The Advertising Industry Doesn't Need More Data- It Needs More Creativity

Today conversion pixels will tell you exactly which Facebook ad sold exactly which pair of artisan shoes to exactly which 34-year-old female with an interest in artisan handbags.

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One of my favorite quotes, which I happily brandished as shield and weapon during my social and digital media marketing days is: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Coined by John Wanamaker, a successful American merchant, religious leader and political figure in the early 1920s, considered by some to be a pioneer in marketing, the phrase is laden with mystery- a sense of “if only I knew!” In dramatic fashion, I would then pull up the spreadsheets riddled with numbers and URLs, and proudly show off that we did know which half, and went about proudly reallocating those budgets to optimize for conversion.


Sexy, right? Not really, but what made the advent of social and digital media marketing so special is that it removed the mystery. We did away with the unknown. Phew. I even went so far as to wonder aloud and obnoxiously why anyone would even buy a billboard ad, with no CTR data attached, to promote their product or brand. Because at the end of the day, it didn’t answer the million-dollar (or more) question: what actually drove those sales?

Today conversion pixels will tell you exactly which Facebook ad sold exactly which pair of artisan shoes to exactly which 34-year-old female with an interest in artisan handbags. It was like magic, but also like looking behind the curtain in Oz, and finding some wires, switches, and lines of code- but sadly, no wizard.

Data. A four-letter word if I ever heard one.

Now that I’m back in the completely comfortable yet completely exciting world of Advertising with a capital A, I can’t help but think about just how much has changed.

Professionally, I’m torn. Watching reruns of Mad Men, I find myself longing nostalgically for an era I am inexplicably jealous I didn’t get to experience; a time when creative work was printed out on solid boards and stood to attention, loyally at the side of the creative director who would perform for the crowd, and managing to wow the account team too while he (almost always a he) was at it. The skeptical but hopeful client would revel in the private performance as he (almost always a he too) snacked on a feast of shrimp cocktail and pastrami sandwiches in a Madison Avenue boardroom. The account team would schmooze, while the creative director, a mythical force and bottomless well of ideas (as far as the client was concerned), would breeze in and out of the room, anointing it with an air of creativity and cool. Before the day was out, as cocktail hour came to a close, the creative would be sold and the campaign sent to print.

Romantic, right?

Maybe. But who knew if the billboard sold any cars? Or if the print ad really moved the needle in convincing men going through a midlife crisis to buy a Jaguar over a Mustang. There was no way of really knowing, and by not really knowing, ad men like Don Draper could continue to sell their performance, and sell the creative that may not have necessarily converted the consumer, but that may have instead inspired them to dream.

The absence of hard and fast conversion data made linking sales objectives to marketing ones nebulous. There was no CTR to review, no optimization of creative, and certainly no tracking pixels. And free from performance driven KPIs, ad agencies were free to do true brandbuilding work; the kind of work that helped build the most iconic brands of our time, from Coca-Cola and Nike, to McDonald’s and Volkswagen.

Today, we are faced with a deluge of due diligence when it comes to ideas. At every opportunity, ideas are shut down. Risky creative, previously the name of the game, is now seen as unmeasured. For the would-be game changers and trailblazers, creativity itself starts to feel like a very lonely, tough and uphill battle. When making decisions from a place of fear, rather than a place of boldness, data becomes a really easy shield to hold up. A defensive weapon in the face of risk. The “what ifs” by the devil’s advocates weigh too heavy, collapsing the idea away.

But it’s not the 50s or 60s anymore, and half a century later, as a woman with thoughts and ideas in my own right, I’m grateful for that. When I consider Peggy Olson, and watch her pitch creative work that draws on intelligent insights and ultimately points to undeniable human truths, I’m reminded that there is a happy medium. A balance between knowing your consumer and category, and trusting your gut and intuition. And taking a risk.

Related: Three ROI-Boosting Strategies For Working With Marketing Agencies