative officer at The Variable.

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