Alex Steer

Better communication through data / about / archive

Use data as a pogo stick, not a crutch

770 words

Years ago, when they said that social media would kill advertising, I imagined they were talking about the decline of the full-page print ad or the thirty-second spot. Now I realise what they meant. Open Twitter during Cannes week and you will see half the industry there, gleefully beating itself to death in full view of its clients.

From the tenor of the conversation, you would honestly believe that all advertising were a doomed enterprise. We are no longer creative, we do not have the ear of our clients, and the public do not care for us. The nation's tellies go unwatched, its cinemas are empty, its billboards tatter at the edges. What's physical is irrelevant, what's digital is fraudulent, and our influencers aren't influencing. We are blocked, bagged, ripped off, subscribed around, non-viewable, unfit for platform. Our impressions are not impressive.

Imagine being a marketer and reading this. Better yet, imagine being one of the professional services or technology companies treading the fringes of our trade, who do not seem to share our lack of confidence in the commercial value of what we do.

Data, apparently, is to blame. Data - the mere having of it - drives out original thinking, latching itself to businesses like carbon monoxide, preventing the fragile oxygen of creativity from having a chance. My fellow number-curmudgeons and I have ruined everything with our spreadsheets and our models and our research and our maths. Our dreadful machines have forced out all that is good and replaced it with (always, in this diatribe) a pair of shoes that follow you round the internet. We are fools for letting it happen to us, and our clients are fools for buying it.

In the words of that Sony ad: balls.

Sorry, but time's up. On blaming data for lack of bravery, on pummelling our industry in public, on treating our clients like fools for choosing us, and on the 'two tribes' mentality that treats our creative and our analytical people as opponents rather than collaborators.

No industry in the world evolves and adapts like ours. There are strains of the ebola virus with less agility and will to survive. The things we tell our clients to do every day - think round corners, organise around people, move fast with a sense of direction - are the things we do ourselves. In doing so, we create disproportionate, unfair, unreasonable gains for our clients, vastly in excess of the fire-sale value of their corporate assets. Only communications improves the value of a company merely by adjusting the perceptions of its would-be buyers. The financial value of the world's top hundred brands has more than doubled in the last decade while we sit here wondering if what we do makes any difference.

So don't tell me that data is ruining it. Analytics - the intelligent use of data - is the fastest route past the ordinary that I know. If all data told you was how to be safe and how to stay the same, there'd be no call for it. Looking deeply, clearly and thoughtfully at the numbers generated by a business, its audiences and its advertising lets us spot the un-obvious things that will lead to growth. What better way to find the space for creativity to transform our experience of a brand, whether shared or personal? What better stimulus to make something genuinely new?

But to do that, we need to be proud of our data side, and we need to hire and retain people who bring that analytical talent - human curiosity with statistical integrity - to work with them every day. To hire people who use data as a pogo stick, not a crutch - and who encourage their clients to do the same.

Our clients are as brave as we empower them to be - braver, often, since they have to stare down their sceptics across the boardroom table and defend our ideas. If we pick holes in the safety net, are we that surprised when they don't jump?

It's time to stop treating ignorance of analytics as a virtue. It doesn't make you more creative, it just makes it more likely that you're pointing your brilliance in the wrong direction. We have a vast amount of knowledge about how communications drives growth - more than our clients, more than our competitors. Let's teach our creatives to stand up for the value of evidence, our analysts and technologists the value of ideas. And let's show our clients that an agency - by definition a collection of do-ers - is a thing worth being proud of.

# Alex Steer (26/06/2018)