Modern advertising is about ‘creative and data’

by Nigel Matthews
Creative teams and data teams should work together to make sure that the best idea has the best shot at succeeding.

Companies hire advertising agencies because what we do helps them communicate how their products and services satisfy the needs or solve the problems of their customers, in creative and exciting ways that linger in the memory.

As custodians of their brands, clients need to trust agencies to deliver the best possible work that delivers the maximum impact - and that trust has to be earned. Creative work, our product as agencies, should live and die by ideas. When there’s no trust, a client won’t give the agency enough room to be creative and the process devolves into a box-ticking exercise, where compliance is forced through following “best practice” and not the “gut feel” that creativity supplies. Sadly, fear, slashed budgets and myriad other things mean the former is more common in advertising these days than the latter.

The best advertising is the kind that solves a problem for the client - or shows how the business’s products or services solve customers’ problems. Nowadays, there’s a lot of work that doesn’t clearly address either; a large percentage of ads are simply wallpaper. There are very few ads that grab attention, demand focus and leave you with a lasting memory of the brand. That happens because data says ads must be a certain length, when and where the logo must appear to be most effective and where and when to place ads on digital platforms.

We’ve lost the feeling of engaging with customers and kindling real feelings in them. Instead, we’ve settled into developing a transactional relationship where we buy a bit of their time and largely hope that they’ll engage with the brand at some stage in the future. Ads have become an inconvenience, not an experience - they interrupt our browsing, our viewing and our listening - because we’ve forgotten that we’re intruding on someone’s personal space and not giving them a reason to like us and permit us to do that.

Dumbing down

Advertisers all used to clamour to get their ad on TV, to play before or during a specific show, but that’s fallen away because viewers have other platforms where they can watch content and be entertained and informed without being interrupted. On streaming platforms, there’s largely no interruption, so brands have had to find more exciting ways of making their products relevant to an audience who don’t want their time interrupted. It’s the agency’s responsibility to make that happen for their clients.

The strength of the partnership between agency and client determines the quality of the work that goes out into the world. The relationship should be such that both sides are able to push back against each other but reach an outcome that best serves the need that they’re collaborating to meet. It’s also essential to create a culture where ideas can be freely shared and can come from anywhere; a culture where no question is a silly one and where failing forward and regarding mistakes as an opportunity to drive innovation is recognised. When there’s mutual trust and respect, the work output solves problems in creative ways, rather than papering over cracks or filling space.

Creativity and data need each other

There’s also a challenge to creativity in the form of big data. Data can tell you how long someone spends on a website or when they stop watching a video - but can it tell you how to keep them there? Data can tell you the best time to place it so that more people will see it but, right now, it cannot tell you if that piece of content is engaging, gut-wrenching or hilarious enough to pull them in, keep them there and leave them with an emotional response that will allow it to live in their memory.

The idea, then, is to have creative teams and data teams working together to make sure that the best idea has the best shot at succeeding. The best ideas will come from having all the right data on hand and combining it with the lived experience that helps us understand the essence of the challenge we’re solving for our clients.

Great advertising has the ability to turn casual fans into ambassadors of a brand. Creatives love ads - we watch them the way a Formula One team watches an opponent’s qualifying lap, trying to take it apart and understand how all the pieces fit together to deliver something powerful. We want to understand that moment in the ad when the light bulb goes on - or off. Data is readily available and influences so much of what we do, but without creative insight, the data is just a set of numbers. Anyone hoping to reduce the human experience to a set of numbers is missing the point of humanity and will certainly lose the ability to ignite, inspire, amaze, thrill, empower, think deeply or consider new avenues - which is where the great power of true creativity lies.

Nigel Matthews is the executive creative director at 8909.

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The Red Zone
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