Within advertising, a debate has raged for years about how to balance advertising’s head (data, sales goals and competitive share) and its heart (evoking people’s emotions, touching people’s souls, creating inspiration and wonder).
The past decade has swung the pendulum heavily toward the head; as an industry, we have focused on first-party audiences, data lakes, programmatic pipes, return on ad spend and a grim determination to map every impression to a sale. In that march toward advertising determinism, we have worked to bring creativity to heel by connecting creative teams to centralized platforms that map consumer insights, journeys and behaviors to inform the creative process. Yet, the magic formula for “A=B/C= a campaign that performs every time” hasn’t emerged from all this effort. Why not?
Maybe it’s because there is no magic formula — and there never will be. I’m reminded of Economics 101 classes where every problem begins with “assume a perfect market,” even though a perfect market doesn’t actually exist. In advertising, we’ve tried to create a perfect market by:
1. Relying heavily on big longitudinal datasets that cluster people in high-level buckets that, while often accurate, don’t capture a lot of nuance.
2. Building “one size fits all” creative assets where what gets put in a mobile ad, for example, is often a cut-down version of a 30-second television spot, rather than an asset created for a unique channel and user experience.
3. Creating an artificial divide between “brand” and “demand,” where a given channel or campaign or creative is designed for one purpose or the other and measured accordingly.
I am not suggesting a return to the Mad Men era of “The ad will work because the creative director said it would work.” I’m suggesting we all lean into the future where the agile and atomized use of data brings both head and heart to everything we do.
Think about how companies such as Spotify, Netflix and Amazon make use of data to customize content and help us navigate an endless sea of options. These companies generate massive amounts of data, but they apply it in real time to customize people’s experience, and they use a feedback loop to continuously improve outcomes. What if all advertising could be that responsive and intelligent? Wouldn’t that improve both customer experience and ROAS?
As the general manager of analytics at an attention analytics company, I believe the future isn’t as far off as some might think. But it does require some behavioral and infrastructure shifts in marketing behavior. Among them are:
1. An approach to ad measurement that includes human behavior signals. At my company, we call these signals “digital body language,” and we use them to understand how an ad is being received by the person to whom it is being served.
2. A data infrastructure that is agile and flexible enough to capture, process and react in real time so that advertisers and their partners can not only see what’s happening, but also set up responses that adjust messaging, imagery and offers within a campaign — and even within a given user’s session.
3. Creative assets that are uniquely formatted to capture the signal and optimized to the channel in which they are being served so that winning narratives can be more easily recognized and optimized quickly.
4. A relentless test-and-learn mindset that embraces atomizing each piece of the ad experience to identify the colors, images, headlines and offers that drive results, both individually and working together.
Embracing head and heart requires teams to have a healthy respect for both data and creative and to begin to truly unpack how data, creative and media interact to deliver meaningful consumer experiences. Doing that requires a true spirit of partnership that allows everyone to fail fast, regroup, learn and try again.
While advertising might be a gloriously imperfect science, by letting our heads develop the right data infrastructure to give us valuable and actionable real-time insights and letting our hearts focus on the big ideas that connect and inspire us, we can embrace that imperfection to drive better business results.