Data-Driven Creative Equals Mediocre Creative

Insight Is Just as Likely Found in the Shower as in a Spreadsheet

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Basing all your marketing on data is not a creative solution

A few weeks ago, I overheard a principal from another agency proudly boast, "Data drives every piece of creative we put out today."

My immediate reaction was, "Boy, your creative must really suck."

Agency people are in the business of selling things. We help our clients hone their messaging so that it appeals to their customers. We do that most effectively when those messages are true.

Of course, those very same clients are our customers, so it is tempting to create a message that appeals to them. And with marketers salivating over the potential of big data, many agencies are eager to put forth a story that those customers are eager to hear.

Hence, the notion is born that all creative should be based on data.

But should it?

Certainly data has its place. Agencies using statistics from Nielsen or Pew (or whatever their favorite publisher shares with them) to support strategic recommendations is nothing new.

Newer opportunities like dynamic advertising creative that optimizes messages, offers and even images in real-time in response to data definitely belong in the direct marketers' toolkit.

But to assert that all creative should be data-driven is to consign your brand to the middle of the pack. Data can help you avoid risk (if it's not misinterpreted). Data can help you make incremental gains. If you're very lucky, data could lead you to a groundbreaking "aha!" moment. But those insights are rare.

And insight is vital. Sometimes data provides insight. Sometimes it provides confusion.

Insight is just as likely to come from the gut of a seasoned copywriter—or even the whim of some millennial HTML programmer—than it is from some data analyst poring over reams of spreadsheets.

You're just as likely to find insight in the shower as you are in a spreadsheet.

Data doesn't tell you to hire Betty White. Data doesn't tell you to invent the Nike Fuel Band. When my agency created a campaign for Adobe around a game called "Real or Fake?" there was no data involved. Somebody threw out the idea in a brainstorm and our creative director said, "That's it!"

That program has been a global mainstay of Adobe's marketing efforts since 2008.

According to Josh Dreller, an analytics expert at Visual IQ, marketers should take a "portfolio approach" to their marketing spending.

Seventeen years ago, right before I got into this business, I got a job as a broker for a few months. The first thing they taught us was to counsel our clients to diversify their portfolios.

That portfolio might be weighted more heavily to be risk-averse or it might be more aggressive, depending on the person's life stage, goals and financial status—but it was always diversified.

Marketers need to take the same approach.

Many use the 70/20/10 model to allocate funds between the tried-and-true, the "emerging channels" and the experimental. I'd call that a conservative portfolio because I believe fundamentally that fully half of the things we should be doing for our brands are not predictably quantifiable.

A substantial amount of that half should be driven by instincts. By instincts of smart people, for sure. By instincts supported by strategic reasoning, absolutely.

But to posit that data should drive everything we do is to believe our own hype.

To abandon breakthrough thinking just because it's not supported by statistics is folly. It severely limits the value we as agencies can bring to our clients.

Add that data up, and it's not a pretty picture you'll have created.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adam Kleinberg is CEO of Traction, an interactive advertising agency in San Francisco.
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