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Data: the meeting point of art and science?

Richard Data Image

By Richard Eyre chairman of Next 15 Plc

Data is important, but consumers don’t make decisions without intuition – and neither should marketers.

There has always been a natural tension in the interactions between agencies and their clients. At the risk of caricaturing this, agencies like to be on the front foot – they’re producers of the kind of trail-blazing work that turns heads and interests future clients. They want a presentation brimming with firsts.

Experienced clients understand this and can work with it, all the while satisfying their chief financial officer that their marketing spend is a hard-working and judicious business investment. They certainly don’t want derivative work and recognise that winning awards helps attract great people to the agency.

In the 1990s, after 16 years in agencies, I got a new job as CEO of a company with a meaningful marketing budget. I have to confess that my new responsibilities triggered an immediate reining in of the heroism of my agency-side bravado in favour of the interesting but defensible. Perhaps rather wishy-washy in retrospect, but evidence of the power of non-overlapping motivations.

Creative agencies will always want to sell art, while their clients will mainly prefer to buy science. But both must work hard to find the intersection. Agencies must recognise that their most intense focus is on but one facet of a complex business with an organisational structure not organised around marketing. Clients meanwhile have to challenge their institutional risk-aversion for an idea that may at first be scary, but will drive a high value menu of executions across multiple media.

Surely the availability of a ton of fresh data helps bridge this gap? Data looks like it should be the swing vote here. If you can measure it you can manage it, right? Good data reduces the uncertainty of marketing spend and underpins bigger, bolder decision-making.

Well, no.

I accept that good data analysts, liberated from their socio-demographic strait-jacket, can unearth fascinating conclusions about likely customers and what will ignite their interest. What’s more, logical analysis can be agreed upon by all parties – the spreadsheet is pure science. When the tools of the marketing communications trade are developing at such hyperactive speed, the numbers look reassuringly stable, a safe haven from a pace that most people honestly find overwhelming.

Equally, after a media career in which marketing communications were mainly lobbed in the general direction of a poorly identified group of possible buyers, fresh data can place more personalised messages in the right places and at the right time. This is a major step forward.

But human instinct, our native decision-making capacity, is triggered by stuff we cannot rationalise. Life, experience, instincts – the more ephemeral, inexplicable, maybe even indefensible, inarticulate stuff – defy capture on a database.

Early in my career, a client at Whitbread called Anthony Simonds-Gooding was presented with a surreal line: “Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach.” At that time, lager advertising featured hunky men with a few days’ growth, chugging freezing pints after manly activity. The agency came up with a row of comedy policeman with their socks off, which was universally rejected in research, because it wasn’t what beer advertising should look like. Simonds-Gooding ran with it.

Watching from the media department of another Whitbread agency, the experience was an important one for me. Very big ideas are shape-shifters that cannot be extrapolated from history. And all data is history.

Consumers do not make rational decisions unsullied by intuition and neither should buyers of marketing ideas.


Richard Eyre CBE is chairman of Next 15 Plc

MAA member agency Lexis is a Next 15 company