Measurement and magic

The contribution of technology to creative effectiveness.

What lessons can the 2020 IPA Effectiveness Awards teach us about the future of advertising? In our next chapter from Advertising Works 25 – The Definitive Guide to Effective Advertising, Kate Waters explores the contribution of technology to creative effectiveness.

It is a truism that the combination of data and technology has transformed our world. Almost no aspect of life is untouched by one or, more usually, both of these twin forces. We can routinely generate, gather, store and analyse trillions upon trillions of data points, revealing new insight about human intentions and behaviours, the movement of financial markets, the patterns of history, and of course, the spread of ideas.

Advertising has undergone its own transformation: the tech platforms have revolutionised and democratised the distribution of communications ideas over the last 20 years, creating an explosion in channel choice. This enables marketers to learn more about their customers than they once would have dreamed possible, to target them with an extraordinary amount of precision, and to provide almost instant and continuous feedback on performance.

So, in theory, the IPA Effectiveness Awards should be a rich source of insight and inspiration for how technology has transformed advertising effectiveness, and more specifically, creative effectiveness.

Except, somewhat surprisingly, they’re not. This year, 64 papers were entered into the Awards and 25 were shortlisted. Yet, of these, only four were singled out by the judges as having valuable lessons for the industry on this topic, despite the IPA President’s Prize being up for grabs for the paper demonstrating the Best Contribution to Effectiveness through Technology.

The four case studies that do have something to say on the subject – Central Coast, Diageo, Formula 1 and SickKids – provide valuable examples of the roles that technology, and more broadly, data can play in driving effectiveness. They also, perhaps, provide some clues as to why there aren’t more case studies for us to learn from.

Each paper is very different in its scope and approach: Formula 1 explores the value of one channel – an email-based CRM programme – to enable a brand to engage fans and turn them into customers. In contrast, the Diageo paper, epic in its scope, explores the way in which aggregating insight can be harnessed to improve effectiveness across 180 brands and 200 markets. The SickKids case study demonstrates the use of technology to create more engaging and urgent creative execution, while for Central Coast, technology played a central role in shaping the overarching communications idea.

So how can technology help? There are four overarching themes that are evident across these case studies.

Size and scale of inputs and outcomes

Data has always been used by strategists and planners as the underpinning and inspiration for transformative creative strategies, but until relatively recently it’s often been a comparatively simple data point or piece of analysis that has provided those foundations.

So, perhaps the most obvious theme to emerge from the four case studies examined here relates to 'size and scale'. The Central Coast and Formula 1 papers are clear demonstrations of how technology now enables parsing and interpretation of millions of data points as inputs to a creative strategy, while Diageo’s Marketing Catalyst platform shows the scale of impact that’s possible when technology enables insight to be easily applied across markets, channels, and brands.

Reducing the perceived risk of investing in creativity

While most marketers know the potential for creativity to transform the effectiveness of their marketing, it’s still regarded by many as a 'hit-or-miss' affair and decisions relating to creative investment are frequently deemed 'risky'. For client organisations that expect evidence-based decision making across all areas of their business, an argument for a particular strategic or creative idea that is overly reliant on the assertion of experts and/or qualitative evidence, however elegantly expressed, may fall short in the eyes of non-marketing corporate stakeholders.

The Central Coast team’s investment in an experimental phase to its campaign, testing four different strategic territories across six geographical segments and six further age-based demographics (generating 144 test cells and a mind-boggling 20m data points), provided the 'hard' evidence that was required to persuade many hundreds of SMEs to fund the roll-out of a two-year campaign. The clear implication is that without this level of rigour, the campaign simply wouldn’t have got off the ground.

For Diageo, its Catalyst platform enables more efficient, insight-led decision making by using econometric data to predict the brands within its portfolio with the most profit potential, and the channels/approaches on individual brands which create the most positive ROI. This enables Diageo to invest ahead of sales growth, secure in the knowledge of future profitable returns. The accuracy of its modelled prediction is now so good that it’s given the business the confidence to increase Diageo’s marketing budgets by 31% over three years. In addition, the operational efficiency created by systematising and scaling marketing effectiveness insight has liberated the brand teams to focus on creativity. Aggregated learnings across brands, markets and touchpoints are used to sharpen understanding of the drivers of creative effectiveness, and fuel more engaging brand communications.

A further example of managing creative risk is evident in the Central Coast paper. In this case, the creative approach risked a backlash from individuals with particularly negative attitudes towards the Central Coast area. Using an algorithm which layered interest criteria against the micro-geographical areas in Sydney that indexed highly for advocacy, enabled the client to build up a mass of likes and online positive commentary for the campaign before rolling it out further, thereby reducing the risk that a polarised response to the creative could undermine its impact.

End-to-end relevance: value throughout the creative process

Viewed collectively, these four case studies demonstrate the potential of technology to drive effectiveness at all stages of the creative development process: creative idea, execution, and optimisation.

