A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 19, 2019

Consumer Data Is Increasingly Shaping Creative Advertising. Does That Mean Less Originality?

Not necessarily, though there are concerns that if every brand follows identical or even similar data, the crucial element in customer engagement, differentiation, may become less effective. JL

Matthew Kassel reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Thanks to a preponderance of specific information about consumers collected from social media, surveys and search engines, agencies are making creative choices based on what the data dictate. (But some believe) an overreliance on consumer information has taken spontaneity and surprise out of the creative process, leading to homogeneity in advertising. Data may become less central to the creative process in the future as concerns over consumers’ private information become more of a priority. If that day should come, “What’s the oldest data point in the world? Your gut.”
Consumer data has become an integral part of digital ad-buying, allowing advertisers to better target consumers on the internet. Now, data is shaping the creative process as well, a trend that is sparking debate within the advertising industry.
Ad agencies’ increasing reliance on data is inverting the traditional creative model, where the teams dreaming up ad campaigns use their gut instincts to tap into the zeitgeist. Now, thanks to a preponderance of highly specific information about consumers collected from sources such as social media, surveys and search engines, more agencies are making creative choices based on what the data dictate.
Such an approach is creating tension within the industry, ad executives say, alienating the evangelists who believe that data yield more precise messaging from those who think it should be just another ingredient in the creative calculus—if that. For the moment, the data evangelists appear to be winning out. Jason Musante, the chief creative officer of Huge, a digital-marketing agency in Brooklyn owned by Interpublic Group of Co s., which recently acquired Acxiom’s data-marketing unit, says that data is going to make the adage “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is, I don’t know which half” a thing of the past.
Data can infuse an ad campaign’s creative execution in a variety of ways.
Rob Campbell, a Memphis-based director of strategy at VMLY&R, the newly consolidated marketing agency owned by WPP Group PLC, the world’s largest ad company, is working on a continuing ad campaign for the U.S. Navy aimed at attracting recruits between the ages of 18 and 24.
Using research provided by the Navy, along with VMLY&R’s own data, Mr. Campbell says he and his colleagues zeroed in on one specific factoid to hone the message: Younger people aren’t familiar with the Navy’s workings because so few of them have friends or family members who serve in the military. So the team crafted a campaign to address that, producing, among other things, a video series called “Faces of the Fleet,” featuring interviews with sailors. The goal, he says, was to create a sense of empathy for service members in people in that age group.
Those who saw ads from the campaign two or more times were 16% more likely to consider joining the Navy, according to Sandra Muoio, a senior director at Wavemaker, the WPP-owned media agency that joined with VMLY&R to release the videos.
In the U.K., meanwhile, BBH London recently wrapped up a campaign for Burger King that was geared around “one killer data point,” as head strategist Ben Shaw puts it. BBH found that two-thirds of people in the U.K. had never heard of the Whopper, because the burger chain had spent most of the past decade advertising its limited-release items.
In April, the agency released a series of ads across multiple platforms in which Burger King customers were depicted as being reprimanded for referring to the Whopper as a cheeseburger—a playful attempt to explain what the Whopper was to British consumers.
The data point allowed BBH to be somewhat counterintuitive to stir up its audience, a strategy that has also been taken up by other firms such as Droga5, the boutique agency that agreed to be bought by Accenture PLC in April and whose recent clients include Dine Brands Global Inc.’s IHOP chain and the New York Times.
According to Amy Avery, Droga5’s chief intelligence officer, the firm wouldn’t be able to do its job without data guiding the way.
For instance, when creating an ad campaign for the Times in 2017, the Droga5 team relied on a tool designed to gauge the emotions behind online posts. It determined that the prevailing mood across the country was that the truth was under attack, so it designed a campaign focused on the importance of truth and urging people to support that cause by subscribing to the Times. The agency says the campaign was launched during the Academy Awards, an event that it determined would be popular with the target audience and that was held toward the end of the month, when Times subscriptions tend to fall off.
While consumer data is for many ad executives the sine qua non of ad-making, veteran brand strategist Adam Hanft says that creative directors from the “Mad Men” era were largely skeptical of reading too deeply into marketing research, viewing the findings from focus groups and copy testing, for instance, as a damper on originality.
But that has changed in the past decade or so as data-centric platforms such as Google and Facebook have asserted their control over the ad industry. “We live in an era where data is valuable and it’s useful,” says Abbey Klaassen, the New York-based president of digital agency 360i, “and if you have zero regard for it, then you aren’t going to be effective as a marketer.”Still, while many see data as a panacea, others in the industry remain skeptical about its usefulness. Mark Fitzloff, an ad industry veteran and the founder of Opinionated, a Portland, Ore.-based creative agency, says he ignores the insights gleaned from data all the time because he believes an overreliance on consumer information has taken spontaneity and surprise out of the creative process, leading to a sense of homogeneity in advertising.
“If we all march from this detailed map of consumer behavior,” he says, “we’re going to make the same stuff.”
Others take a more measured view. “There’s a danger, obviously, if you follow data as the only guide,” says Scott Donaton, the global chief creative officer at Digitas, a Publicis Media agency. “But if you use data as a spark to an insight,” he adds, then it can have a positive effect.
Some industry observers say data may become less central to the creative process in the future as concerns over how to safeguard consumers’ private information become more of a priority.
But if that day should come, advertisers can always rely on the more traditional approaches.
“What’s the oldest data point in the world?” says Mr. Musante, the creative officer at Huge. “It’s your gut.”


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