There will be a few readers who remember ‘acetates’. Even now, the word sends a shiver down my spine. It takes me back to airless, polystyrene-ceiling rooms where vertiginous towers of these transparent slides waited to be dealt, like giant cards in a catatonic game of blackjack, by the callow-faced croupiers of Nielsen or Millward Brown. Words struggle to evoke the enervating torpor that would descend as the 74th slide devoted to the moving annual total of the sterling-weighted distribution of a now-defunct brand in a now-defunct TV region was raked over by an over-keen brand manager egged on by a sycophantic account executive. Enough, already.
The reason I mention those dreaded acetates has something to do with the debate that is rumbling on around the subject of art versus science in advertising. Judging by the noise levels, it would appear that the ‘maths men’ very much have the upper hand over the ‘mad men’. The narrative of modern communication seems increasingly data-driven and implies that the primitive age of imprecision is behind us. As everything becomes more precise and programmatic, the same narrative slowly relegates the value of big, indiscriminate ideas whilst conversely promoting the value of more discrete, scaleable concepts that can be auto-served to an individual prospect on the basis of virtually any variable you choose.
So the logic goes. But the question you have to ask yourself is whether you buy either of the premises on which the maths men base their logic. The first premise implies that things used to be pretty imprecise and haphazard until the big data bus rolled into town. The trouble with this argument is that I’m far from convinced that we do live in a golden age of precision. I agree that there is a lot of data swilling around, but whether this adds up to a new paradigm of accuracy is a moot point. In some ways, I would say that the marketing community had a better grasp of data when I started out in the business – perhaps because there was less of it. That is why I mentioned those venerable acetates. The hours devoted to the ritual viewing of soporific slides led to a bedrock of brand knowledge: market universe, core customer segments, core demographics, key competitive set, share of voice and brand shares. Sometimes it feels as if we have gained data at the expense of discipline.
This brings me onto the second premise of the maths men: the more data you have, the more effective you become. This, again, is debatable. Sometimes it is true, other times it may be true but not usefully so, and sometimes it is illusory. Let us take each scenario in turn. At VCCP Media, we plan much of our programmatic media based on customer type and, particularly, on the fairly rudimentary distinction between customer and non-customer. On this basis, we will often film separate videos around the same message for these two quite distinct targets. This definitely enhances effectiveness. With scenario two we sometimes find that although distinctions can be made, they are not as discriminating and do not merit any premium.
The third scenario is when over-fragmentation of a budget actually diminishes the value of the investment. This may be to do with the ‘media minestrone’ (see ‘Forget media fragmentation, mass consumption is as relevant as ever’) that can result from overwrought media plans. It may be because the value of hyper-sliced communication is sometimes less than accountable – how many robots have been included in the viewing figures, how much of the inventory has appeared below the fold, how many times has a One Direction message been retargeted at me because my daughter borrowed my laptop? Or it may be a combination of all of these things.
Whatever the case, I predict that 2016 will see a rebalancing of the argument away from micro back towards macro. The big idea is still the greatest bargain to be found in marketing, and big ideas need a big audience. Perhaps that’s why UK TV ad revenues have breached £5bn for the first time, and why US TV ad revenues are in healthy growth for the last quarter. Don’t write off the mad men just yet.
Charles Vallance is the chairman and founder of VCCP. Follow him on Twitter @TheBrandedGent.