Has the science of digital killed the art of advertising?

May 25, 2016


It may seem strange coming from me, a champion of all things digital, but I fear that bravery, instinct, craftsmanship and creativity are dying traits in the world of digital-led advertising.


Never before has marketing been more measurable. Pretty damn quickly too. Views, insights, engagement rates, sentiment, click-through rates, ROI, etc. are available at the touch of a button. Campaigns can be A/B tested at minimal cost, changes made in real-time to improve results. Brilliant. A marketer’s dream. So what could go wrong?


It's been bothering me recently why we are so accepting of the seemingly poor results much online advertising has. The average Ad CTR is just 0.17%, less than 2 clicks for every 1000 people who see them. That’s UK data, it varies internationally (Malaysians, at 0.3% are five times more likely than Finns, at 0.05% to respond) but not wildly. Adding rich media improves it, but only to an average of around 0.3%. What about paid-for social media? Well, this is better, but even the best, which is Facebook advertising using Power Editor, still only averages 1.28%.  


It can be reasonably claimed that due to the relatively low media and ad production costs, these, in the right sector, can provide good ROI. I’ve much experience of this. But that isn’t really the point. As a ‘practitioner in advertising’ should you be happy with such results?


In the ‘bad old days’ of the 20th Century, we had nothing like the insights available. Media experts had to depend on highly dubious (and always out of date) TV viewing, National Readership Survey and RAJAR figures to make decisions. Data that would be laughed out of court today. Research into the effectiveness of the ads themselves would often comprise of half a dozen ‘focus groups’ – groups of about eight people of the so-called target audience, being shown a few ads printed out and stuck on cardboard. Multi-million pound campaigns were routinely finalised this way. Many campaigns would begin and end in the local pub by a bunch of creatives who had spent 5 minutes reading the client brief.


Once in production thousands of pounds would be spent on crafting the ads (we’d call it content now).  Highly-paid photographers would spend days shooting a single newspaper ad, supervised by equally highly paid art directors, stylists, set builders, lighting experts and the client. Then the creative director would not be satisfied and the whole thing would start again. A copywriter would spend days finding that perfect headline and just 50 words of killer copy. Then a typographer would go to work crafting and kerning every single character. That’s just a print ad.


Millions of pounds could be spent on producing a TV commercial. This ad for Chanel No 5 with Nicole Kidman, cost £18m.

As for the media cost, in 2003 a single ad slot in the final episode of Friends cost $2m!


A recipe for disaster surely? Well not really. In the 20th Century, brilliantly creative ad campaigns, despite the cost, waste and lack of research and data, spawned some of the most successful and profitable brands we have today. Click and feast your senses on a few of these;



By the way, whilst not the cheapest of perfumes, somewhere in the world a bottle of Chanel No 5 is bought every 30 seconds.


Talking of instinct, here’s an often-told story of one of the most successful and longest-lasting ad campaigns of all time. Imagine this happening today;


In the early 70s, lager had grown rapidly from the early 60s to reach around 10% of the total beer market. But it wasn’t mass market. Heineken briefed copywriter Terry Lovelock at the CDP Agency to create a TV campaign to sell Dutch lager to bitter-drinking Britons. His brief consisted of just one word – Refreshment.


Lovelock and his art director Vernon Howe stared at this word for eight weeks without the shred of a reasonable idea between them. While Lovelock was headed for Marrakesh (to shoot a commercial for Ford), head of the agency, Frank Lowe’s voice came over the intercom and told Lovelock to come back with a campaign or don’t come back at all.


While there Terry went to bed around midnight, notepad nearby. At 3am he woke, grabbed the notepad and wrote two lines. ‘Heineken refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’ and ‘Heineken is now refreshing all parts’. He came back with several scripts including the first to be filmed – policemen being refreshed after a hard day on their beat.


The ad was approved by Anthony Simonds-Gooding, then the Whitbread marketing director, and produced. Audience research after the first three TV spots was poor and he had the opportunity to pull the campaign. But he followed his instincts and pressed on. 
The campaign became a UK advertising classic. And not only in TV ads, in print ads as well, for nearly thirty years.


So how does that compare with advertising in the digital era? I feel that ‘innovation’ has become more important than ‘creativity’. That’s not all bad of course. And there have been loads of wonderfully creative viral videos – but I’m not sure that’s quite the same thing. Can you think of any brands that have been largely built on the creativity of their advertising? Apple maybe in the early days, but I’d suggest their main strength is brilliant PR now.


At one time ad breaks were enjoyed and talked about – anyone remember the Gold Blend series of ads – will they, won’t they? When was the last time anyone said “saw a great ad while I was waiting for my YouTube video to load”?


How much of our digital advertising content could be called creative? Or clever? The reason given is usually the formats we have to work in, I concede there is a huge difference in a Facebook ad and a 30 second TV commercial – but that’s exactly where our creativity should come in.  When our response rates and results are low we blame the channels themselves, not our exploitation of them.


This might not make me many friends in the digital community and I’m steeled for your comments, but my half-term report for digital advertising is Science B+, Art D-.


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