The Art of Science

By Kelly Stephenson, Director of Strategy, Creature

When we ask new clients which brands they most admire, we almost invariably hear the same several names invoked: Old Spice, Nike, Apple.

And when we ask why, our clients tell us they’re inspired by these brands’ ability to affect culture, forge bonds with people in new ways and new mediums, and transform consumers’ expectations.

“But,” our clients quickly caveat, “we’re not those brands.” They go on to explain the unenviable catalog of short-term pressures that would seem to preclude an ascent to that marketing pinnacle.

The complex marketer’s landscape and the increasing expectations for what the CMO must achieve in the next campaign cycle are eroding trust in the timeless truth of advertising: it’s about relationships.

We’re replacing that trust with something that sounds so much more secure; we tell ourselves it’s about data instead.

Under pressure to perform, we turn to our datasets for ready answers. We have data about how our consumer consumes media. We have data about the anatomy of the most CTR-friendly banner ads and transaction-friendly websites. We have data on how the consumer’s eye scans packaging. Data on the mood and priorities of our customer at each stage of the conversion journey. Data about where our consumers are, whom their with, what they love.

This is a fantastic body of knowledge, and it can be tempting to consider this knowledge tantamount to insight. A recent digital sales pamphlet from one of my go-to research firms came with the headline, “Smart data is the new creative.” As we scrutinize the micrometric movements of our KPIs each quarter, it is easy to fall into the trap of doing what we can measure instead of finding ways to measure what we do. It is tempting to treat data as the new God of the marketing universe, unseating the old pagan pantheon of Creative Directors and Brand Planners.

But that’s too easy.

When we treat data like the known quantities in a formula we simply have to sum in order to get the desired result—when we lose the time and energy and bravery to interpret those data and polish them into insights—we get connect-the-dot campaigns that are capable of serving important immediate metrics but not the long-term value of the brand. Why? Data look at who the customer is now. Insight looks at who the customer may want to become.

Apple, Nike and Old Spice do not simply reflect to the world the mirror image of their customers’ expectations. They show us something more beautiful, more evocative, more entertaining than we knew, and they lead us to desire experiences in that world of their creation. Connect-the-dots campaigns give us a faster horse. Insight-driven campaigns give us a motorcar.

So how do we get back to the right balance between being data-driven and insight-led?

We can’t treat customer data and analytics like a separate orbit of definitive knowledge. We need to treat these essential creative signposts as just that: fortifying guidance along the timeless journey of relationship-building between consumer and brand.

No matter how much we “know,” building great relationships still requires some vulnerability and some bravery. Just as in life outside marketing, data cannot mitigate the risk of taking a new step to move a relationship forward; it can only justify the risks we take and help us understand the new context in which that insight-powered leap has landed us.

Every marketer can find the right balance between driving necessary success against the near-term KPIs and honoring the long-term health of these relationships. It takes no special budgets nor absence of worldly constraints. But it does take creative bravery and the persistent demand that we (marketers and agencies both) take care to identify in every brief and every organizing idea the part of the story where the data ends and the real insight begins.

Kelly is the Director of Strategy at Creature, a full-service advertising, design and brand strategy agency in Seattle

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