Does Digital, Data & Micro-Targeting Actually F@ck Creativity?

Does Digital, Data & Micro-Targeting Actually F@ck Creativity?

In his latest piece for B&T, Aussie adland veteran Robert Strohfeldt argues that in two decades of digital advertising we’re yet to see one great brand to come out of the digital landscape to rival the Nikes, the McDonald’s or the Toyotas…

Trying to keep somewhat up to date with what is happening in the marketing and advertising industries, only reading just “some” of the available relevant content, could easily chew up eight hours a day.  Oh, for the days when a quick scan of the SMH, Fin Review and The Australian, along with the weekly hard copies of B&T and AdNews, was all you needed.

In a recent article I drew a lot of flak for being critical of the industry and talking about how advertising was more creative “in my time”. Well my time is 1983 to, well still going. A spinal surgeon fucked my back in 2011, so I have not been able to put in the hours I would like. But even so, I have still managed a ton of work in advertising. Plus, some guest lecturing to MBA students, which is fun. Theory versus real world practice.

I think I have earned my stripes to talk about the differences and changes over the 35 plus years. I may not have put things as well as I should have. Advertising has been my life, so I am not going to shit on it and many of the smartest, funniest, and most interesting people I know, are from the advertising industry.

There are just as many clever and highly creative people today as there were 35, 25 or 15 years ago. It is the obsession with data and digital/media and the separation of media and creative that have screwed things up. Not the lack of creative talent.

My bitch is not about the loss of creativity, rather, creativity not being, excuse the buzz words but they fit so well here, an agency’s raison d’etre.

There is the old “great creativity comes from suffering” school of thought. Kurt Cobain had everything most people could ever hope for, but he still blew his brains out. And no, I am not making light of depression. It is a real and debilitating place to be, I have been there many times over the past nine years. When I think of creativity, I prefer to think of Keith Richards (scientists should bottle his DNA), playing “Honky Tonk Woman” –  on stage with a cigarette hanging out of one side of his mouth and a huge grin is creativity as it should be.  (Not a good example for a healthy lifestyle, but adults can determine that for themselves, they don’t need some do goody/identity warrior asking to have it censored).

I believe much of the fun has been lost in ad agencies since 1983. It is arguable that could be said about every area of business, not just advertising. Though lack of fun has a much larger negative impact on creative businesses, but I also understand it is hard to have so much fun when margins are squeezed as tight as a fish’s, you know what and profits along with them.

In the publications I do get to read, at least once a week will be an article by a client stating: “we need to have more creativity”. Well if you think you can blow the socks off someone by advertising on a smart phone, then you either believe in the Easter Bunny, or you are dropping too much acid. (or maybe both).

I am not brushing data. I have said many times I stumbled into advertising after working as a mathematician (Pure and Statistical Maths). So, I know what data can do and what it can’t do.

A “problem” with data, rarely if ever recognized, is there is so bloody much of it. But in the minds of many, more is better. An IBM study from 2017 found:

Every day, we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. (10 with 18 zeros) To put that into perspective, 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone – and with new devices, sensors and technologies emerging, the data growth rate will likely accelerate even more.

Now in 2020, we are probably dealing with at least double the volume of data that was produced in 2017. This doesn’t make things better. It just makes it way harder to spot the gold amongst the huge volume of rubbish.

The explosion in data has also seen an explosion in dodgy (and that is being kind), “data science”. Attribution and A/B testing are widely used, even though they are fraught with error.  How this is meant to contribute to the “creative process”, I have no idea. Data is meant to be a guide to the creative process, not dictate to it.

And so much mumbo jumbo accompanies the volumes of data. How would this help someone in the creative department?

“The beauty of cognitive technologies is that data of all types from practically all sources — structured and unstructured — can be correlated and analysed, creating unique insights. I’m talking about insights into emotion, attitude, and tone – elements that can bring you closer to your buyers. The potential for marketers is enormous as we access these new data types and gain new awareness of feelings, motivations, and behaviours”.  

Try putting that into a meaningful creative brief.

There used to be a simple philosophy – ensure the creative is empathetic to the medium in which it appears e.g. radio. It is theatre of the mind. The challenge is to paint a clear mental picture with words and sound effects.

With so many media platforms now available, a hell of a lot of empathy is needed.

Every time I see an Aldi TV ad, it reminds me there are as still large reserves of great creative talent in Adland.  But it is not being utilised enough. Creative departments are so busy trying to create advertising for so many mediums, they do not have the opportunity to produce great TVCs very often.

