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Contribution : "Big data in ad agencies welcomed but questioned" by Andres Gonzalez and Hassan Lâasri

Data is everywhere, informing marketers about audience interests, consumer intent, and buyer behavior. Agencies are changing fast in order to introduce the new sources of data and technologies to meet the evolving expectations of the customers today.

Should digital agencies continue depending just on the artistic skills of ad creatives or should they consider introducing the algorithmic skills data analysts provide to boost efficiency?

The State of Big Data In Digital Advertising

The increasing intersections between technology and creativity resulted in new and interesting opportunities for ad agencies. The range of solutions that they deliver to clients has incredibly expanded, going from simple ad banners in the 90s to complex digital ecosystems in the recent years.

Now enters Big Data with a value proposition to manage the process from end-to-end, that is, from market research to project execution to result follow-up. But, its seems to face a dilemma, being the source of many discussions within agencies, in which some see it as an enabler of creativity and others as a threat to it. 

In the first camp, Dave Buonaguidi, founder and Chief Creative Officer of Karma Group, sees Big Data as “the golden age” of opportunities for brands. His view on this is that technology and data can help create the right project, to track, change, adapt, and learn, thus following an approach that is more agile than the traditional waterfall approach: “It's something the ad industry struggles with, but needs to understand fast. I'm not going to bullshit anyone, the advertising business is really not that creative any more. It needs to lose some of its preciousness, move faster and constantly create". He stands for an industry that emphasizes transformation and effectiveness, rather than other that emphasizes subjective creativity.

In the second camp, John Hegarty, Co-Founder and Global Creative Director of BBH,  rejects the over reliance on data in advertising and wants to put a note of caution on its use:  "Data is all about what happened yesterday, and business is all about what will happen tomorrow. The trouble is a belief among certain quarters that this is the answer to all your problems. Data is a source of knowledge but will not predict what will happen tomorrow." With this thought, John Hegarty challenges this big trend of thought that says Big Data and new technology will revolutionize advertising, convinced that to define the future of brands the focus should stay more on the creativity than on the use of new technology and data. John Hegarty prefers to question every piece of truth behind the added value that Big Data offers until the real benefits it brings are proved.

Between these two camps, there are professionals that have a neutral position. Martin Weigel, Head of Planning at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, tries to find a point of rationality in this discussion, being open but critical to the use of data: "It's either going to kill creativity, or it's going to usher in a new golden age of opportunities and efficiencies. I suspect that the truth is somewhere in between. We need to take it seriously. But I think we should be critical at the same time."

From our point of view, the pillars of this discussion rest on the original discussion to see advertising as art or as a science. William Bernbach, one of the fathers of advertising, said: “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.” But the case for advertising as a science is definitely getting stronger due to the explosion of data and the new capabilities that provides.

Advertising will never lose the category of art but will necessarily keep adapting to the times, integrating new technology and practices over time. Data, far from being something new for advertising, has been traditionally used to inspire the research process. Since decades, fast-moving, customer-focused industries such as fashion, media, and retail collect data from panels and focus groups for copy testing. Data they collect does not only explain the past tastes, attitudes, and behaviors of customers with regard to a brand but also forecasts their future once the ad is pitched out.

Today, the use of Big Data represents an opportunity to bring the influence of data in the creative process a bit further than before, and explore new ways of exploiting it, even though there are professionals that fear working with it because they say it harness creativity.

It is clear that agencies, in order to successfully transform, need to embrace change and innovation within their culture. Thus, agencies need to establish the right mindset to overcome the new challenges the industry is facing, and being open to the creative possibilities that technology and data provide will be one of the key for success in a world dominated by digital technologies.

Big Data can provide quantitative intelligence to inform creative campaigns, as it could be more accurate information on the target or on product truths, providing information to base the communications on facts and not just on subjectivity. This, far from stopping them to be creative, Big Data provides a solid base to create a more targeted and successful campaign. With the tools there are today, ad agencies will not anymore have everything to rest on creatives subjectivity, so they can start looking for evidence on data to strengthen their work.

Big Data also brings a new opportunity for creatives to change their mindset to be able to explore alternatives of the same ad, concept, or prototype before engaging into one direction. Creatives should step up in the understanding of data and be aware of the possibilities when creating ideas. To be a creative in the digital era, advertising professionals need to have not just the data mindset but the skills to work with it with guarantee of success.

In essence, creativity is to work with the tools given, so now creatives need to know how to work with data and integrate it to their way of working. But the road is not so easy. The speed that technology and data imposes to advertising creates the need of qualified people with data analytic skills. However the search of skilled talent presents the big challenge. According to a study from McKinsey Global Institute projects that in 2018, the United States alone may face a 50 to 60 percent talent gap between supply and the requisite demand of deep analytical talent.

The lack of qualified professional with analytical skills is one of the major challenges for agencies and brands willing to get into the digital space. This is stopping agencies from extracting full value to add on the creative process. To overcome this obstacle, agencies must develop capabilities to integrate analytical skills into their business and align the whole team for a single purpose. They need to establish a culture of innovation, open to try and fail and to challenge their previous process looking to optimize it. They also need to motivate the communication between creatives, strategists and data analysts to be open to integrate Big Data initiatives into the projects.

Digital Advertising In The Future

Seeing how fast things change today, the future of advertising is more unpredictable than ever. Agencies find themselves in a challenging situation due to their need of transformation. This situation push them to expand looking for new market opportunities to grow and compete, not only with other agencies but more and more with tech companies and consulting firms who better master IT and complex systems.

Salesforce, Deloitte and Accenture are investing in digital divisions to compete in the creative space with agencies. As mentioned by Brian Wieser, Analyst at Pivotal Research: “Technology companies are fighting for access to the marketing department, which was previously the domain of ad agencies, and marketers are welcoming it”. For that, companies are looking for talent straight into their competition; IBM has recently grabbed executives from agencies such as Wunderman, Ogilvy & Mather and Digitas. This situation is creating a two-way traffic of talent between creative agencies and technology companies.

Possibilities for brands will expand further. Some of the leading digital and data agencies are already envisioning personalized ads by combining their own customer data with intent data from around the web. After all, a brand new smartphone can be pitched to teenagers as a music device, to travelers as a service device, to a young talent as a social device, and to dads and moms as a wireless phone. This scenario of real-time and personalized ads will be the work of agencies most disposed to creative breakthroughs in art and science. These agencies will be composed of people from multiple disciplines, capable of sorting through vasts amount of data from various sources, experimenting with a variety of different ads, and switching directions in the course of a project.

Taking the transformations that advertising had crossed over the generations as evidence, there is no doubt that the next-generation agencies will incorporate the art of ad creatives and the science of data analysts.

As Theodore Levitt theorized in his famous Marketing Myopia paper, to continue growing, ad agencies must ascertain and act on the clients new needs, not bank on the presumptive longevity of their proven methods and processes. For executives at large companies Hassan Lâasri has recently met, being digital goes beyond crafting online ads, revamping websites, monitoring social networks, or developing mobile apps. Being digital encompasses the collection, the analysis, and the curation of every piece of data that can help in optimizing the company. Not only its digital presence but also its products and processes. Therefore, digital represents not just a range of tools and processes but a way of doing business today.

About The Authors

Andres Gonzalez is a Digital Strategist specialized on the development of innovative brand communications, experiences and products. More about Andres Gonzalez at / @Hyper_Andres

Hassan Lâasri is President and Consultant at HB & MJ Partners, a consulting firm specialized in digital transformation. More about Hassan Lâasri at More about HB & MJ Partners at