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Where Data and Creative Collide: What Will Drive the Modern Marketing Exec?

A conversation with:

Brian Gleason,
CEO of the Americas, Xaxis

Andrew Essex,
Co-founder and former Vice Chairman, Droga5

Hosted by Connexity
Connexity

Thank you both for joining us. Today we’ll be discussing the role of the modern marketing executive in a world where data and creative are merging in fascinating ways. This topic has been around for years, but today it's evolving into a very different conversation and I'd love to hear your perspectives.

Let’s start by imagining the CMO of the future. In 5 or 10 years, what does a successful CMO look like? What kind of background does a CMO need in order to be effective? Are they a different kind of person than we have seen historically? Are they quant jocks? Are they creatives? Can you imagine someone who will be able to do both extremely well?

Andrew

My personal feeling is that this argument perpetuates a reductive view of humanity. In some cases it may be an accurate view but it's overly reductive to say that there are two types of people: quals and quants, and that the two don't ever combine. I find that reductive, almost destructive, and it's time to stop encouraging that duality. Context is the factor that's going to force change. If we look at the economy of unprecedented media abundance in which we live, it's only going to get more complicated and more abundant, and that's going to create a Darwinian shaking out. In a world where there's too much stuff, only great stuff will matter. You will need to be expert at data but you also need to have qualitative expertise. That's the hybrid of the future, the person who can both walk both sides of the street.

Brian

I don't necessarily think that the CMO of the future is very different from the CMO of today versus the CMO ten years ago. We all talk about data, but the reality is, we've had data for a long time. Companies are starting to understand it as their competitive advantage, but the reality is most businesses don’t have the tools or resources to make sense of their data themselves. In the future I think we may see that correct itself a little bit.

I don't necessarily think that the CMO of the future is very different from the CMO of today versus the CMO ten years ago."

We talk a lot now about data-driven media, and we lose sight of focusing on the message, the reaction to it and whether it’s resonating. I see a lot of conversations in our industry like, "What will the measurement of the future be? Will it be GRP?” and less talk about “Does the content matter? Does the creative matter?” I think those things will start to come back into the picture.

Considering that there will be more data streams coming in than ever before, I do think analytics will play a critical role in the future CMO. Whether you are analyzing the creative, the message or the media, the ability to understand analytics will be much more important than it's ever been. I don't necessarily think it needs to be the same person, but I think it’s got to happen within the marketing team or the department. Marketers will need both skill sets; the ability to tell stories, and the ability to analyze as well.

Connexity

If you need both data and creative, how do marketing execs arrive at that role? What will their college major be? Would they come at all from an engineering or analyst background, or would they start in the conceptual and creative side and then layer on the ability to work with data? Is there a preferred starting point for marketers of the future?

Andrew

I think the preferred starting point is the hyphen. You are going to see multiple degrees in the humanities and the sciences, like Engineering and Poetry. If you can only do one, you are type-casting yourself and thus giving away 50% of the competitive advantage to somebody else. We need these hybrids. Darwin talked about evolution being driven by survival of the fittest and mutation of the species, and you will see these new kind of mutants, with both analytic and creative fire power.

Connexity

Brian, thoughts on that?

Brian

I don't disagree, although I think the challenge you will have is that it's difficult to be great at all things. I don't think that in most situations that the CMO is going to come from an engineering background. I just don't think that’s a likely major that will lead up to that role. If anything, I think it will work in the other direction. For example, one our best strategists, the individual who probably deals with data most often, came from an English background in school. He also happened to go to Harvard, but the point is that we see a different type of individual becoming successful. I think the pressure or the diversification of knowledge is only going become more critical. You are not going to be able to raise your hand and say, "Okay, I'm only a creative" or " I'm just a quant."

Connexity

Definitely. I wanted to ask a question that I think is particularly relevant to you, Andrew, but I’m curious to hear Brian’s perspective as well. Today more and more advertisements are traded programmatically in order to micro-personalize and hyper-target people. In the era of dynamic creative optimization, what is the future of the high-cost, creative and very resource-intensive projects like the ones created by Droga5? As advertising continues to micro-personalize, will there still be a place for these resource-intensive creative approaches, or will it be more about dynamically assembling pieces so that they perfectly fit and tailor to people's needs?

Andrew

I think it's both. I'm very bullish about the high-concept, big idea approach. We all know that advertising is going to be highly-addressable, measurable, and machine learning will amplify that addressability to untold degrees of precision. However let’s say you know exactly what I like, and where I am, but you serve me something I don't want. I still won’t care. The fact that we can target better just means we have more qualitative responsibility. Most of the stuff that comes to my address box is shit that I never asked for.

