Call it the wrath of the math or as Fortune’s Suzanne Kapner puts it, “the revenge of the nerds.” In a lengthy yet intriguing new piece, the writer investigates how power and influence within agencies is slowly shifting from creatives to data-pushers, number crunchers or “quants” as they’re known.
One of the author’s main persons of interest is Dimitri Maex, a lean not-so-mean Belgian machine who runs Ogilvy’s analytical team. In the story’s opening anecdote, Kapner writes:
“…He had been invited to join a group of Ogilvy’s top executives at Cisco’s San Jose, Calif., headquarters. The meeting was a big deal for Maex. As a number cruncher, he had rarely been asked to participate in such a high-level pitch in the past. Almost as an afterthought, his presentation was scheduled last. And he had a tough act to follow.
The creative team, which is usually the highlight of such meetings, showed some initial ideas for the coming year’s campaign. But it wasn’t until Maex, who has a master’s degree in econometrics, started pulling out charts and graphs that Cisco’s chief marketing officer got excited. What had the CMO on the edge of his seat were a series of statistical algorithms that Maex said could predict when Cisco’s clients were going to increase or decrease their spending on Cisco products. Maex’s presentation helped Ogilvy cement its relationship with Cisco and suddenly his place in the food chain had changed dramatically.”
Along with Maex, whose success story is still somewhat unique, Kapner points out how firms like The Martin Agency helped client Goodyear succeed thanks not to its CD/AD/CW ilk but its in-house team of PhD analysts who specialized in statistical regression modeling.
Still, there are those agency execs who are either skeptical of or being cautious about the rise of the quants. In her piece, Kapner’s corralled a few industry notables including W+K Portland ECD Mark Fitzloff, who says data overdependence will lead to “a lot of really common themes.” Jon Bond meanwhile waxes metaphorical, saying, “If we were in India, it would be as if the untouchables had suddenly become the ruling class.”
Of course, before they can achieve “quantocracy”, the “nerds” also face technological and financial hurdles along with interference from the government, which is already putting the heat on analytical practices like behavioral targeting.
So is there a really a tug of war or are the eggheads still mostly sequestered to the basement with their computers, doodads and Professor Frink? Regardless, it’d be fun to get front row tix and see how this ultimate fight plays out.