Data VS Big Ideas: Joining The Battle For The Soul Of Adland

Data VS Big Ideas: Joining The Battle For The Soul Of Adland

In the next instalment of their editorial series of marketing to Millennials, B&T’s resident experts, Brian Mitchell PhD and Evan Mitchell, co-founders of Gen Y brand strategy specialists HOW&Y (, take a look at the “data VS idea” debate and who’s best placed to win over the Millennials…

Back before becoming the White House Press Secretary, The West Wing’s Will Bailey is running a Congressional campaign in Orange County for a candidate who’s dead in the water, but refuses to know it. Asked an awkward question about his latest disastrous polling, the candidate responds:

“Sixty percent is six of 10 in a focus group. We change one mind it’s a dead heat. We change two, it’s a landslide.”

From marketing politicians, to marketing anything.

When the devil’s not in the detail, the devil is the detail.

That detail is one side of a battle underway in the world of Adland.

Advertising’s raison d’être

At the beginning of the sixties a development occurred that defined the ad industry for the next forty plus years. Agency creatives threw off the iron yoke of accounts and began to usurp the customary authority over the spirit and content of what went into client ads. Often exemplified by the DDB “Think Small” campaign for VW, the creative revolution had begun.

The “big idea” became the Holy Grail, and the standard by which the industry judged its own. Fearless, original, intuitive, counter-intuitive, forward-looking, exciting, it was so legitimately the soul of advertising that it defied the “oxymoron” jibes of outside cynics.

The big idea concept had a freshness and theoretical innocence, an aspirational integrity that transcended the morals of its servants. It attracted the off-beat, the intensely curious and talented, spawned empires, and gave the industry a goal other than money. In doing so it also created its monsters, inadvertently contributing to the culture of excess that helped to kill the goose laying all those golden eggs – so well described in Andrew Cracknell’s The Real Mad Men, and Michael Farmer’s Madison Avenue Manslaughter.

But now, its critics see the big idea as anachronistic, an afterthought, not the stuff that strategies are any longer built on, as the world moves on.

Scientia potentia est

“Knowledge is Power” has become an enduring cliché for the reason that clichés endure – it’s just so damn true.

The phrase hails originally from political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, had a retreatment from polymath Francis Bacon, a tweaking by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and has been popularly misattributed to Nietzsche. From there it’s become a standard in pop culture. It was a mantra given by Walter White to his students early on in Breaking Bad (when he was still more chem teacher than meth dealer), and is the House motto of Game of Thrones’ conniving Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish.

Industries can see a complete upending of the power dynamic when there’s a shift in who owns the knowledge.

Typically, such shifts are facilitated by new technology. Scan data technology in FMCG, for instance, significantly curtailed the authority of manufacturers’ brands and gave large retailers the power predominance – dramatically changing the nature of their negotiation game.

“Knowledge is Power” heralds in the challenger to the Big Idea for the soul of Adland.

Pouring over entrails, casting runes and reading tealeaves were once the pursuits of venerable mages. Their modern day equivalents are of a very different cut and serve a more hipster deity. The new god of Big Data.

The advent of the Big Idea occurred organically, the breakthroughs of trail blazing individuals driving creativity’s ultimate ascendency. The rise of Big Data was explosive.

The temptation to make the most of big numbers always had a logical inevitability about it – the inherent challenge and appeal of Moonshots. And, oh, how the big numbers are BIG. With an estimated 35 billion connected devices worldwide, mass data must be measured in exabytes – that’s a billion billion (or a quintillion, if you like) bytes.

As in so many other areas of endeavour, the march of tech far outstrips the capacity to keep pace of both legislation and morality. Big Data and all its analysis towards meaningful patterns has implications not even imagined yet, for the ethics of privacy, research, intellectual property and consent.

But still, the battle lines are joined.

Big Data has the momentum, and the deep pockets. But Big Idea has a hole card. It’s hard to see Gen Y consumers engaging with brands that discount a creative pitch to their values. And this generational mindset affords Big Idea a generational edge that may prove decisive. Particularly as Millennial numbers, and clout, are set to wildly expand with the coming of age of a generation Z of likely fellow travellers.

On the related controversial argument, that Big Data will in any event win by default, usurping the Big Idea through creative machines, we side with other sceptics. More on this in another article.

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