I like to think of it as a volcano. The programmatic advertising and hard-working tech-driven messaging are at the bottom of the volcano, but you need something to activate. You need big ideas. That's what we do. If that's 10% of the total spend of the industry, that's a very, very healthy chunk, but not everyone can do that. We need the creative muscle to create hits. That's the business that we're playing in.

I like to think of it as a volcano. The programmatic advertising and hard-working tech-driven messaging are at the bottom of the volcano, but you need something to activate. You need big ideas."
Connexity

What if you did a campaign without the big idea, one just based on algorithmic predictions and audience data? Is it not viable? What if it works?

Andrew

Look, if it works, more power to you. But again, I think you have to look at the consumer's perspective. What is coming into their inbox? Are we just talking about more targeted display? It's still display at the end of the day. The chances of them actually seeing an ad, let alone clicking on it, are increasingly less likely in a world with so much content. If it works, fantastic, but I believe people respond and engage with qualitatively superior work. That's the business that we want to be in. We have no allergy to scale of course, but we believe that greatness generates scale.

Connexity

Brian, what does Xaxis do with some of these big ideas? Do the big ideas find life as you develop campaigns for clients? Or do you focus more on the execution of a big idea?

Brian

If you think about branding and big ideas, then you need amplification, right? There's different ways to amplify that message, whether it be through social, display, or video. For us it goes back to our mission at Xaxis, which is making advertising welcome. We live and breathe that, and it pushes us to serve the right message, at the right time, to the right individual. In theory that sounds great, but in reality it’s incredibly difficult to achieve. Everybody talks about this kind of seamless, end-to-end experience, but in reality that happens so few times because most companies aren't in a position to have those one-to-one conversations with every prospect. When you look at their ad creative, in most cases it's the same creative throughout, it's not scaled to tell a story or have a continued conversation.

Connexity

Andrew, when you are developing your concepts, do you think through then the whole amplification of that concept? And how does that translate on to the web? Take us through the process behind the curtain there.

Andrew

That's a good question. I think increasingly it's an existential question, because we are starting to grapple with what business we are actually in. Sometimes we think we are in the “hit” business. If we think about music, for instance, you would recognize that there is no formula to a hit song. If everyone could do it, everyone would do it. What we are trying to do is to create content that people want. It should be adding value to their lives in some way. I can see that a constituency out there that will roll their eyes at that, but I believe it with every fiber of my being. I think it's actually a business imperative.

Once you have that good, unique idea that you believe has hit-like qualities, then you work on amplification. What's the right context for this? What's the relationship between paid and earned? How can you develop a larger audience manually and algorithmically? Who are the influencers that will turbo-charge this and push it further into the culture? The main thing to remember is that there is no paid approach that will generate scale for crap. It will just sink faster.

Connexity

Right, you need to have some heat at the center of the idea. Are there any examples from your recent work that brings that idea to life?

Andrew

Yeah, I think the Under Armor women's campaign. We knew that women's athletic clothing is a pretty cluttered category, and there's been a lot of clichés out there. But with the right expression of an idea, the right person, and the right story told in an original way, suddenly we had something that resisted modification and ended up being discussed on 60 Minutes.

Connexity

Now, Brian, you mentioned you have creatives on your staff. What do you they do? How do you guys tap into the creative element to amplify your message?

Brian

Much of the focus is on making creative ideas scalable.  That is, bringing the level of personalization we’re able to achieve from an ad delivery standpoint to the creative as well.  We have a strong focus on this through our Xaxis Ad Labswhere we also develop unique ad experiences for premium display, interactive mobile, digital video, digital radio and connected TV.

Connexity

Imagine you two were grabbing a beer together. What would you ask each other that would help you think through what's next for your business?

Brian

So Andrew, you were talking about the center of the volcano—and obviously you guys have done phenomenal work in creating those “big ideas.” How much of that can data help drive that, if at all? Or does the center of that heat still come from instinct and art more so than data?

Andrew

I would say data can help there a tremendous amount. Very often we use data to post-rationalize and to measure something after the fact, and not enough before. We like the idea of using data to reveal insights, to reveal demand for which we can provide supply. There's an appetite for a new way of expressing things. I think right now our job is finding the needle in the haystack, and there's a void to be filled by data. I'd like to see that happen.

Very often we use data to post-rationalize and to measure something after the fact, and not enough before."
Brian

I guess my follow-up on that is… I live in a world that's so driven by numbers and results, where everything is on a dashboard that says exactly how we are doing. Is that intensive on your side? Does that data move up-funnel and get to you as well? Is that reverberating back up?

Andrew

Not enough. I think it can reverberate a lot more. I think there could be more connection between the two disciplines than we seem to be getting. We need more feedback to create a more holistic experience.

Brian

Yeah... that's funny, you look at our industry and the split between media and creative and I think it happened for obvious reasons... but it seems like more so than ever in some cases it makes sense to bring them back, right?

