As someone who runs a digital agency, it’s fair to say that I’ve long been an enthusiastic proponent of all major digital trends, from the growing use of data to the ever expanding range of devices and platforms through which we can engage with our audience.
That’s all good stuff and I have no intention of losing the latter half of our company name any time soon. That said, the world is a messy place, and as much as we crave the reassurance of simplicity, the truth is that complicated challenges usually have complicated solutions. In marketing, we refer to these complicated solutions as “creativity”.
Unfortunately, the narrative in favour of data and digital has developed such momentum that it risks reducing the role of creativity to something at best peripheral. At worse, optional.
This is a worrying destination and so I thought I’d make a rare case against, well, people just like me.
Problem number 1 – loss of serendipity
When we take a hyper targeted approach, as epitomised by the surge of Account Based Marketing, we make a LOT of assumptions. We are assuming we know the job title and other defining traits of the decision maker and their influencers. We are also assuming that none of these people will move about during the course of our customer journey, which for a lot of B2B sales could be 6-12 months.
We are also entirely overlooking the importance of brand from a hiring perspective. The most important decisions you ever make will be the people you hire, and yet by talking only to your direct customer universe you are all but guaranteeing your most significant audience of all – prospective employees – will have absolutely no idea who you are.
Problem number 2 – loss of meaning
It’s widely recognised that tv advertising affords a certain sense of gravitas and credibility. Lots of studies have shown that brands that advertise on this relatively expensive medium are more trusted.
What we don’t tend to think about is what this principle means at the other end of the spectrum. If a tv ad carries meaning due to its expense, then it seems reasonable to assume that a Facebook or LinkedIn ad that we know to be super cheap (in part because it allows us to be so targeted/efficient) carries a distinct lack of meaning. You can see more from the brilliant Rory Sutherland on costly signalling here.
Problem number 3 – loss of public accountability
If I tell a stranger in private that I can sell them a beautiful cottage on a remote island for £50,000, it’s unlikely I should expect the deposit to arrive in my bank account any time soon. They have absolutely zero reason to trust me.
However, if I tell a room of 500 people that I can sell them each a beautiful cottage on a remote island for £50,000, the dynamic is very different. There is a confidence and security that comes from the numbers – “Surely they wouldn’t lie to this many people..?” the audience thinks to itself.
Incidentally, this group mentality is a key ingredient to many pyramid schemes – it only takes a couple of optimists to shift the balance of an entire room and all of a sudden perfectly sensible people are climbing over one another to throw their hard earned cash down the toilet. Of course, we’re hopefully not attempting to rip anyone off, but the principle still applies – how do we create a sense of public accountability so that people can feel secure? That’s very difficult if we’re only ever talking on a 1 to 1 basis.
Problem number 4 – loss of imagination
I had a conversation with a marketing manager recently who was convinced that if they could just find someone to combine their customer data with programmatic ad strategies, the results would be all but guaranteed. But the trouble with data is that it’s all the result of past activities. To find the next big idea, we need to play around in the fringes. We need to test ideas that aren’t the output of a perfectly rational algorithm and may even appear to go against conventional wisdom. It’s here in the undergrowth, far away from the beaten track, that remarkable things are discovered.
Problem number 5 – loss of attention
As we all follow the data to the same place, not only do we all end up using the same channels and tactics, but we also compete for the same eyes and ears.
If you target a decision maker on LinkedIn using job title, sector and demographic criteria, it’ll probably be the 50th ad they see that day on the platform. However, if you target the same person via a beautiful handwritten letter, it will likely have no competition at all.
Problem number 6 – loss of jobs
Make no mistake, as smart as we “digital experts” may feel as we drone on about algorithms, big data and AI, if this is how we are defining ourselves then we’re on a path to extinction. Machine learning works best within structured frameworks, so if all you’re doing is using data to created hyper targeted ads via whatever digital channel your audience is most active, you can expect a robot to take your job in the next decade.
Creativity, on the other hand – that slippery thing that simply refuses to be pinned down – may just buy us all a full career.
That alone seems a pretty good reason to champion its role.