Strategies to Bridge the Gap Between Data and Creativity in Advertising

The advertising world is a hub for all things creative. It attracts novel thinking, brilliant feats of art and language, and unique approaches to building relationships with consumers. It’s no coincidence that advertising is the only field where “creative” is a standalone job title.

Today, though, creativity in the workplace is being challenged—and advertising is no exception. We’re living in the golden age of data, and we have tools at our fingertips that can measure, compare, and report on metrics that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Today’s marketers are expected to be fluent in the language of analytics, and choices backed by data take precedence over the gut instincts and hunches that used to inform entire marketing strategies.

This shift presents an interesting challenge for the ad world. How does the industry that glorifies creativity above all else move forward in a data-driven world?

To answer that question, let’s first look back at the history of advertising. 

Advertising’s creative background

Advertising historically focused on creative thinking because we didn’t have the same access to data that we do today. For decades, we couldn’t measure the results of an ad campaign much further than looking for a bump in revenue after the fact and making crude assumptions about causality.

Under those limitations, it was easier to lean on your own intuition about what would be exciting to consumers. There were no stats or A/B test results readily available to dispel your hypothesis; your guess was just as good as anyone else’s. Notably, the clients that ad agencies served didn’t have that data, either. They might have learned a few lessons about what worked and what didn’t from past campaigns, but nothing as granular as the results we have today.

Expansion of data options today

Advertisers in 2021 face a different landscape. “Marketing has become a science, and data is a critical component in successful marketing strategies,” said Chris Peer, President and CEO of SyncShow. “Years ago, creative works were largely subjective in measuring success. Not anymore. Every marketing element can be tested and measured today.”

When your out-of-home billboard campaign launches, you can track who was likely to have seen the ad based on geo-tracking assessments of which consumers were at the right angle for optimal viewing. When you try something new on social media, you get immediate feedback in the form of engagement numbers, sentiment analysis, and results from social listening across platforms. When you make changes to your website, eye tracking analysis can tell you where consumers are looking on the page and what’s holding their attention.

With so many facts and figures at our disposal, it makes sense that the advertising industry wants to put that information to use. But what does that mean for creative thinking?

Pros and cons for advertisers and their clients

Nothing is a mystery anymore, which is both a blessing and a curse. While we can use market research findings and data from past campaigns to make assumptions about what will and won’t resonate with consumers, we’ve also created an opportunity to shoot down creative ideas that may have soared in the past.

On the data-forward side, many argue that despite the drawbacks, embracing data is improving the value of advertising for brands. “Analyzing the data is what ultimately will direct the creative to deliver concrete results, not subjective opinions,” said Adena Merabi, Head of Strategic Partnerships at digital marketing agency MuteSix. 

Merabi’s team is constantly leveraging agency-wide data to extract trends and decipher what content is performing best, whether it’s video, GIFs, carousels, or other formats. They also A/B test creative on an ongoing basis to validate which executions achieves the strongest KPIs, thereby delivering improved results for their clients. 

“On our Facebook creative ads, for example, we’re measuring the thumb-stop rate, which is one metric that is entirely influenced by the creative,” said Merabi. “Client success all starts with that thumb stop—nothing else within a video, ad copy, or landing page will matter if we can’t get users to stop and watch, even for just a second.”

Clients are learning to expect the infusion of data on their side of the equation, too. “Today, CEOs and organization leaders are expecting a measurement of a financial return from their marketing investment,” said Peer. “This is leading to an ever-increasing need for data to support ROI and performance calculations.”

Skeptics, on the other hand, say we’re ruining the industry’s ability to value true creativity. Out-of-the-box ideas that would have been championed in the past are often abandoned if data doesn’t exist to support them. And while this may be elevating the results of many campaigns, some can’t help but wonder if we’re moving in a direction where all content will ultimately look the same.

Strategies to balance data alongside creativity

Despite this tension, data isn’t going anywhere. The industry is continuously working to find balance between data-driven insights and innovative thinking. “In this algorithm-run world we live in, the difficulty is no longer collecting data, but figuring out how to best interpret data to inform your creative decision making,” said Olivia Kelleher, a Creative Director on the MuteSix team.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can employ to make the balance feel more natural. Kelleher’s approach is to distance herself from any attachment to a particular idea. “When looking at how to apply data to shape your creative process, you have to somewhat unmarry yourself from the aesthetic,” said Kelleher. “As a creative myself, that part can hurt sometimes. But it’s so important when it comes to data-driven creative. If your least favorite shot performs better than your favorite shot, unfortunately, you’ve been out-dataed.” By trusting the end result in this way, creatives can still propose unconventional ideas while prioritizing tangible results for the client.

Sara Koller, Director of Partnerships at content marketing agency Influence & Co., presents another strategy: improving education about how to use data in different job functions. “There is a greater need for education on how to use data to fuel creative,” said Koller. And she’s right—for all the talk about incorporating data into the creative process, very few teams actually understand what that means on a practical level.

“Anytime you’re working cross-department or in separate teams, the question is, ‘How do you maximize this to ensure the output is done well?’ There may be sacrifices,” said Koller, “but the more that you are communicating and explaining the why behind what you’re saying, the more you can break down the walls between the departments.”

Finally, make sure to apply what you learn from one campaign to the next. As a Creative Director, Kelleher views these takeaways as a way to redefine her team’s parameters for the next time around. “Once you’ve done an in-depth testing matrix for one brand, those learnings offer a great benchmark to make informed creative decisions moving forward,” said Kelleher. “I like to think of these learnings as a large fence to play within, where you still get to be creative but have clear boundaries to guide that creative thinking.”

Data versus creative in the future of advertising

Only time will tell where the industry moves over the coming years. “There is always some sort of push and pull in working with data and fueling creativity,” said Koller. It’s up to the advertisers of today—and tomorrow—to balance data alongside the creative to deliver the show-stopping work that advertising is known for.

Alexa Nizam

Alexa Nizam