Creativity or data? Why you need (and can have) both

It was with rolling eyes, and a stiff drink, that I read this comment by WPP grand fromage Mark Read from his speech at ISBA’s Annual Conference: “We need to invest more in creativity. We’ve disappeared down the rabbit-hole of optimization, but a fantastic idea can multiply a client’s budget by three to five times.”

It’s hard to know where to start with this, but let’s begin with the notion that our success in advertising should be judged primarily by how much money we can persuade our clients to spend. I would argue that even if his intention was that the value of the budget increases, there is a clear Freudian slip: even if he meant value, the fact he said budget is telling in its own way.

For fear of misinterpretation, I am not one of those digerati who sneers at the notion of big TV spend. In case anyone missed the memo about Kraft/Heinz’s current predicament, that argument should be settled by now.

Nor am I against big ideas and bold moves in positioning – Nike arguably won 2018 with its Kaepernick campaign, simultaneously repositioning itself as the edgy challenger your grandpa hates while adding a healthy 10% to their valuation. I’m fairly sure that play didn’t come out of a keyword analysis.

What’s irritating is the way so many marketers paint themselves into narrow strategic avenues around the particular micro-discipline within our industry that they currently inhabit. I still hear far too frequently that “99% of TV budget is a complete waste,” and, recently, from an ill-fated senior agency executive, “Your data and targeting process is going to optimize us into a corner.”

The typical diatribe between these more one-dimensional creatives and digital types has all the unbiased reasoning of a Senate committee on gun control, and the calm rationale of a YouTube comments section.

The truth of the matter is that, as a marketer, you probably need both creativity and data, and guess what? You can have both!

An effective data-led conversion strategy is the gift that keeps on giving. Our optimization team has worked on one major client for seven (seven!) consecutive years, squeezing out ever-increasing performance and conversion rates through the stolid process of marginally improving creative and testing new hypotheses month after month. We have never once found ourselves optimized into that fabled corner or falling down Mr. Read’s rabbit-hole. This is real money added to the client’s bottom line at a colossal margin.

And, there’s absolutely nothing in this approach that precludes clients from delivering big ideas over the top of that. In fact, digital and data folk love it, as shaking up consumer perceptions with great offline creative gives performance people a whole new set of search terms and demographics to leverage.

So, as Jack Nicholson’s US President character in Mars Attacks said, “Why can’t we all just … get along?”

Brands, and the effective marketing strategies upon which they are built, are multi-dimensional things, and the best marketers and strategists realize that a humming ecosystem of aligned tactics is the best way to address the full funnel (and yes, funnels are still a thing too…).

I hope that our industry can overcome the zero-sum attitude to our work that far too many still take. We need to encourage a healthy respect between disciplines, learn about how they work and shrug off the fug of myopia that is a security blanket for far too many in Ad-land. If we do this, we can all contribute to our clients’ success together — and maybe make ourselves a little smarter in the process.

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