The Best Digital Advertising Always Taps Human Creativity

luxnarayanData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Lux Narayan, co-founder and CEO at Unmetric.

It’s sad to see the “Mad Men” series come to an end. The show struck a nostalgic chord for me and others with an advertising background. It was an escape back to a time when musicians banged out jingles on the piano and artists illustrated ads with pen and ink.

The show’s setting pre-dates my career, but even when I started working at Lowe and Partners Worldwide in the late ’90s, there was still a focus by global brands on artistic craft and creativity for print and TV campaigns. Banner ads hit a frenzied peak before the dot-com bubble burst, sending advertisers and investors retreating to lick their wounds.

New technologies and channels have since radically transformed the space and once again created immense market opportunity. However, as digital advertising progressed from banners to search, email and social, many debate the fate of creativity in what is now a data-driven industry. Programmatic has been criticized as stifling creativity as algorithms take over. Some say the quantity of content that marketers are tasked to regularly create often means forgoing creative quality.

In some ways, these sentiments can be true, but not always. I believe automation also offers marketers the freedom to be more creative as they share stories with others.

We’ve all heard enough – probably too much – about big data over the past several years. Marketers have been pushed to embrace data analytics as measuring performance becomes more of a priority. Sir Martin Sorrell, chief of WPP, bridged the mental gap between right- and left-brained marketing when he said, “I believe data informs great creativity.”

Sorrell’s comment is more reflective of “smart data” than big data. Data on its surface can’t always tell the entire story. Case in point: A tweet by the Houston Rockets’ social media manager during the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks got great engagement, but also got him canned. Probably not a content strategy to replicate based on surface metrics.

The way that marketers both analyze and use data has evolved exponentially. Traditionally, marketers were limited to the rear-view mirror approach of descriptive analytics. It was basically, “Let’s put out content, analyze and then review what happened.”

A Step Forward

Predictive analytics moved this idea forward by using descriptive data to form hypotheses about what might happen. It takes what might happen and provides actionable insights and recommendations based on likely outcomes. Think of it as A/B testing but with insights provided before you hit publish or send.

This type of data analytics has many different applications and is already being used in direct marketing channels, such as email. Some brands and agencies are also adding data scientists to their marketing teams to help wade through, model and apply their flood of real-time data to business objectives.

So, with this type of data-driven power, are the vestiges of human creativity permanently relegated to the sidelines in digital advertising? I don’t believe so. Here’s why.

Think about your most basic Google search ad. Nothing fancy, just a few lines of text. Descriptive analytics can tell you how your ad performed. Prescriptive analytics can tell you how to optimize your ad length and keywords. But optimization can never substitute for human creativity. The best ad copy, whether it’s a brand slogan, tweet or email subject line, isn’t and never has been written by a computer.

This example just covers text, not creative photography or video. That perfect shot of the car on the beach or the fashion model wearing a brand’s latest items still requires a creative human eye.

Freedom To Be Creative

Technology and data analytics aren’t about replacing creative, they’re about optimizing it. In many ways, automation can actually free marketers up to focus on what they love most: being creative. Technology is a layer that enables efficiency and scale on top of what’s worked in marketing for ages before the “Mad Men” era and today: humans sharing compelling stories and ideas with other humans.

I’m a big believer in the power of data. When properly harnessed, it can provide great competitive advantages for companies across all verticals, from retail to finance and healthcare. But I also believe there are some things that human cognition and insights will always do better than any algorithm or machine. Sorrell hit it on the head when he said data informs creativity. I believe it will never replace it.

While the literal and fictional “Mad Men” eras are history, my advice to marketers: Embrace and become smarter about data, but don’t ever silence your inner Don Draper.

Follow Lux Narayan (@LuxNarayan), Unmetric (@unmetric) and AdExchanger (@AdExchanger) on Twitter.

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1 Comment

  1. Couldn’t agree more, both are important. Hegarty’s insistence at Ad Week last year that data is worthless and creativity is the source of all that is meaningful just doesn’t make sense. So much of creativity is built on insights that come from data, not always ‘big’ data, but sometimes that too.