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As talk of data-driven targeting, new technologies, and a 'metrics mentality' takes over the industry, you might be forgiven for thinking advertising has lost its creative juice. 

Instead of viewing technology as the enemy, we should be using it to overcome modern challenges and drive more focused creativity.

For many, the idea of data-based creativity appears to be a contradiction in terms: you cannot be truly creative when shackled by facts.

Or can you?

Coca Cola – Hilltop

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Above: Coca-Cola's classic TV spot, Hilltop.


While the Mad Men of the golden era produced iconic campaigns without ‘Big Data’, it would be unthinkable in today’s world to do the same. In fact, making data part of the creative process is crucial for advertising to recapture the inspired culture of the 50s and 60s; advertisers just need to know when to trust the numbers, or go with their gut.

Removing the rose-tinted glasses

It’s testament to the strength of vintage ads that we still look back on them with misty-eyed longing. Campaigns such as Coca Cola’s Hilltop are industry legends, hailed as shining examples of former glory and creative brilliance. But it’s crucial to remember they belong to another era. Advertising is now a different world: not only are agencies expected to reach refined audiences and deliver tangible results at speed, but they also have a diverse, multi-channel media landscape to cover.

The digital age has brought advanced tools capable of leveraging data to fuel better content in ways yesterday’s agencies could only dream of.

The digital age has brought advanced tools capable of leveraging data to fuel better content in ways yesterday’s agencies could only dream of, and this ability is too valuable to ignore. Instead of viewing technology as the enemy, we should be using it to overcome modern challenges and drive more focused creativity.

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Snickers – Snickers: Rap Battle

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Snickers – Snickers: Coach

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Snickers – Snickers: The Warning

Above: A selection of Snickers' You're Not You When You're Hungry, which the brand expanded on with its Hangerism Algorithm. 


Recognising the value of data

The Mad Men days may win on memorable creative, but modern advertisers have the upper hand when it comes to agility. Once, advertisers relied on creative instinct and the insights gathered from running A/B tests on small focus groups before serving to vast audiences; and waiting months to find out what results campaigns had produced. Now they have an advanced array of tools at their fingertips. Not only can measurement platforms trace cross-channel activity and provide a continuous flow of performance data, but artificially intelligent (AI) tech can test thousands of creative variations at speed. 

With in-depth understanding of audience preferences and habits, advertisers can move outside of their comfort zone.

This upgraded toolbox gives advertisers the means to significantly improve creative execution. Using AI, they can run in-flight campaign analysis and instantly adjust delivery — and spend — to prioritise the most engaging creative. Similarly, they can also leverage information about real-time consumer behaviour to personalise ads for optimal interaction, and returns. 

See, for example, Snickers' Hangerism algorithm, which used large-scale assessment of social media posts to track consumer frustration and send custom dynamic Snickers discount codes to ease their ‘hanger’. 

The most damaging aspect of the data versus creativity argument is the assumption that only one can succeed.

And that’s not all. With in-depth understanding of audience preferences and habits, advertisers can move outside of their comfort zone. For example, that might involve either looking at the content target consumers are already consuming and producing creative that will resonate, or using tools to evaluate existing content and identify which new audiences it might capture. In other words, advertisers can follow in the footsteps of Netflix and take a calculated risk on more creative content production and targeting: as especially well illustrated by its ‘gamble on House of Cards.

Above: Robin Wright in Netflix's House of Cards.


Keeping an eye on creativity  

There is a difference between harnessing data to enhance advertising and allowing insight to restrict creativity. Although informed decision-making is important to help maximise efficiency and returns, there are times when a powerful creative concept is enough. 

While advertising can be optimised by data, it must still be rooted in human emotion, humour, and understanding.

No market or consumer insight could have fuelled the viral sensation that was Volvo’s ‘Live Tests’ campaign: especially Jean Claud Van Damme’s ‘Epic Split’ between two reversing trucks, which immediately became a modern classic. 

Volvo – Volvo Trucks: The Epic Split

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Above: Volvo Trucks' The Epic Split starring Jean Claude Van Damme.


Careful balance is therefore essential. While advertising can be optimised by data, it must still be rooted in human emotion, humour, and understanding. Advertisers need to cultivate their own content gauge that can determine if the situation calls for analytics, a shot of disruptive creativity, or a blend of science and creativity; even if that occasionally means looking at reports, and going with their instinct anyway.

The most damaging aspect of the data versus creativity argument is the assumption that only one can succeed. To think that advertisers must choose between making the most of tech advances and retaining their creative edge, instead of blending the two together, isn’t just incorrect; it’s a madness all of its own.

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