The Science of the Art of Advertising

Spray mount, X-Acto blades and rubber cement picker-uppers were just some of the tools of our trade when I was hired as an art director at The Richards Group.

I suspect there are two generations in this business who view those tools the same way I might think of a horse-drawn plow or hand-cranked engine — as tools of a dark, dusty period from long ago. I must come to terms with the fact that a new employee directly from school probably views me the way I did my grandparents — I’m from the advertising equivalent of the Depression Era. In their eyes, I’m Tom Joad, George or Lenny.

That change in technology is indicative of how far the advertising world has moved and also analogous to the pace of its transformation. One day you’re seated in a bright room looking over an editor’s shoulder as he hangs strips of film with clothespins. As little as a few weeks later, you’re ensconced in a leather sofa in a dark room, using Avid to edit film while shifting your attention among several monitors and reviewing dozens of thumbnail-depicted scenes.

When I moved between these technological worlds, it felt as though I’d left the dust bowl of the advertising world and entered the post-sledgehammer-impacted world Apple’s “1984” promised; bright lights and nothing but possibilities.

Since that time, our business has changed many times over.

X-Acto blades and hand-spaced type are long gone, and the Avid has been joined by other cool editing toys.

All of which serves as the somewhat ironic backdrop for this story: as I spoke to a class of creative advertising students a few months ago, one asked what has been the biggest change that’s occurred since I started in this business. My answer surprised them — analytics.

Even more than technological advances, the most significant change I’ve seen in our industry is that now we have the ability to measure the effectiveness of our communication.

CMOs don’t have the luxury of not knowing which half of their budget is wasted. Today’s Wanamakers have to deal with CEOs, boards of directors and ROIs.

Accountability is paramount. Clicks, time spent on a site, tracking the consumer’s path through the communication, all allow more insight and measurement of a campaign’s effectiveness than existed previously. Perhaps more importantly than measuring effectiveness is the opportunity to use this information to improve a campaign’s effectiveness in near-real time. Putting two different calls to action in the market and tracking which provides a more powerful incentive and then replacing the lesser one with the better is just one rudimentary example of how this can work.

William Hajjar, JWT’s director of analytics in Atlanta, told me about a campaign for an automaker where the rich media banner showed a dashboard and had 25 features available for clicking — all delving deeper into the car’s features and story behind each. In spite of creative protestations that 25 were too many, the ad went live. A few days later, Hajjar’s team showed that seven of the 25 features were being clicked. The other 18 were ignored. This lesson helped the agency prove its case that fewer features were more effective, and it made the improvements to the banner by subtraction.

The potential danger occurs when the agency or CMO looks to the metrics — not to inform the answer — but to be the answer. There are many instances where a client has made a decision solely on the black-and-white numbers. Sometimes that makes a lot of sense. Sometimes it doesn’t. The science of analytics when used poorly is like the old adage of how a drunk uses a lamp post — for support rather than illumination. Metrics can illuminate things we couldn’t dream of being able to see 25 years ago, but the science should complement the “art” in a decision, not supersede it.

Because, according to the saying, some things that can be measured don’t count. And some things that count cannot be measured. How do you measure goose bumps on a forearm or a lump in the throat or calculate the impact of the hair on back of your neck standing up?

A metaphor to illustrate that point: What is the best, most impactful, most memorable 400 meters ever run?

Track and field fans know Michael Johnson holds the world record in the 400 meters at 43.18 — a record he set in Seville, Spain, in 1999. The fact this record has stood for more than a decade — when most world records fall within a couple of years — is indicative of just how impressive an achievement it is. Johnson was the best in the world for a long time and here he was absolutely at the top of his form. It was amazing to watch him run.

By the measurement of the clock, Johnson’s race in Seville has to be the best. It’s an objective fact. The science is settled. It’s the fastest. But is it the best as in, is it the most memorable? Does it have the greatest impact?
Consider a 1992 400 meters race run by someone with whom most track and field fans weren’t familiar, Derek Redmond. Not only did he not break the world record, he didn’t even win the race.

Now, if both of these races were run today, which would get more hits tomorrow? Which would people post on their Facebook pages and tweet about? Which would generate more blog commentary?

Is advertising art or science?


Because the science can help the art as long as it doesn’t trip it down the backstretch.

Carl Warner is ecd at JWT in Atlanta. His blog on creativity is E-mail: