Oi, where’s my Porsche gone?

Patrick Collister

Issue 46 | March 2018

Back in the day, it was the creative people who had the magic dust.

A great creative idea was an effective creative idea and there were plenty of case histories to prove it.

I drove a Porsche. Actually, I drove several.

And then everything changed.

First, recession encouraged clients to start negotiating the fees they paid their agencies.

Secondly, advertising got more complicated as new media began to proliferate.

Thirdly, new kinds of agency began to emerge in which the stars of the show were data gurus.

Edwina Dunn and Clive Humby were mathematicians. They were the brains behind the Tesco Club Card.

In 2001, they sold 53% of Dunnhumby to Tesco for £30 million. They sold the remaining 47% a few years later. In total, they made a reported £70 million.

That's more than Omnicom paid for adam&eve in 2012, and on a pound-for-pound basis more than WPP paid for their 49.9% stake in CHI.

When, in 2014, Tesco got into difficulties, they had Dunnhumby valued at £2 billion.

You can see where I'm going with this.

About the time that Dunn and Humby could have bought themselves his n' her Ferraris, I was driving a second-hand Ford Focus, which lasted me another 12 years.

Today, the people with the magic dust are the data analysts, those special talents who can interrogate numbers and find within them human truths.

3D creativity

I'll make no bones about it, I was an enemy of data.

For me it was a poncey new word for 'fact'.

As a creative person, that's what I'd been trained to look for. A simple, amazing fact that would allow you to differentiate your brand from all its competitors.

Nine out of ten cats...

Domestos kills 99.9% of all germs...

70% of dentists recommend Colgate...

Then I started work in direct marketing, which was just beginning to get serious thanks to digital.

Below the line had been regarded by many in adland as beneath contempt but in the early noughties direct agencies became serious, if not sexy, thanks to Digital.

Take British Gas. By the early noughties it was spending 70% of its budget on DM, only 30% on brand.

The secret sauce was data.

In fact, I even came up with the positioning for the agency that employed me.

3D creativity. Data. Digital. Direct.

The French owners didn't think 3D creativity was creative enough and boosted it to 4D creativity.

To this day I still have no idea what the fourth D was for.

Either way, the problem remained the same. The data we were drawing on was mostly meagre, often non-existent.

It certainly didn't provide the sort of customer insights that clients were desperate to find.

It was only when I started working for Google that I began to see how data really does unlock problems.

In ye olden times, I sat in plenty of focus groups.

Research was used to try to flush out what people really thought.

The trouble was, and still is, that what people say they do and what people actually do are not the same.

And when you look at search data, this becomes disturbingly (and sometimes hilariously) evident.

Explaining Trump

Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a former Googler, a writer, academic and author.

In a number of videos, articles and in his book, "Everybody Lies", he describes Google as "digital truth serum."

What he says is, if you ask people in a focus group, "Are you racist?", you can be pretty certain the answer will be an indignant no.

But when he examined the search data in America, he found that there were a great number of searches using words that are offensive and, in some cases, illegal to use.

By "a great number", Stephens-Davidowitz meant there were as many searches for racist topics as there were for Lakers, the baseball team, or The Economist or migraine.

He was startled to discover that despite America's history, there were more racist searches in upstate New York than in southern states like Louisiana.

In other words, when it comes to racism, there isn't a North/South divide but an East/West tension.

The next question was to ask, could mapping racism help him determine if it had cost Obama votes? And it turned out it could.

Comparing Obama to the previous Democrat candidate, the white John Kerry, it was evident that in those parts of the USA that make the most racist searches (Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and Western Michigan) Obama did worse than previous Democrat candidates.

What you can extrapolate from this is that around 10% of white Americans would not vote for a black candidate.

This begins to explain Trump.

When he was on the stump, Trump made a series of statements that were overtly as well as implicitly racist.

Calling Mexicans criminals and rapists.

Calling Senator Elizabeth Warren, who has some American Indian blood, Pocahontas.

Calling for a ban on Muslims entering the country.

And yet his offensive remarks didn't stall his campaign. The reverse. The bandwagon began to roll. And the rest, as they say, is history.

"The single highest variable... higher than age and education and economic conditions and trade and policy positions and gun ownership, basically nothing could explain support for Trump to the same degree as this racist search (data) did."

From data come insights

The truth, then, can be disturbing.

But understanding data can also be a force for good.

S. S-D talks about the San Bernardino atrocity. On December 2nd 2015, a married couple of Pakistani descent killed 14 people and injured 22 others when they walked in on a Christmas party and started shooting.

It led to an explosion of Islamophobia.

Immediately after the attack, the number one search using the word Muslim was "kill Muslims".

"I hate Muslims" or "Muslims must die" were right up there as well.

Two days after the shooting, Obama addressed the country. It was one of his great speeches. He said that the USA had to fight terrorism, yes, but it could not give in to fear. It could not give in to Islamophobia.

Breaking down the speech, minute by minute, every time Obama said something noble about the Muslim community, the "kill Muslim" searches rocketed up.

Except for one line.

He said that "Muslim Americans are our friends and neighbours, they are our athletes and our sports heroes."

