Home Agencies BBDO’s Chief Strategist: ‘Data Is Just Poorly Branded Insights’

BBDO’s Chief Strategist: ‘Data Is Just Poorly Branded Insights’


BBDO isn’t known as a data-driven shop. But the Omnicom-owned creative agency is working hard to change that perception.

There’s a certain “muscle memory” among clients who view their creative agency as separate from their digital agency or the people they work with on measurement, said BBDO vet Crystal Rix, who was promoted to chief strategy officer for New York in mid-January.

“But we’re trying to break that down,” said Rix, who’s spent more than 10 years with BBDO in various exec roles, most recently as director of business development. “One of the biggest aha moments our clients are having now is that if they want the creative outputs to be different, they need to make fundamental changes to the inputs being used by their strategy teams.”

In other words, it’s rewiring the creative process to make room for data-driven insights – insights being the key word, Rix said.

“Data is just poorly branded insights, a resource for knowledge,” she said. “It’s really about taking all of the qualitative planning, the human intuition, the cultural context and the trends and marrying that with deep quantitative planning and marketing science to create insights that are right and true.”

Tina Allan, BBDO’s EVP and director of data solutions, refers to these insights as “the brief with teeth.”

“Everything around here used to be about gut and great creative,” said Allan, who joined BBDO from RAPP in late 2015. “It’s still about creative, but now it’s also about data. We’re trying to crack the nut on the effectiveness of creative.”

As CSO, Rix will oversee BBDO’s newly consolidated strategic practice, including data analytics, marketing science and comms planning.

AdExchanger caught up with Rix two weeks into her new post.

AdExchanger: Historically, BBDO has always been about “the work, the work, the work.” What does it mean for BBDO to evolve into a data-driven creative shop?

CRYSTAL RIX: We do have a history of being great storytellers, but most of our stories have been built on human truths and insights. It’s not that fundamentally different now, it’s just that the way we get to those insights has become more credible and informed.


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As a planner, the biggest frustration was sitting behind the glass during a focus group and listening to people try to please you with false answers to questions they’d never thought about before. The election is proof that we can’t simply trust reported data, and we don’t actually need to because data allows us to get to the real behavioral insights – what people are doing, not what they’re saying.

What does that mean for your planners on a day-to-day basis?

One thing we’re doing is building what we call an audience suite, which includes bespoke data sets for our entire client portfolio. When a planner sits down at their desk they won’t have to go searching for data, they’ll just have it – attitudinal data, demographic data, behavioral profiles already built that they can mine for insights.

We’re also changing how we work with clients and how we think about briefs and briefings. A lot of clients have business objectives and assumptions built on years of practice. Now we’re spending more time saying, “OK, your audience is SMBs – great. Let us go out and tell you what SMBs are actually doing.”

The reality is that you need dynamic segmentation. Think of “hurried moms” or “urban dwellers.” You can put all moms in the first segment and all people under 35 who live in a city in the second, but what about a mom under 35 who lives in New York? If you want to change behavior, you have to understand how varied it is.

What kind of growing pains is BBDO going through?

The biggest challenge is that everybody has data. Clients are drowning in data and the data solutions being presented to them – yet they’re still thirsty for insights. One of the biggest struggles we have is getting people to appreciate that data is different than data storytelling.

Most data management platforms were built to do performance insights and media insights, and neither of those is the business I’m in. I want to make the most effective creative possible, so I need to use a DMP for data storytelling, to really understand the qualitative and quantitative insights that will change the stories we tell and make sure that the content we’re creating is relevant to the audience and contextually relevant to the environments that matter.

Does BBDO see itself becoming a consultant of sorts?

I don’t know that we’re looking to be consultants, but we are consulting. When we start the process, we have a data workout with clients where we look at all of the data they have and see where the gaps are and what we might already have solutions and tools for.

Do you have preferred technology partners?

All clients want data-driven thinking, they don’t all want to take the time to do it. We have opinions on tools and technology because clients expect us to. But Annalect is BBDO’s DMP, and it was built to be open-source. We can give it to clients or clients can give us theirs and we can plug and play.

We don’t have preferred partners because we don’t want to limit the potential of a data set. There is some technology that we feel works better, but it’s client-specific, and we don’t have a vested interested as a holding company in any one technology solution.

Where does the gut come into it? Does work have to be data-driven to be insightful?

Data is not the holy grail. It’s just a series of ones and zeros. The analog I use with people is that marketing science is a science and, like all sciences, a scientist starts with a hypothesis and then uses science to either prove, disprove or evolve their hypothesis.

But the gut is where the hypotheses come from, and what you get back from a data set is only as powerful as the questions you asked.

When you look at powerful content like [the] Sandy Hook [PSA] or our work for Barbie, it happens because of great creatives working with great marketing science, guided by the thoughtful hand of the planner.

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