Creativity in Advertising Isn’t Dead, It’s in Data

By Egotist / /

Thoughts on agency convergence, data-driven decisions, and the role of creativity in a world-gone-quant.

In March 2017, Barkley, an independent advertising agency in Kansas City, acquired a small human-centered design & management consultancy called XperienceLab. This is the reverse of a trend you may have noticed over recent years, that of giant strategic consultancies like Deloitte and Accenture, and even McKinsey, acquiring various types of creative shops. Usually they get design firms like Fjord, Chaotic Moon, and Lunar, but Deloitte also bought Heat, a San Francisco agency.

More and more, some consultancies have also begun to build their own creative & design teams. Slalom, North Highland, West Monroe, and Boston Consulting Group have all continue to expand their reach in arenas traditionally not their business.

This increased interest in human-centered design beyond the traditional creative realm might seem sudden, but the blending of design and other things goes back a long way. It largely originated as a discipline in the years immediately following WWII in the Army Airforce, which hired cognitive psychologists to design fighter jet cockpits in order to help pilots control planes that were flying radically faster than ever before. If you’ve heard about Fitt’s Law or the Hick-Hyman Law, that’s where they came from, and it’s why the design of cockpits hasn’t changed much in over 50 years.

But, while cognitive psychology was effective for making useful and usable products, it wasn’t exactly necessary to sell them. For decades, a limited number of media outlets commanded the attention of billions of eyeballs, and whatever messages (ads) captured attention most effectively and consistently were worth the investment brands behind them made. The media outlets could break up the programming that people actually wanted to view with interruptions because people didn’t have another choice. In such an environment, audacious and bombastic advertising was valuable. The quality of the products being sold didn’t matter so much as long as the “sizzle” was compelling, and the value of product design was primarily aesthetic–more sizzle. Media budgets far exceeded design budgets because the return was bigger. And because a relatively small number of companies could spend money on media, these same companies also typically had the equivalent influence on distribution. Control over media as well as over physical distribution led to success and domination. Anheuser-Busch brands excelled at this in the 1980s and 1990s. Even after their advertising degenerated into silly MBA-inspired garbage like “superior drinkability” or “grab some buds”, a strong distribution network and a consistently solid point-of-sale presence enabled them to stay at or near the top.

Nowadays, there are just too many places for eyeballs to focus for a brand to control their media presence all that effectively. Smarter brands have recognized that customers “own” the brand identity now, and the really smart brands think about every aspect of how they conduct business, internally and externally.

A quick review of the obvious: Businesses succeed because they sell stuff at high profit margins. There are a few exceptions to this, but basically, any growing enterprise contends with the challenge of selling more stuff to customers (front stage interactions) while making operations more efficient (the backstage), and effectively leveraging the bridge between the two–logistics, distribution, dealers, etc.

Creative thinking is valuable throughout this entire process. Understanding what people want and how they behave can and should influence how/what products & services are developed and distributed. That means engagement with the backstage, with the people in operational roles who can make those decisions. That’s where consultancies primarily work, and they’ve (finally) discovered that having a holistic, human-centered approach brings incredible value.

Of course, advertising agencies haven’t been totally clueless to this–Don Draper’s insights into human behavior on Mad Men were representative of the best thinking at the time, be it from Howard Gossage, Bill Bernbach, or David Ogilvy. And the “Account Planner” role existed to represent the customer starting in the late 1980s. It’s just that the focus was always on the “front stage” interactions, the communications sent to potential customers.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but advertising & design firms have long had a tendency to… seek to impress their peers first, and then justify that what they deem “great” is objectively worthwhile. The sort of creative work that wins Gold Lions and Pencils does not necessarily provide greater value or provoke valuable actions (purchase, for instance). Yeah, I know, “it’s impossible to track that.” But really, it’s not. Google and Facebook make it obscenely easy, actually. So it’s getting harder and harder to justify the expense of much advertising, from both a production and media perspective, and the nature of its content.

Consider that of the ten most valuable companies in the world, maybe two consistently run TV ads that resemble what would have been lauded in awards shows ten years ago. Of the unicorn startups, one ran what ad people would accept as a “good commercial” on the Super Bowl, and another has a terrible logo and embarrassingly awful brand video about bits and atoms.

Nonetheless their valuations and revenues grow, and their reputation as innovators persists. That’s mostly because they effectively deliver what people want: Facebook facilitates quick, easy interactions with friends, Google provides quick, easy access to information, Amazon delivers (often for free) any imaginable product quickly, at prices lower than Wal-Mart’s. Uber makes it easy to get a ride. All of these companies perform well because they understand what people want, and have made those things supremely accessible.

