Family - A Seattle Advertising Agency

How Advertising Agencies Find Breakthrough Ideas in Data


A young man desperately needed $47, so he asked his best friend. Of course his friend gave him the money. The two then went to visit the young man’s mother.

Upon hearing the story, she secretly slipped a single piece of paper into her son’s coat pocket: a check written for $47.

At church later that day, she proclaimed how good it felt to give to others. Inspired, the congregation took up a collection, which totaled exactly $47.

Every member of the church marched to the young man’s house. Though he protested, they could not be dissuaded and left the money with him. A stranger passing by asked why a crowd had gathered at his doorstep. After it was explained, the stranger said he wanted to help and handed the young man every last cent in his pocket… $47.

Now, do you understand the moral of the story? Because many get it wrong.

  • Some people say the moral is to never underestimate the generosity of family, friends and strangers.

  • Others say the universe only rewards those who “put it out there” – those who ask for what they need.

  • Some even say there’s something magical about the number 47.

Who’s right and who’s wrong?

Well, it all depends on how you interpret the story. The same is true for data. You could have mountains of the best data in the world, but it all depends on how you interpret it. That’s why it’s important to buy the best data you can afford. But it’s just as important to pay for great analysis.

Raw data tells a lot of different stories. Finding the right story is as important as having the right data.

Nothing New to See Here

Leveraging insights from data isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s long been an anxiety for creative teams. Does anyone remember the Mad Men television episode The Monolith? Here are a few (more recent) examples.

In a global study, only 2 percent of women considered themselves beautiful. Based on that statistic, Ogilvy & Mather launched Real Beauty for Dove in 2004. It went on to nab several prestigious awards and is widely considered one of the best campaigns in recent memory.

The feminine-hygiene brand Always had lost relevance with women 16 to 24 years old. Research done by Leo Burnett Chicago and Holler uncovered that over half of girls quit sports at puberty as a result of a crisis in confidence. That data point led them to spin an insult into a term of empowerment. In 2013, they created the long-running and award-winning campaign #LikeAGirl.

Recognized by AdAge as the 2016 Marketer of the Year, Netflix employs an entire team focused on big data. They conduct over 1,000 experiments a year and use the insights to serve show promos – based on a person’s viewing preferences. Hell, Netflix is investing billions into original content based on what we watch. The right data is clearly worth a king’s ransom.

According to a GlobalWebIndex report done for Dannon’s Activia product line, 80 percent of women between the ages of 25 and 55 agree that they are their own worst critic. That nugget sparked the 2017 campaign It Starts Inside.

Data Delivers

The right data can also influence when and where we deliver advertising. During the harsh winter of 2014, the national motel chain Red Roof Inns recognized that 2 to 3 percent of U.S. flights were being canceled every day. Identifying the right data made all the difference. Their understanding led them to aggregate flight cancellation data and serve mobile ads to stranded travelers whose planes were grounded. The result was a 375 percent increase in conversions and a 60 percent bookings lift.

And data also suggests how we should tailor our messages. Taken from an interview in an American Marketing Association newsletter, Andrew Swinand, Leo Burnett’s North American CEO, explains that data informs us how to approach a potential buyer at different stages of the customer journey.

I think a great example of this is the auto category, where 98% of people actually start by searching for makes and models, different features, attributes, four- or six-cylinder sedan, etc. Once they're in the consideration phase, they start going to more contextually or vertically relevant sites—branded sites—and then you can get into the idea of sequential content. If I understand that you're at the point where you're comparing different models, how can I actually get you content that helps you compare all of the models versus coming back and saying, “Have you ever heard of Brand X?”

When Data is the Creative

In the last few years, there have been marvelous examples of campaigns that weren’t created based on statistical insights, but predicated on the data itself. One example is Google’s annual Year in Search. Another is the VML campaign Matchmaker for the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. As well as walking away with nominations and awards for data innovation, the VML campaign rang up some pretty impressive statistics.

  • Zero to 31,000 followers in 24 hours

  • Tickets sold out in less than three minutes

  • 6.2 million Snap views over two weeks

  • Fans came from 43 states and five countries

  • Nearly 1 billion earned media impressions

The approach they used is a form of Dynamic Creative Optimization: Using a large number of creative elements that are selected and then optimized based on data feeds and algorithmic multivariate testing. Translation: In under a second, they see what you like on Facebook and send you a personalized video edited from a pool of video clips about Tennessee.

Getting the Story Right

According to a global report in 2017, almost 80 percent of respondents said customer data is crucial to their marketing and advertising efforts.

Today, I don’t believe anyone should launch a campaign without some sort of data supporting its existence. It’s not the alpha and omega. Keep in mind that all data is incomplete. Data is a starting point. But finding the right story in the data is the key to unlocking powerful consumer experiences. It allows creative teams to thoroughly explore more than a universe of possibilities. It points them in the direction of the right universe to be exploring.

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Mike Johnston is a production executive and advertising creative in Seattle. He is available for freelance consulting, writing and directing. Contact Mike

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