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The 'Math Problem'

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Early in my career, I was lucky enough to participate in the superb account management training program at Ogilvy & Mather, where we were solemnly taught that our jobs included strategy and project management. The creative was to be done by "creative" people, and while our creative suggestions were sometimes indulged, the creatives ruled. And that's pretty much the way it has always been. By definition, the creatives were creative and the rest of us most certainly were not.

Funny how things change.

My brilliant creative director at SF Interactive, George Chalekian, once walked into my office and put it this way: his job was no longer just design and wordsmithing. In the Internet era, he could be as creative as he wanted to be, but he still had to solve what he called the "math problem." The constant feedback loop and more metrics than any human could digest had caused him to recognize what few creative directors and agency principals have realized to this day. The creative product is going to be done by following the math, and anybody with a good idea and a defense drawn from the numbers is now the creative person.

The new creative is not necessarily an art director or a writer. She might be a killer media person or an engineer who understands what the latest technologies allow him to do. The new creative is an entrepreneurial, idea person who just happens to be a pretty good spreadsheet jock.

In today's Web 2.0 world—where Web sites respond to individual tastes, where every hover, click and click path is recorded and analyzed—the idea that a classic creative director can come down from the mountain and tell us what will work based solely on his experience and judgment is laughable.

The hegemony of the classic creative director is over.

The implications are staggering. If your client has an idea, you cannot laugh him out of the room. Rather than surgically doctoring every pixel and word in an ad, automated tools will bang the ads out as fast as you can dream up offers. Context becomes everything. Promotional messages will multiply. The need for low-cost, fast production upsets the classic model.

So next time your agency suggests that you do a campaign simply because they are the experts, challenge them. Ask them for the numbers to prove it. If they get defensive, maybe they don't get it. And then you will have to figure out what to do about that.

Bruce Carlisle is CEO and founder of Digital Axle, an interactive marketing services consultancy, and the founder of SF Interactive. He can be reached at bcarlisle@digitalaxle.com.

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