The hell of being a creative in this space is that for the most part, nobody wants to use or look at what you create. We know people don’t want to look at ads, and while “UX/UI” (those two things are not interchangeable, by the way) has skyrocketed in popularity over the past few years, nobody wants to use your website or app or digital product. If it features superb visual design, that might help enhance trust and confidence, but really, people just want to connect to whatever is interesting and useful to them.

Increasingly, there’s sort of a formula to this. Big images and quick, to-the-point, highly relevant copy usually wins. Have you noticed that a lot of consumer-facing websites look pretty similar? That competing companies use nearly identical typefaces? And how nearly every startup website follows the same basic structure? It’s not an accident. It’s what we know generally works. There’s no need for a genius creative director to determine what’s best, when you can easily test 100 different combinations of visual and headline. And that kick-ass song you wanted for the video? Forget it. Most people watch videos in silence, probably for less than 10 seconds, so make sure you have subtitles that are easily read.

And when people get to that critical landing page or product detail page, does it convert effectively? Can people read the copy? Is it helpful? Can they differentiate between blocks of content? Do they know where to click and does that click deliver on the promise it made? And most importantly, are they confident in their decisions? In other words, can they access what is most important to them?

This probably doesn’t sound grandly inspiring, but if you re-frame how you look at it, I think it presents a boatload of opportunities to think differently and generally “be creative.”

Because the one consistent thing behind all of the comments above is data. Gathering data, storing it, centralizing it, standardizing it (or effectively using relational database services to parse it in meaningful ways), and making it accessible is hugely important because it can indicate what people are doing and what they want. However, harnessing this data, turning insights from it into knowledge and identifying relevant services and products to build, and building them quickly and distributing them accurately and quickly, requires creativity and ingenuity. It’s really popular now to be data-driven, but all the data in the world won’t design the best product or create the smartest business model.

This is why the companies closest to gathering and storing data are developing deep and highly capable design teams, as well–IBM, SAP, Microsoft, AWS, SalesForce, DropBox, and Google (among others) gather insane amounts of data, and all employ exceptional designers who 5-10 years ago would have opted for a traditional creative firm. It’s worth having people who know how to make complex technology easy to use. To make it “accessible.”

Of course selling will always be important, and numerous huge companies depend heavily on direct revenue from selling ad space. There’s always a need for creative, elegant communication. And it’s not like creativity in advertising is dead, but it is different and to succeed, it must account for what people actually respond to not what seems cooler or more clever.

I find this to be an unusually exciting time to work in a creative discipline. It’s not just designers, art directors, and copywriters anymore. Data science, product management, and software development all play growing roles, as well. Hopefully more agencies get onboard with this.

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Brad Gutting is a Sr. UX Designer for Amazon Web Services.


  1. Anonymous August 3, 2017

    I appreciate the thought that
    I appreciate the thought that went into this, and there are good points, but the central premise is flawed. The type of creativity needed to interpret data is not the same creativity needed to interpret culture in order to make a relevant connection.

    Also, when you described the old media channels, you inadvertently described Facebook:

    “For decades, a limited number of media outlets commanded the attention of billions of eyeballs, and whatever messages (ads) captured attention most effectively and consistently were worth the investment brands behind them made. The media outlets could break up the programming that people actually wanted to view with interruptions because people didn’t have another choice. In such an environment, audacious and bombastic advertising was valuable.”

  2. Brad Gutting August 4, 2017

    First–thanks for reading
    First–thanks for reading it!

    I disagree about the nature of creativity, or at least, I believe that people can find a way to apply the type of creative thinking they’re comfortable with to anything else. Maybe I’m just so thoroughly steeped in Amazon culture now, but, the company has gone from being obsessed with data to the point that teams couldn’t make interesting decisions without it to confidently proposing new ideas and turning them into full-fledged programs. Bezos makes the point that there was no data suggesting that customers wanted to pay $100/yr for free two-day shipping, but that the whole Prime program still took off wildly. And its since been something of a playground for new programs and offerings and experiments.

    I think of using data as a sort of “triangulation” — how can you take hard, quantified data, glean insights from it, then look at currents within culture, and go somewhere totally new? I think anyone can do this.

    And yeah…good point about old media and Facebook 🙂 Though with Facebook, you can target audiences on an absurdly granular level. Have you tried creating an ad with their tools? It’s worth playing around with. The work they’ve done internally is impressive, and if you’re willing (or honestly, able to budget-wise) to experiment with it, it’s potentially powerful.

    With “old” media, you effectively took control over the space (bigger and bigger media buys) and blasted the message.