Suddenly, the top search term about Muslims wasn't anything to do with Muslim terrorists. For over a week it was "Muslim athletes".

In social media, people were amazed.

"Wow! Shaquille O'Neal's a Muslim, did you know that?"

Now that's a real insight.

People simply didn't know how many famous Muslims there were.

S. S-D wrote a piece for the New York Times about his findings and two weeks later Obama made another speech.

"Basically, he stopped with all the sermon and quadrupled down on the curiosity. He talked about how Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Koran, how Muslim Americans had built the skyscrapers of Chicago, all images of Muslim Americans we didn't previously have."

This time, during the televised speech, searches for "kill Muslims" dropped rather than spiking.

The point S. S-D wants to make is that a real insight can give you a completely new angle on a problem. And open up opportunities.

Is it okay to eat yoghurt?

A handful of agencies are beginning to see what an amazing tool search data can be.

Well, it gave 72andSunny the wherewithal to radically change the direction of travel for the Unilever brand Axe/Lynx.

Axe's message used to be "spray and get laid".

But masculinity is about more than getting a shag.

The data revealed that huge numbers of guys felt they could not be themselves. They had to conform to some stereotype of manliness.

They were asking Google the sort of questions they could never ask a mate.

Is it okay for guys to wear pink?

Is it okay for guys to be a virgin?

Is it okay for guys to do yoga?

Is it okay for guys to have long hair?

Axe set out to redefine masculinity by providing answers to all these questions.

Guys like boxer Anthony Joshua, singer Josh Franceschi and producer/DJ Wiley were there in YouTube videos to say:

Yes, it's okay to cook.

Yes, it's okay to ride horses.

Yes, it's okay to wear skinny jeans.

There was a huge media response to this, which drove more guys to search for themselves. And find answers.

Bearing in mind that suicide kills more young men in Axe/Lynx's target audience than illness or misadventure, the brand is, according to one lad's website, promoting "a happier, more equal and less asshole-ish world. No bad thing."

I have no doubt that the strategy has re-energised sales.

A new creative construct

For me, a genuine insight almost always leads to an idea. And then, if you can innovate off the back of that, you have the perfect paradigm of brand communication in 2018.

Insight. Idea. Innovation.

And it all starts with data.

Here's an example.

At Google, a small group began looking at how women are increasingly turning to YouTube for help with their hair.

YouTube is, after all, the second largest search-engine in the world.

Fascinatingly, it turns out that in the weeks before Christmas, when the party season is getting under way, there is a massive spike in how to put curls in your hair.

But in January, when the new year beckons and it's time to get serious about your career, the bob gets a lot of attention.

The team also discovered there was a trending style, called ombré. This is two-tone hair. What I call double-dip, to my daughter's irritation. She has gone ombré a few times in the last couple of years, once with green balayage. Nice.

The insight was that fashionable young women were turning to YouTube for help in dyeing their hair.

The idea was to create a product to make it simpler.

And the innovation?

Well, double-dyeing your hair can be a messy and lengthy process, I'm told. If young women were taking their tablets or their smartphones or even their laptops into the bathroom to watch a How To video about it, there was the risk of fouling up the device. Dye-covered fingers hitting pause.

A couple of creative technologists in the Zoo came up with DyMe.

Gesture-activated video.

Wave a hand and the video paused. Wave it again, it unfroze.

Great user-first thinking.

And, at a time when brands communicate as much in what they do as in what they say, then DyMe would, in itself, have spoken volumes about the brand's relevance.

Had it ever happened.

Okay, so that data came from boffin-y types with a specific suite of tools they could use.

But it doesn't have to be that difficult to find.

When Andrew was asked to help an agency in Italy develop ideas for a condom brand, he went to Google Trends, which anyone can do.

His first, almost thoughtless, question was: do Italians search for sex?

And it turns out they do. But disproportionately so in August.

For a creative person, the insight immediately begins to spark ideas. Are Italians being un-Italian for eleven months of the year? How do we turn February and March into August?


I haven't even begun to talk about Programmatic yet. (Subject of another essay one-day.)

Talk to someone in a media agency and they will tell you that Programmatic is the automated bidding and buying of advertising space across the worldwide web in realtime.

In other words, the algorithms can work out in a nano-second where an ad, any ad, has its best chance of working.

Fiendishly clever.

Also pretty costly. So costly, in fact, that some clients are demanding greater transparency in order to see precisely what it is they are buying.

More than a few Porsches have been fuelled by Programmatic.

For a creative person, what it means is putting the right message in front of the right person at the right time.

It's about trying to be personally and contextually relevant to your target consumer.

If the algorithm knows we're having the coldest winter for a decade and if it also knows I am over sixty, don't have children and have been browsing travel sites, and it serves me an ad offering the Maldives for under a grand, well... there's a damn good chance I'm going to click on it.

The problem with Programmatic, though, is that if the message the robots put in front of you is dull, stale or witless, you're going to blank it just as you've learned to blank most advertising.

Creativity is still important.

The mathsmen still need the madmen, as someone once put it.

But today's creative tyros wouldn't want to drive a Porsche, even if they could. Porsches are so yesterday.

Today they ride bikes made of carbon and titanium.

Not me, though. I've got a Mini.

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