Andrew

I have been an advocate of this re-bundling for at least the last two years. I think it's a completely broken system.

Connexity

Take us through that, Brian. What do you mean by that?

Brian

From my perspective, we see data changing the way we do business, but it’s still being fueled by creative ideas. So why are they disjointed? If creative and media could work as one to amplify, we could come from the center, move quickly and learn from it. If Andrew is creating ideas, and then we are constantly learning and monitoring what works, the fact that there's a wall between us—which there is—is a problem. How can we talk about the role of the CMO or what that person should look like yet, if the tools as the disposal of the CMO, whether they be for a creative execution, media execution or programmatic execution, are so disjointed? How would you expect one person to be able to deal with that when you have agencies that are completely disparate?

How can we talk about the role of the CMO or what that person should look like yet, if the tools as the disposal of the CMO, whether they be for a creative execution, media execution or programmatic execution, are so disjointed?"
Andrew

I agree.

Connexity

Yeah, that's all really interesting. Andrew, do you have any questions of Brian about the way he approaches things from that data-driven perspective?

Andrew

Just going back to my previous point just about trying to bring data to the beginning of the process rather than the traditional approach, at the end to look at the results. I'm not saying that we don't want results. That's a given. But we’d love to be more predictive, to look at a piece of content and be able to predict with some degree of accuracy, how it might proliferate through the culture.

Brian

I think we are starting to get into that. At least from my perspective, so much of programmatic media buy only happens once the campaign goes live. That's where we begin to learn, build and adapt. I don't think that there's enough happening prior to that. I also think there's not enough full-circle bringing it back. We talk about closed-loop, but most of the time we talk about closed-loop within the media world. So we’ll look at the results of a campaign, but we don’t go back to the core of the content we’re working with. When it hits my world, I can't control what the creative is. I can make sure it hits the right person at the right time, but if the work “sucks,” as you say, it’s not going to resonate no matter how many times I hit them. It's going to have the exact opposite effect. That's where we have a complete divide, and we should figure out a way to bring that back and actually close the loop.

I can make sure it hits the right person at the right time, but if the work “sucks,” as you say, it’s not going to resonate no matter how many times I hit them."
Connexity

Andrew, do you guys ever do test campaigns in a small scale, see responses, and then go back to the creative process?

Andrew

It would be nice if we could be that nimble. There's real-time optimization of display, but even beyond that I’d love if data could give some insight into the quality of an idea itself. It would be quite wonderful in a constructive way.

Brian

Yep, I agree.

Connexity

All right. That sounds like the holy grail. We need to go find that.

Brian

I would add one thing. There's data all around us, but there's more ways to use it than we ever could. Even between creative and actual implementation, there's no set way to activate an idea. We can very rarely take an idea and test it accurately in the market, because so much of it happens on the fly. That's the challenge, is everything has to happen in real-time, and must be reactive. Having the right idea and amplifying it the right way is much harder than people imagine, but it makes it that much more special when you do it right.

Andrew

Totally.

Connexity

We’ve seen a whole emergence of non-programmatic advertising, call it native, integrated experiences or whatever you want. Brian, how does that factor in to your amplification and scaling of messages at Xaxis?

Brian

Well, native is just one tactic we look at. We need to be able to share our message anywhere, whether it be display, mobile, broadcast, video, native or social. Amplification should spread across all media because that's the way that we live our lives: across devices, channels and places.

The way we consume media is more complicated than ever before. You have noise coming from so many different angles, I think the better we understand how individuals consume different forms of content and how they use specific devices, the better we can deliver messages to them. The holy grail, which I think is coming in the near-future, is a world where we select our own content on our own device, rather than accepting the pre-bundled media content we get today. That will completely flip things on its side, because people will each want different media experiences to fit their individual preferences.

Connexity

One final question. Brian when we last spoke you predicted a future where as much as 80 or 90% of media (whether it’s television, online, radio or even billboards) could be traded programmatically. Andrew, do you see a future like that as well, or do you think there's still going to be a significant space for more partnership-based, one-off advertising projects?

Andrew

Oh, gosh, that's a tough question. Again, I would just try to put myself in the head of a consumer, and the role of advertising in the future. I'll say something somewhat controversial, which is I don't think display is web-native. I really don't think it's mobile-native. We're continuing to use these paradigms for publishing, these agency models and all of them are getting smaller and more cluttered. What is the fundamental role of advertising? Will advertising exist as we know it? That's the question that I wonder. Then we can discuss if it can be purchased or delivered programmatically. Presumably technology will exist and therefore programmatic will live on. It'll be an efficient model, but what will be coming out of that pipe? That's a really interesting question.

Connexity

Agreed. Well, I can't thank you guys enough. This has been both fun and informative. Really interested to see whether the industry can bridge that gap.

Brian

Me too. Thank you.

Andrew

Thank you so much for the time.