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Data’s not a Four-Letter Word

SimonMy dad came up as a journalist in the 1960s with a steno note-pad in his pocket and a manual Smith Corona typewriter on his desk. Once he started writing books in our home office, I knew a break in the machinegun-like keyboard thunder meant he either needed to change the ribbon or it was time for lunch.

His publisher insisted he switch to computer in the mid-‘90s. It wasn’t easy for him, but he got it. Paper had been his perfect editing medium. He drew big Xs across deletions and arrows to move any misplaced word. Eventually he adjusted to the digital equivalents. When faced with the unavoidable advancements of technology, he chose to adapt rather than face extinction. Even then, technology could only fulfill its promise in the hands of an experienced artist.

Advertising depends on artists too. The most successful have an innate ability to know their audiences through research and cultivated intuition then concoct perfectly persuasive stories to convert them. But as Big Data changes the way consumers transmit their interests and behaviors, the advertising artists’ tools must change as well.

Yet as I talk with creatives all across the country, I’m surprised to hear a familiar reticence in their voices. Now that RTB has squeezed every drop of efficiency out of media planning and buying, the idea is dawning on people that there is room for improvement on the message side of the house. Though the creatives’ hesitancy is easy to understand, these advertising artists have nothing to worry about. It’s just their turn to adapt.

Data-driven creative incorporates text or visual elements that can be instantaneously varied, depending on what the data says about the viewer. Rather than developing a single message designed to resonate with a wide range of consumers, advertisers can now deliver thousands of ads, each one built for a specific flavor of viewer.

As is often the case with new technology, well-meaning engineers often minimize the value of the artist’s touch. Some of the first tools to market can plug data into an ad template, but lack the flexibility required to present refined ads. I’ve heard them described as “ransom note” ads because of their choppy look and feel. Consumers do recognize the difference between brand stories well told and these clumsy executions.

The funny thing about some of the best data-driven ads is that the user has no sense that the ad has been built for them. Like an ad for beer when you are thirsty, the best ads are appropriate, even coincidental, but not transparent in their personalization. Managing that delicate balance and building the ad in such a way that the variables can be switched without revealing the trick to the audience is the real challenge. Think of direct mail that addresses the consumer by name throughout the letter, but always prints the name in a larger, coarser font with slightly less black ink. If the user catches the trick, the spell is broken.

Data also enables a new kind of ad story; the knowingly personal utility ad. Users are less sensitive to the fact that an advertiser knows who they are if the ad provides valuable utility in exchange for the information. Here too, poor examples that feel like picture frames around a box of local offers fail to convey the integrity of a high-value brand. Relevant offers are more valuable when appropriately integrated into the ad’s design.

No brand is going to ask their agency to build a different version of their ad for each of the 2,500 lines of their media plan if they are going to get a bill for the traditional production of 2,500 different ads. They probably aren’t requesting different versions for mobile and tablet for the same reason. They simply can’t afford that many ads.

This poses a significant opportunity for adaptive advertising artists, who master the data-driven medium. They start by using their primary tool – their imagination. Once they’ve thought up an ad that lends itself to automation, the creatives develop swappable ad elements then tune and catalog them for their prescribed application within the ad. Executing a data-driven creative plan allows them to meet a new and expanding market need with a premium creative service. It’s actually good for advertisers and for business.

This burgeoning field also creates more opportunity for artists to flex their creative intuition, not less. No computer in the world knows which colors, images, videos or words appeal to different types of people. As my dad will tell you, tools will always change, but creative decisions require a skilled, artistic human. As long as ads are designed for people, creatives have a secure place in advertising.

David U. Simon is the chief marketing officer at PointRoll, an advertising technology company that helps advertisers, agencies and publishers create, manage and deliver the most effective digital advertising. His father is the author James F. Simon.

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