Six marketing transformation lessons from the frontline: Where data meets creativity

Being “data-driven,” in almost every industry, is a positive. Data-driven creativity is still rare and not many companies have yet to realize its potential. Anastasia Leng is the founder and CEO at Picasso Labs. She was a pioneer in this field and a former Googler. Anastasia shares her insights, advice, and predictions for the future from the frontline of marketing transformation.

It didn’t take me long to realize how crucial imagery and video were to nearly every customer purchase decision when I co-founded an online company in 2012. We were certain that visuals were essential, but what makes some companies more successful than others? We looked at our data and tried to figure out how visual cues affected customer behavior. What should we do to quantify visual preferences? Google search campaigns target different audiences with different keywords. We tried to achieve the same thing using images rather than words.

That project was transformed into Picasso Labs in 2015. In 2017, it went to market and attracted clients such as Unilever and Samsung. We found that creative was often the only area of a brand’s marketing funnel in which data wasn’t being used in a structured way. While marketers would know the best time to reach customers to maximize their impact, it was difficult to determine what information to share with them.

Data-driven creative strategies can deliver significant performance improvements in CTR, views, and conversions. Clearer briefs and targeted commissions help to optimize media spending. Although the end results are obvious, data-driven creativity has its own set of surprises. These are six of the discoveries that we have made along our journey.

#1 Every company has its creative myths

Although we knew that creative decision-making was subjective, we were still amazed at how unique it could be.

One example is when we started working with a major CPG company that is data-driven. We began by trying to determine how much data we had gathered from their visual creatives was in line with their expectations. We took one of their beauty products, and asked: How does the model’s hair color affect the effectiveness of the ads for this product.

They replied emphatically: Yes, it did make a difference. We asked them which hair color they preferred: blonde, brunette or redhead. Nearly 90% of people in the room, including 50 senior marketers, voted for redheads. When we asked them why, they replied that it was the most unusual colour of hair, which catches people’s attention more than any other.

Our data showed that the redhead hair color was the worst in all four markets, bar one. It was also the most effective for this brand. To understand why this was a common misconception, we looked deeper. We discovered that a senior creative director had insistent on including a redhead into every campaign. This was a consensus that had formed within the company. It had a negative effect on years of creative work.


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“Data helps creatives incorporate brand guidelines and philosophies so that they can see the space they have to experiment.”

Anastasia Leng is the founder and CEO of Picasso Labs.

#2 Challenging gut instincts is hard, but worth it

Lack of data on performance is a major problem for marketers and creatives. Without any metrics, discussions about what is effective quickly descend into a matter of opinion. Instead of having a thoughtful, informed discussion, creative approvals are a matter of opinion. This is frustrating for creatives and inefficient for marketers.

Consumers should audit creative, not marketers. They should use concrete, granular data based on how media is received in real life. This is a difficult change for many companies. It can be difficult to accept that your gut instincts can sometimes be wrong, even though they have been guiding major creative decisions for many years.

#3 Creatives require data to prove their case

Creatives are often the most inept people in the room when they come in to pitch their idea. Marketers are all around them, with endless amounts of information. From media people who work in spreadsheets every day to insight managers who have access to all kinds of data, there is no shortage of marketers with plenty of information. The creative can present ideas that took weeks to create, while the marketers can refer to their data and say “I don’t like it.” Since creatives are unable to respond to a discussion about data, their proposals can be punctured by a few sharp facts.

This is not true for everything else a marketer does. When someone proposes a strategy for optimizing keywords, for instance, they will support their ideas with data and be open to a discussion about how they interpret the facts. This process is more delicate for creatives.

Data-driven creatives can show why their decisions go beyond taste. They can provide evidence to support their claims and explain why they will get better customer response and performance. They can present their ideas in a fair way, using science to support their intuition.

#4 Data is used to align brand identity. Machine learning is the next

While it is obvious that brand identity can be established and maintained by aligning creative, large companies may need to customize creatives for hundreds of products across multiple markets. There have been campaigns that used over 200,000 different creatives around the world. How can a creative director maintain consistency in branding across multiple iterations? Data allows creatives to incorporate brand guidelines and philosophies, so they can see the potential for experimentation. The next step is machine learning, which will create a framework for creative directors to keep track of variations within their brand.


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#5 Interpretation is everything, so don’t be too literal.

Recently, we did some work for a multinational food- and beverage company. We applied data to creatives marketing beer. The performance of their ads increased when the beer was held by the audience, rather than the beer itself.

Are hands the key to greater sales? Do all images now need to include at least one person’s hand? After analyzing the data, the company concluded that hands were not enough. However, a human touch can make a big difference. The company challenged its creative directors with the challenge of thinking about how they could include that human touch in their creatives.

#6 Data-driven does not mean is data-driven

According to the marketing professional Andrew Defrancesco, data-driven approach to creative should not be about imposing a prescriptive approach. It should help creatives build upon what they have done in the past, defend their ideas and create work that delivers. Data-driven creativity is not a substitute for fresh-thinking. Creativity is about imagination, interpretation, and taking small bits of information and turning them into amazing ideas people respond to. Creative that is data-driven doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear. It simply means that it will get better.