Yes, data is king. But creative should not be overthrown.

Bielby explains the intersection of data science and creativity.

Hands up if you think advertising is just so much harder than it used to be?

If your hands are still sitting on your lap, then you are either new to the industry, with no point of reference, or maybe you are just plain delusional.

I honestly used to wonder if the best of our industry was behind us.  In the distant past, multi-million-dollar decisions were made based on a wing and a prayer. This was partly because of the lack of accessible data, or because of an often, deep mistrust in consumer research. It was also because we and our clients seemed to have considerably more faith in our collective intuition and in the creative process itself. Will it stand out? Does it make you feel something? Do you think our audience will like it? Then let’s do it.

Three months ago, we hired our first (of what will be many) Business Intelligence officers from one of the big 4. We restructured our Data & Analytics team and blended them with Origin, our consumer research division, into our new Decision Science division. Each of these groups is now a part of our strategy department as we evolve to pull data through the whole strategic process, beyond media alone. Why are we doing this?

Because the fight for share that our clients endure each and every day means that we need every sharp brain and tool at our disposition to help them win. There is more competition, more ad blocking and more cord cutting. From a customer perspective, avoidance is essentially the new default.

So, in response to this, we bear many newer, heavier burdens as an industry. Creativity is still critically important, but it isn’t enough. This is because our clients’ business challenges are also significantly harder to solve than they used to be. A client once told me that we ‘live in parallel universes. Every issue you have in advertising is mirrored and amplified client side’.

What does all this mean for us? It means that agencies that do not respond to the changing needs of our clients are doomed to fail. But agencies that simply mirror their clients’ internal structure or that over-correct -- for example, swinging the balance towards extensive data & analytics at the expense of strategic and creative services -- could suffer an equally catastrophic fate.

It’s surely about both art and science. Clients don’t pay us to be just like them. Clients pay us because they want us to think differently. To challenge them. To offer new ideas and solutions. To use different parts of our brains. But they also want rigor. Proof. But they don’t just want ‘data’ – and claiming to own a unique data set is impossible. It’s how the data is used to find insight and opportunities that is important. Clients want us to use our smarts to make sense of the data instead of having it overwhelm us. The stakes are ever higher (think of the average tenure of a CMO or CEO) and the option to try things, even if you fail, diminishes with every changing quarter.

So, we as an agency strive to get the balance right. We still believe that creative is king. We still believe in the strength of good strategic planning, and in thinking differently. But we believe that by evolving our data and business analytics groups we give ourselves a significantly greater chance of knowing our consumers better. Understanding their brand and shopping preferences, as well as their fears, hopes, and other emotions. Understanding a brand’s role in external and internal culture, or in creating culture. More deeply understanding how to engage people as they move along the customer journey, so that they do not want to deviate. Knowing which ideas will be more likely to be sought out, at the right moment with the right message, using the right channel. And finally, data allows us the ability to launch great ideas, safer in the knowledge that we have done everything we can to help them, and our clients, succeed.

Is our industry getting harder? Yes, without a shadow of a doubt. Can we adapt? Yes, we can. But we mustn’t fall into the over-correction trap. Data Science is critical, and we need it. But creativity is what makes us unique and different. Staying ahead, while getting the balance right, is what makes our industry continue to be exciting – to the point that the best may still be ahead of us.

Lesley Bielby is the chief strategy officer of Hill Holliday.

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