In a world of facts, ideas are king
Compelling ads are more than a checklist of behavioral triggers. They must engage the audience’s imagination.
“Can you please come watch this commercial? We’ll take out the trash.”
This is how consumer research generally started when I was an account man at the nation’s most creative ad agency in the 1990s.
My team and I were back at the agency the evening before we needed to present rough cuts to the client, debating which version would be most effective. Having reached a stalemate, we called in the consumer: the office cleaning person who, in exchange for giving up cleaning duties for an hour, offered their opinion on our creative work.
I wish I could say that this only happened once, but I think the cleaning crew at 375 Hudson Street in NYC began putting “voice of the consumer” on their resumes by the time they left.
This method of fact-finding is woefully insufficient in today’s hyper-everything communications world. While it is easy to look back and laugh at our eleventh-hour approach, I could argue that this sort of direct exposure interview worked just fine when the advertising business was a simple one — when the path from media to consumer was direct.
All the science you needed in that world was a basic knowledge of storytelling and a sound intuition about consumers — and one could infer if an insight was relevant and a story well told simply by asking people.
The proof is in the pudding
In years past, advertisers could target discrete and largely homogenous audiences that consumed media in a centralized and well-defined way (think prime-time or a billboard on the evening commute). Media content, and the branded messaging that accompanied it, could be written for the audience, rather than an audience — one of many.
Now there are as many audiences as there are consumers and nearly that many channels of communication. Effective advertising campaigns must build layers of creative elements into multifaceted story worlds that form around micro-targets in almost infinite combinations, as brands struggle to reach consumers in their increasingly individuated media bubbles.
Understanding the various consumer needs states, and the combination of messages that will appeal to each, is a challenge well beyond the intuition of even the best advertising minds — it demands facts.
A fact is something concrete: a piece of information that corresponds to reality.
Who your audience is, what media they consume, and how, are all the domain of fact.
Facts don’t sell, ideas do
However essential facts may be to getting brands and consumers in the same room, there is a limit to their usefulness. In the words of literary critic Friedrich Schlegel, “notes to a poem are like anatomical lectures on a piece of roast beef.” Like poems, compelling ads are more than a checklist of behavioral triggers. They must engage the audience’s imagination.
As frustrating as it is for many marketers, logically listing why a product is superior to the competition doesn’t work. People don’t make decisions based on facts. They process information most effectively as the story and make decisions based on how persuaded they are that a brand or product will transport them from their existing state to an elevated one. They act on ideas.
While “fact” is derived from the Latin facere, or “do,” “idea” comes to us from the ancient Greek idein, “to see.”
Ideas are the result of applying an interpretive framework to a collection of facts. They guide the audience toward a conclusion. Presenting audiences with the idea of a brand, rather than a set of attributes, makes it easier for them to grasp its potential value to their lives.
From facts to ideas, building data into insights
1. Trust your gut — but verify. We are conscious of only a fraction of the billions of bits our mind processes every day; though our intuition often escapes explanation, it is the product of extensive mental effort. Our inability to express why we are inclined towards one path or another is no reason to dismiss the signals our unconscious mind surfaces.
Think of your intuition as a hypothesis in the making: after consciously giving it form, you can test against it, collecting the facts you need to triangulate the truth. This could be as simple as clearly outlining an argument by drawing on existing knowledge but may demand more thorough research. In either case, your gut feeling is only as effective as the data supporting it.
2. Recognize the limits of knowledge. Complete knowledge will always escape us, but a judicious application of research is essential to transforming creative impulses into compelling ads. It is easier than ever to churn out massive data sets and look to beautifully-formatted slides for answers; remember that facts are best used to inform — not form — solutions.
When you do test, remember that meaningful answers rely on well-defined questions. Facts will always point to an answer, but not necessarily the answer to the question you asked. The digital era gives us access to an ocean of quantitative data, and it is far too easy to lose sight of one’s objective — to forget the ideas you are trying to support.
3. Think dynamically. Facts provide a firm foundation and intuition can act as a creative guide, but to build ideas, we must engage in synthesis. We must simplify facts in a way that points to insights.
Synthesis is a dialectic process, and you should move back and forth from the realm of ideas to that of facts. It helps to start with the big picture before organizing facts into insights. Checking the story you want to tell against your evolving collection of facts, and your budding argument against the grand narrative, will keep your argument reliable and moving.
4. Tell a story. Just as effective creative expresses an idea about a product or brand, your research and analysis should likewise tell a story about its subject, whether that is your target audience or the effectiveness of a narrative technique. The synthetic process will yield the building blocks of your data-driven story, but making it convincing is an art.
Present the ideas you developed from the data in a way that guides the creative process. Effective stories — even those about datasets — move from beginning to end, acting as a conceptual map for their readers. The most important tool in your arsenal is the contrast between these points.
5. Start every day stupid. This is the mantra of a creative agency that I admire. Like all great stories, it expresses an idea clearly and impactfully — in this case, the need to be humble and toss out assumptions in an industry that is evolving ever more rapidly. As technology transforms media in exciting new ways, be open to new learning and ready to adapt.
Just the facts ma’am
The digital revolution affords us the luxury of bountiful real facts and in today’s individuated media marketplace we need them more than ever. Both facts and ideas are necessary to express brand value in a way that persuades consumers. Unsupported by facts, ideas are directionless and tend to fall flat. Without a creative spark, facts remain sterile and uninspiring.
And, that’s a fact.