Central Coast used technology to run a real-world experiment to assess the most powerful creative territory for its campaign. The value of this was not just in creating a large and statistically robust pool of evidence to get funders on board, but also in identifying the territory that would be most effective in the real world. As they discovered, when trying to shift deeply entrenched negative attitudes, there is an inherent danger in relying on claimed behaviour to guide message development, as people are very bad judges of how they are likely to behave in the real world. The large-scale experiment – which formed the first phase of the campaign – not only tested different creative approaches across multiple touchpoints, it deliberately and cleverly built friction into the customer journey in order to ensure they identified the most motivating territory, which was capable of overcoming those deeply entrenched attitudes.

At the other end of the process, in an approach now routine within digital and performance channels, the Formula 1 case is a powerful reminder of the potential for technology to help optimise in-market creative performance, using weekly updates of what fans are clicking, responding to and sharing to refine the creative approach and enhance effectiveness.

SickKids, however, is the paper that best demonstrates how technology can fuel highly engaging and effective creative work at an executional level (and, as such, is the worthy winner of the 2020 President’s Prize). While the idea behind the 'VS' campaign came through an insight from qualitative research, much of the executional engagement and its fundraising power was driven by technology. Recognising the power of a time-bound target, SickKids created daily targets for signing up new donors, dramatising these ambitions and progress towards them, across digital out- of-home sites in high-footfall locations and social media. The campaign captured the local community’s competitive spirit, pitting one neighbourhood against each other, using technology to surface and fuel local rivalries. Smart use of technology was embedded across the customer journey, enabling donors who were motivated by the advertising to personalise their experience, choosing the cause they wanted to support or the 'crew' they wanted to join.

A fine balance: the worm’s-eye view and the bird’s-eye view

Muhammad Yunus, microfinance expert and Nobel Laureate, draws a distinction between two concepts that can, perhaps, help us understand why there aren’t more examples of case studies that can tell us about the application of technology to creative effectiveness. He calls them the 'worm’s-eye view' and the 'bird’s-eye view' – contrasting the richness of personal experience that comes from a small but very detailed data set (the worm’s-eye view), and the broader but less detailed view that we get by looking at the general patterns which emerge from larger data sets (the bird’s-eye view).

What’s evident from the four case studies that use technology to drive creative effectiveness is the importance of finding the right balance between these two viewpoints – recognising the most powerful approach to creative effectiveness can be found in a fusion of the two, rather than an over-reliance on one.

Two papers allude to this philosophy: the Diageo approach to effectiveness combines the power of applying tech-enabled insight to drive operational efficiency 'enabling brand teams to focus effort on creativity' an explicit marriage of the bird’s-eye view provided by technology and the worm’s-eye view provided by the skill and craft of the brand teams. Similarly, the Formula 1 paper contrasts the purely algorithm- and rule-based approach used in more straightforward triggered service journeys, with the approach described for the fan engagement programme (the subject of the IPA entry), which is 'informed by data but also curated and crafted' – the implication being that human insight is a fundamental requirement in addition to technology for a brand-led programme of this sort.

The two other papers demonstrate the combined power of bird’s-eye and worm’s- eye view. The power of the 'VS' idea for SickKids comes from the fusion of a highly emotive creative idea that reimagines a fundraising brand as a performance one, with a tech-driven execution to create urgency and act as a powerful trigger for action. Whilst not explicit, the marriage of these two approaches is also evident in the Central Coast paper – in this case, the core positioning of 'adventure' was identified using a tech-driven approach, but the traditional craft of creative strategy is evident in taking this territory and refining it as a series of 'Little adventures' which made for a far more compelling, credible and, ultimately, more effective campaign.

Polarisation of culture and capability

However, finding that elusive optimum balance between birds’-eye view and worm’s- eye view presents a significant challenge for the industry.

The persistently siloed nature of communications disciplines across much of the industry reinforces a polarisation of culture and capability. While there are notable exceptions, expertise in data and technology tend to inform media choices rather than fuel big strategic or creative ideas (tellingly, the Diageo paper speaks of the integration of the Catalyst platform into media agencies, not creative agencies). In contrast, the skill most highly prized by creatives and creative strategists is the ability to create brilliant, lateral shifts in how we look at a brand or an issue, enabling us to communicate an idea in an original, relevant and memorable way. It is prized as a distinctively human skill – the product of creative thinking talent coupled with years of experience – and it is a skill that we are reluctant to believe can be matched by a computer.

There are critical differences too, in the process of strategy and idea generation: creative strategies and ideas tend to be approached in a 'top-down' way – the aim being to find a single, unifying insight that can inform the development of an idea, which is then expressed across multiple channels. In contrast, the aim in many digital media channels is to split populations into smaller and smaller segments, reflecting the nuances between them and creating increasingly tailored and personalised journeys, rather than championing the traits shared across segments.

So, is the fact that there are only a handful of big advertising ideas written by AI, evidence of our reluctance to let computers play at creativity? Or is it about AI’s inability to write effective advertising ideas?

The best of the case studies described here suggest that there is the potential for true alchemy when we let technology in. But we will never have a robust answer unless more of us are happy to put aside our cultural differences, to learn each other’s language, and to embrace the 'messy middle' where technology and creativity collide. As Diageo’s Syl Saller says, it’s time to get 'comfortable with the integration of measurement and magic'.

This is an abridged version of Kate Waters’ chapter from Advertising Works 25 – The Definitive Guide to Effective Advertising.

Purchase Advertising Works 25


Last updated 01 May 2024