Painting with numbers

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In advertising and marketing, the “quants” seem to be taking over. At least they have a strong wind at their back. As a result, the creative perspective—and sometimes the voice of experience—is being drowned out when making marketing judgments. For good, understandable reasons, empirical methods are being demanded by business leaders in order to bring some accountability to marketing and advertising activities. This demand may seem driven by our economic circumstances, but in reality the current turmoil only accelerated it. Digital capabilities have made measurement seem like Tinker Toys. The fact that even the nonmathematically inclined can articulate measurement requirements is the result of the trackability of digital activity. It is also the result of digital techniques, when properly applied, to make nondigital activity measurable and visually analyzable. But even more than this technical ability to measure, it seems that the academic study of marketing and advertising is fanning the flames. In a recent Journal of Advertising Research article titled “Today's advertising laws: Will they survive the digital revolution?” professors Byron Sharp and Yoram Wind contend that “[E]mpirical generalizations ... are the building blocks of scientific explanatory theory, and history has taught us that theory not built on empirical laws most often turns out to be wrong.” This may be true, but recent experience shows that empiricists (regardless of whether they are in economics or political science departments or in business schools) can sometimes miss the boat completely. While quantitative rigor is being fully folded into the practice of marketing, the rest of the world might actually be retreating from an overreliance on numbers. Peggy Noonan wrote recently in The Wall Street Journal about the turning point that we are experiencing: “Economists, statisticians, forecasters and market specialists will argue about what the new numbers mean, but no one believes them, either. Among the things swept away in 2008 was public confidence in the experts. The experts missed the crash. They'll miss the meaning of this moment, too.” The failure to predict the economic crash should not lead to the wholesale abandonment of statistical analysis; neither should the availability of numbers and analytical tools cause marketers to abandon judgment and creative impulse. Current history should lead marketers to embrace the irrationality and the unpredictability of people and groups, but this doesn't mean that there are no valuable academic guides. Work in behavioral economics, social psychology, history and anthropology should guide marketers. Bottom line: Professional marketers need numbers, but successful marketers shouldn't paint by them. The smart marketer is the one who attempts to apply the lessons learned from the best of both qualitative and quantitative academic research. Dan Solomon is CEO of digital agency Virilion Inc. He can be reached at
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