Atomic 212º’s James Dixon: Is Advertising’s Greatest Debate Dead In The Water?

Atomic 212º’s James Dixon: Is Advertising’s Greatest Debate Dead In The Water?

In this guest post, Atomic 212º’s chief digital officer James Dixon (main photo) argues adland’s fearsome “data VS creativity” debate isn’t really much of a debate at all…

It may have been months ago now, but Advertising Week APAC 2019 put the spotlight on plenty of issues that are keeping the media and marketing industry awake at night. One of the big ones is the ongoing debate between data and creativity. The problem is this debate is certainly nothing new, so why does it continue – and more importantly, why does there have to be a debate at all?

It may seem utopian, but I’d argue that a simple problem of definition has resulted in our industry becoming bogged down in a debate that shouldn’t really exist. Nothing more than a subtle reshaping of how we define both the scope and functionality of data and creativity in our industry will help brands stay competitive in a shifting market and drive truly great work.

Let’s begin by properly illustrating the problem.

For too long the definition of “data” within most agencies has focused heavily on what is generally deemed to directly oppose creativity – think tech stack metrics, digital retargeting and all the buzzwords people love to (justifiably) challenge the true value of at conferences like AdWeek. It’s understandable why investment in these shiny new toys is perceived to be at the detriment of good creative, if only because they’re so expensive and eat into the budget allocated for said good creative.

Facebook CMO Antonio Lucio outlines the problem well. “The one [issue] everyone will talk about is AI, predictive tech, martech… And we should all have it and understand when it works and when it doesn’t. All that type of stuff is great, but what it doesn’t say, is that it can’t help when you’re trying to build a strong emotional response or rebuild trust with your consumer base. We’re talking hopes, fears, expectations – that level of balance between the rational quantitative brain that we need to have to compete. At the end of the day connecting in an environment where there’s noise is done by superior storytelling. We’ve gone from art to 100% science and we’re missing the ball.”

The always entertaining Mark Ritson puts it more succinctly by paraphrasing the late, great British advertising executive David Abbott: “Shit that arrives at the speed of light is still shit.”

Both are certainly correct in their thinking. The problem, which then gives way to debate, arises when this particular definition of “data”, or more specifically data-driven tech, is treated as a key to superseding creative-led campaigns. To prove this is happening, Ritson indicated that Effie award winners from 2011 to 2015 saw a shift that spoke more about the media and the data involved in delivering the creative work than the creative itself.

While it’s understandable that the cost of data-driven technology comes with the necessity to reconfigure marketing investment, it doesn’t mean these products – or at least having a full suite of them – are a must for every single campaign. And it certainly doesn’t mean advertisers should be prioritising having a full suite of data-driven tech for a perceived competitive advantage at the expense of good creative.

In fact, there are very, very few parties asserting that data-driven technology and no, or cut-price, creative is the key to an effective campaign. So is this really a debate, or a group of well-informed conference speakers simply illustrating a point of contention in our industry. It’s a point we’ve heard for years now and it’s a point we continue to hear, so perhaps it’s time to approach things a little differently.

This debate, such as it is, ignores the fact that when used correctly, data can feed and enhance creativity. Again, this is nothing new, but it’s a point that seems to be continually glossed over.

Never forget, data is just past information, and that information is used to model future behaviour. Creativity is a force used to influence future behaviour. The two go hand in hand – a good campaign needs both in tandem.

When I say data here I mean data in its purest form, not the tech that uses it but the real ones and zeros. A proper understanding of which of those ones and zeros are most relevant to driving your campaign and informing how to frame your creative, amplified by only the data-driven tech that makes best use of those ones and zeros, will deliver truly smarter, faster and more accountable results for clients.

The issue is our industry is often skipping over the real data – the numbers themselves – and is instead running straight toward spending a bomb on the tech that mines and leverages as many numbers as possible in the hope of a result.

There’s more. Ritson says his study on the effectiveness of Effie winners discovered that data does indeed make you more effective, but you can overdo it. That is, it’s more crucial to use refined data sets that address a diagnosed problem, than to simply use as many numbers as possible.

Low levels of research (one to two studies) achieved an effectiveness score of 0.39 versus higher levels at 0.38. Ritson says: “This illustrates the key lesson of brand management. The system has always been the same. When done properly, there are three phases: diagnosis where you don’t do anything, step back, stop the clock and assess the problem; strategy, which means answering who am I targeting, what’s my overall position and what are my objectives; and finally tactics. All too often in Australia we so no real reason or logic, just a bunch of shiny, jangly tactics and that’s where we go wrong.”

By redefining data as a simple and carefully sourced tool to aid in Ritson’s process – used to support your diagnosis – and creativity as a driver of your campaign’s objectives, we’re well on track to a more streamlined approach that utilises data and creativity to drive results for the client.

Of course, there is still room for data-driven technology in the tactics phase, but this very much comes at the end of the process and involves careful selection of the most useful tools for your specific campaign. Never forget that Nielsen’s research on the drivers of effectiveness attribute 33% to targeting, reach and context combined – while creativity on its own accounts for 47%. Marketers need to spend their money accordingly.

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Atomic 212 James Dixon

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