How Big Data Shapes AT&T's Advertising Creative

In-House Scientists Scrutinized 370 Ads to Unearth Secrets of Success

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AT&T's 'Lilly'
AT&T's 'Lilly'

"It's Not Complicated" may have been its name, but the insights that drove one of AT&T's most successful ad campaigns ever were based on a massive three-year big-data project that was plenty complex.

The campaign featuring comedian Beck Bennett and little kids in a classroom was the product of a three-year project. It involved an analysis of 40 copy-test variables and tagging 370 AT&T and competitive wireless communications ads on everything from the type of humor used and how characters interact to type of storyline.

The BBDO-created campaign that resulted from the analysis generated an additional $50 million in sales in AT&T's estimation, said Greg Pharo, director-market research and analysis for the telecom in a presentation at the Advertising Research Foundation's Re:Think 2014 conference in New York today.

Not satisfied with that, AT&T has applied even more lessons from the analytics project to shape another recent campaign featuring store manager "Lilly," which, if not quite the fodder of social-media conversation that the Beck Bennett ads have generated, is tipped by AT&T to boost handset and subscription sales even more.

Mr. Pharo and AT&T Senior Data Scientist Damon Samuel, who made the switch from working on the telecom company's marketing-mix analytics team to working on the project, delved into sometimes surprising details about what works and what doesn't in their ads and those of rivals. Among the lessons:

  • Ads with storylines are very effective
  • Informative demonstrations boost ad performance
  • Simple outperforms complicated
  • Slice-of-life and transactional or promotional ads can both work
  • Humor is effective at driving recall, brand favorability and likeability, but not all types of humor are equal
  • Character interaction matters a lot

Of course, some of those lessons have guided TV advertising since Mrs. Olsen was pouring coffee for Procter & Gamble Co. and Folgers in the 1960s. But AT&T's analysis has helped delve deeper into exactly how elements work, particularly humor.

The team, along with its market-research shop Added Value, painstakingly code commercials for such things as the type of humor. And they found, according to Mr. Pharo, that ads featuring humor deemed clever, sarcastic or snarky tend to outperform ads with silly humor (though Mr. Samuel noted that ads with darkly sarcastic humor tend to underperform).

While ads with storylines do better generally, those with complex storylines, too many scenes or vignettes and complicated visual montages "underperformed very significantly," Mr. Samuel said. "Thirty seconds is just not enough time to share all the story elements and come to a resolution."

Particularly effective are ads with informative presentations when a character explains the benefits and presentation of a product, Mr. Pharo said. Hence, "Lilly," who does that a lot.

While people demonstrating product benefits works, just showing phones and benefits, or what Mr. Samuel termed "phone porn," doesn't. At best, such primitive product demos drive a shift in the mix of handset types sold without increasing total sales.

The rewards for AT&T are substantial, Mr. Pharo said, with the project showing that 25% of AT&T's total sales are driven by media advertising and 10% from TV alone. Creative quality and tonality rather than media weight or placement account for a third of TV ads' impact.

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