Will Big Data Kill Creative?

VP Vestcom head shotThe Internet was invented the same year we landed on the moon, at the close of a very tumultuous and difficult decade. It was the product of a Defense Department project, and it consisted mainly of email and data transfer for its first 20 years. In the early 1990s, the World Wide Web came about, and a sleeping giant awoke, forever changing the world as we knew it.

Since the very beginning, the Internet has been all about data. Bits turned to bytes, which grew by turns to megabytes, terabytes, then petabytes and zettabytes. Big Data, as it is now known, has arrived, and it continues to grow larger by the second. The ability to mine this data, extract insights from behaviors, and ultimately sell advertising space is the foundation for Google, Facebook and the web itself. Without advertising, we wouldn’t have the web we have today.

{loadposition GIAAIt’s this ability to gather, mine and otherwise make use of the vast universe of data that is driving the growth of the web. Streaming music sites toss in ads to help pay for the cost of the service and the license fees, even as they try to gather paid subscribers. Mobile apps are littered with advertising; miniature banner ads at the top and bottom of the screen are the price users pay for free access. Click-through activities are gathered and measured as well, along with pre- and post-click behavior. We not only know where you are, but where you’ve been, and where you’re going.


All of this data has value for marketers who constantly strive to find the right message for an increasingly elusive and often indifferent audience. Back in 1969, a Bob Hope USO Christmas special could capture a 50% share, meaning half of all homes in America tuned in to watch. This was before remotes, the mute button and DVRs, so everyone watched the commercials as well. There is just no way to capture an audience like that today — there are too many channels and options, and everyone is multitasking anyway. We watch TV with the remote in one hand and our iPad in the other, muting commercials or fast-forwarding through them as we text, browse and shop.

There is a growing movement — especially from Silicon Valley and other tech-based neighborhoods — that all this data, and the targeting ability that it provides, obviates the need for creative. Get the right message on the right medium to the right consumer at the right time, and it really doesn’t matter how pretty or engaging it is. The message becomes the medium.

Take this to its logical conclusion: Black Courier copy on a stark white background is just as effective as the legendary Mean Joe Green Coke commercial (Google it), because it’s a smaller, more receptive audience that will instantly engage and respond based on past behavior. That’s the discipline.

The only fly in this ointment is the irritating fact that this approach simply won’t work. Without strong creative, even the most relevant and valuable message will be missed, or ignored, by the carefully selected target. How can this be?

Let’s back up: To begin with, data is hardly new in the world of marketing. Our ability to collect, analyze and utilize it has grown, but marketers have always used information about their intended audience to make advertising more relevant. And it only takes one piece of information to make a connection. The well-known and highly effective Dove “Real Women” campaign was based on a single piece of data: Only 4% of women think they are beautiful. It wasn’t that snippet of information that made the campaign resonate; it was the creative that delivered this message that made it so effective.

While actual behaviors can now be tracked and analyzed, there is always the wild card element: We are human, and therefore driven primarily through emotions and moods. We make choices first by feeling, and then see if we can justify those choices with some type of logic. What attracts and amuses us one day might bore and annoy us the next. Data can’t account for — and certainly can’t predict — these emotional surges.

Of course, creative can’t account for these changes either, but creative is designed to play upon, and even manipulate, those same emotions. Unless the target is engaged at the subconscious emotional level, all the data and targeting in the world won’t make the sale. We just don’t function that way as humans.

The most effective campaigns going forward will do what effective campaigns have always done: Use the data to define the strategy, and develop creative to engage the target and deliver the message. The fact that today we have better data, and deeper insights as a result, should mean that creative is more on target and therefore more effective. That Dove campaign has worked for 10 years because it was based on a real insight, and then it took the message to its intended audience in a way that engaged them emotionally.

The future of marketing and advertising will most likely continue to straddle the fence between data and creative, but that is a positive outcome. Better data allows for a more informed strategy, which gives more complete direction for creative execution. The next step is to fully close the loop and point that analytics power at the ads themselves to see what works, what doesn’t and what needs to change. Creative and data have been uneasy bedfellows for many years, and there is no reason to believe that this relationship won’t continue.

Jeff Weidauer is Vice President Of Marketing and Strategy for Vestcom International Inc., a Little Rock, Ark.-based provider of integrated shopper marketing solutions. He can be reached at, or visit

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