The Tension of Data-Driven Creative


We need both art and science in marketing — the “MadMen” and “MathMen.” I think the most compelling campaigns of the future will bring together the greatest creativity and the greatest insight informed by data.

But creatives and data scientists can make uneasy bedfellows. It’s one thing to optimize media; it’s another to optimize the creative itself. As marketing increasingly becomes data-driven, how will this impact creativity?

One agency head expressed a common point of view:

“A few weeks ago, I overheard a principal from another agency proudly boast, ‘Data drives every piece of creative we put out today.’ My immediate reaction was, ‘Boy, your creative must really suck.’”

If we’re not careful, this tension can lead to entrenched interests on both sides. Creative teams can be too precious with the “art” that they forget the purpose of the ad is ultimately to drive sales. Data scientists can stray from being data-driven to being data-blinded.

As David Kolbusz and Dylan Williams at Droga5 London put it recently:

“The rise of preference algorithms and programmatic buying has seen the pendulum swing from difference to relevance. The formidable challenge of interrupting a culture has given way to the quieter skill of fitting seamlessly in-stride with an individual’s data trail. Ideas so powerful that they demand attention and suspend disbelief are deemed less efficient than simply serving people precisely “what they want, when they want it.”

They went on to frame this work as “developing 4,000 video assets and watching a machine spread-bet them.”

Bridging the divide between art and science means knocking down some of the silo walls between the creative and the data science sides of the house.

I thought last year’s Tennessee Tourism campaign gave an interesting glimpse of how this is coming together. The Tennessee Department of Tourism wanted to draw people to the state, but recognized that people will visit for different reasons. So they created an overarching campaign, but with variations informed by data. As a WSJ article reported:

“It ran pre-roll video ads on sites across the web using a dozen templates which yielded over 2,000 video ad possibilities. People saw different variations of video ads based not only on where they lived, but whether they are foodies, golfers, outdoors enthusiasts or like to listen to country or rock–based on an assortment of first- and third-party data sets employed by the marketer…

“The end result was that while these ads featured some consistent music and visuals, one ad might tout hiking in the Tennessee mountains while another might talk up Memphis’ restaurants or the Johnny Cash museum in Nashville.”

AdWeek collected a couple of the 2,000 different video ads that resulted. The Tennessee Tourism campaign won a Cannes Lion last year and boosted traffic and intent to visit the state.

It will be interesting how the marriage of creativity and data evolves in the future. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Here are a few related cartoons I’ve drawn over the years:

MathMen May 2013

Data-Driven Marketing November 2014

Marketing with A/B Testing June 2014

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What say you?