Commentary

We Be Human

At a few of the recent conferences I’ve attended, I’ve heard several speakers talk about augmented reality and artificial intelligence, and how significantly data is shifting the dynamics in the marketplace and putting the power in the hands of those who have the ability to compute and leverage the vast existing amount of data to the benefit of their clients.  

Being in strategy, I’ll never turn away data. But to me, the power of advertising (whatever its form) has always been its ability to inspire. It’s about color and texture, if you will. Whether the experience or communication makes you laugh, cry, or just nod your head and smile, it’s about connecting with people as human beings. Emotional, highly irrational, endlessly fascinating people. 

And therein lies the problem with relying solely, or even overly, on data. While it can be predictive to a point, it does not recognize humanity. Sure, I can be targeted with ads displaying jeans in the fit I like to wear, get an immediate restaurant recommendation based on my usual culinary preferences, or be shown books based on other books I’ve checked out online, but relying just on predictive data assumes that I will never change nor that I am open to change.

And as evidenced by old photos (which, thankfully, are not actually anywhere in evidence), my style has certainly changed (e.g., I no longer rock a bowl cut, clown-like perm, or fluorescent pink hair — all of which were questionable looks when I wore them, never mind how they might be received now that I’m an adult). I also love when my mom or a friend shares a book with me that I may not have otherwise read, given my tendency to stick to fiction from a handful of familiar authors. (A House in the Sky, by the way, is an absolutely riveting true story that I have now been recommending for well over ayear.)  

The point is that we, as humans, fallible and real, are thankfully always evolving. So while data can help drive efficiency and offer insight into current behavior, data alone stops short of being able to inspire, rouse, and, most importantly, change behavior.  

It’s still going to be a balance and combination of things. Yes, of course, data, but also good old-fashioned gut instinct and intuition. Brand communications or experiences that are embedded in culture, where the brand plays a role that makes sense and adds value, are always welcome. I think back to how cool it was when I saw an Adidas billboard within The Warriors video game years ago, because of how real it made the streets look as the characters tried to make their way through New York City to Coney Island.

And I still cry every time I see the P&G ad celebrating the role moms play (and how much work it takes) in raising an Olympic athlete (which despite not being on the air for years, I still view on YouTube). This made an impact because people could relate. It was a compelling, emotional anthem that celebrated and affirmed its brand purpose, much like Cossette’s recent VS campaign for SickKids Hospital.  

This is also true in shopper marketing. In-store demos, shelf blades, experiences, and displays aren't as impactful if they simply regurgitate what you see in an OOH billboard, the same way a TV spot doesn't always translate online (or vice versa) or a print ad can't just be shoved into a thumbnail or logo on pack. Effective retail programs take into account what it's like to be an actual human being who contemplates personal needs, goes to the store, navigates the aides, and fills a cart.

At the end of the day, no matter how much media changes and technology advances, certain things don’t change. People are still people. They don’t dislike ads; they dislike bad ads. People want content and experiences to offer them something in return for their time and attention — entertainment, education, inspiration. People want to see themselves reflected in media and pop culture (note the massive success of such TV shows as Big Little Lies, Master of None, and Atlanta). They appreciate being recognized and addressed as multidimensional human beings. Data can fuel and support ideas, but in isolation, it’s flat.

Creativity is why we’re all here — the opportunity to take an insight and create something with the power to move another human being in some way, shape, or form. So while the players may continually change (be it with the explosion of digital, the growth of experiential and shopper marketing, or the emergence and evolution of data and AI), the game at its fundamental core remains very much the same. 

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