Everyone in advertising should know of and read either a book or several of the many articles by Bob Hoffman. Even Mark Ritson called him a “marketing iconoclast.”

Some quotes that that everyone in the business should take note of:

 “Advertising was always a little annoying, but we have become dangerous. The amount of information that is being collected about us without our informed consent is unconscionable,”

Advertising and marketers, he argues, have been suckered.  New digital tools “were sure to make advertising more timely, relevant and likeable. And it all turned out to be bullshit. The truth is that advertising has got far worse and consumers hold us in lower regard than ever before”.

The ad industry used to be the most sceptical in the world. Yet all of a sudden, the tech and digital people came riding into town with a load of baloney and we just pulled up our skirts. We bought all of this without saying, ‘yeah? prove it’. How many billions a year are being spent without proof?” asks Hoffman.

There is so much bullshit and nobody challenges it.”

Added to the highly debatable effectiveness of digital/online media is the murkiness. Digital media fraud is rapidly becoming the second biggest money earner, behind drugs, for organised crime. (A study by the United States ANA, found that in 2015 global advertisers lost $US 6.3 billion to Bots. It has not improved by 2020, but I never see the issue addressed in digital campaign performance reviews).

And it is not just organised crime making money out of digital media fraud. The companies themselves are actively engaged in, how do I put this without getting my arse sued off – Not being entirely accurate with the advertising audience numbers.

When a client’s media brief stipulates online media (driven equally by peer pressure and personal use) conjugates with a juicy 20 to 30 per cent commission paid to the media buyer, then digital media dominates.

Digital is such an incredibly broad concept and when a business has gone through a “digital transformation”, it is about far more than advertising. For business, an interconnected world offers a host of benefits, but advertising is not one of them.

Digital has always been a crappy advertising medium. With the proliferation of smart phones, nearly all digital communications take the approach of “mobile first”, so not only is it a shitty medium, there is no certainty your ad will be seen, or only partially seen.

And when discussing digital, how could we leave out social? There are a few industries where social media “works”. But very many more where it doesn’t. If people don’t “window shop” your product, social is a waste of time and money.

The money wasted on social “content” never ceases to amaze me. That around 95 per cent of content is not seen or heard is no impediment.

(The Mercedes Benz “challenge” to create the three-pointed star on TikTok, was proof of the Chinese influence in trying to destroy great capitalist brands. It was fucking awful!)

The proof of digital’s advertising deficiencies can be seen by the fact that when an online business is successful, it advertises on TV.

But with the proliferation of streaming and VOD, Free to Air TV audiences are continually shrinking, it is becoming harder and harder to reach people.  How times have changed. TV advertising always had some shockers, but it also contributed to our national personality. Paul Hogan in the Winfield TV ads. The TVC “Football, Meat Pies and Holden Cars”, now cringed at was at the time, in tune with the national sentiment.  Mo and Jo impacted  more than most. Many years ago, I was in a hotel in Milsons Point, now long gone. The entertainment was a guy playing guitar and signing. He did one whole set of MoJo songs/ads. The lyrics were changed for some comic value, but the choruses were unchained. Admittedly most people were pretty well on the way to being pissed, but to hear several hundred all singing “I Feel Like a Tooheys”, “You Oughta be Congratulated, (only word Mo said he could think of that rhymed with “polyunsaturated”) “A Week Without the Weekly” and  “Come on Aussie”, was proof of how impactful their jingles were. Many are probably groaning, but it still beats the shit out of a DJ trying to act cool, playing “Doof Doof” so loud your ears bleed.

In a great response to today’s fascination with micro-targeting (for all but highly specialised products/services) Mo, was once asked: “Who is the target market for Tooheys?” He eloquently answered, “Anyone over 18 with a mouth!”. Considering Tooheys went from around six per cent of the packaged beer market to just under 50 per cent, it was accurate.

There have been some successful uses of digital for short term promotional activities, but as Bob Hoffman says, not one brand of any significance has been built using digital advertising.

One of Australia’s most highly regarded media strategists told me a couple of years ago “If I am given a media brief to produce a digital schedule and I came back with say a magazine schedule that outperformed any other possible solution in every area, I would not get half way through my presentation before being shown the door. And why would I when digital media pays me two or three times the commissions?”

I think Bob Hoffman best sums up digital media:

Where are the Nikes, the Pepsis, the Budweisers, the McDonald’s that have been built by online advertising? They are just not there. Why have there not been hugely successful brands that have been built online? We have had digital advertising now for 20 years. Where are the Cokes?”



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Robert Strohfeldt

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