Advertising Needs More Art

There’s an oft-repeated line that you’ll hear if you go to pretty much any advertising conference these days:

We’re moving from Mad Men to Math Men

In case it wasn’t obvious, what the person saying this is trying to suggest is that in the bad old days advertising campaigns were put together by flighty creative types, powered on unfiltered cigarettes and booze whereas now all the best marketing is done by data junkies, overdosing on numbers and algorithms.

If that’s the case, then mine’s a Martini.

To say that the internet has changed untold industries is almost as much of a cliché as comparing modern advertisers to Don Draper, but that doesn’t stop it being true. And one thing it has undoubtedly done is enable the creation of levels of data that would have been unimaginable in the days of Sterling Cooper. In marketing this has created an addiction to return on investment, or ROI, as marketers try to measure absolutely everything.

This addiction is entirely understandable; we live in uncertain times and the average tenure of a CMO is less than 4 years, though that’s an improvement of nearly 100% since 2006. And this is why so many conversations revolve around how to bring more and more data into the mix, whether 1st, 2nd or 3rd party, in order to precisely target and re-target audiences.

At a recent industry event here in Sydney, veteran ad-man John Hegarty hit out at this trend, telling marketers that this is killing creativity.

You all want it to be a science, to get the equation right and go home. But selling stuff has never been a science, it’s about persuasion and it’s an art. It will never be a science.

He’s kind of right, but he’s also wrong. Because science is art and relies on creative thinking.

‘Newton’ after William Blake by Tallat Hussain


Between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment there was a revolution in thinking, driven by men such as Newton, Copernicus, Bacon and Galileo. They set the scenes for the modern scientific world through their belief in rigorous experimentation to prove their theories, theories that were often regarded as outlandish if not downright sacrilegious at the time. In other words, they came up with new & exciting ideas and then set about testing the validity of them.

Or, in other other words, you have to be creative before you can be scientific.

This then, is why good marketers should be trying to maximise the art in order to find the science. Come up with outrageous ideas, on new platforms, and test them. If they don’t work, test something else innovative and creative; if it looks like it’s working, optimise and iterate, don’t rinse and repeat.

Scientific progress is driven by this. The type of advertising that is often described as being based on science (constant re-targeting of existing customers or building ever more niche lists) is actually a form of scientific and artistic stasis.

It may well work, but it won’t truly grow a business. It’s the marketing equivalent of a dog chasing its own tail, or a body breaking down its own fat to survive. And whilst survival is fine, growth and development, or even evolution, is better.

Data is amazing, and we would be fools to ignore it. But if we really want to learn from it, we should spend more time imitating the original scientists, who understood that true science is based in creativity.

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