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4A's Conference: Data Won't Trump Creativity

Advertising is about romance, not science

Miles Nadal, CEO of MDC Partners | Photo by Joe Corrigan/Getty Images

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Yes, consumer data and analytics are powerful tools, but they're no substitute for inspiring others through creativity. 

That was a primary theme that emerged today at the 4A's annual Transformation Conference. Speaker after speaker gave data its due, acknowledging the wealth of insights that come from it. But, of course, such information in and of itself won't produce a memorable ad.

"The science of analytics can enhance the effectiveness" of ads, said MDC Partners CEO Miles Nadal. "But nothing will replace great creativity."

Outgoing 4A's chairman Chuck Porter illustrated that point by showing a slide of a classic print ad that DDB created for Volkswagen after U.S. astronauts first landed on the moon. The ad featured an image of Apollo 11 with the headline, "It's ugly but it gets you there."

The next slide was an old quote from DDB creative leader Bill Bernbach that remains relevant today: "I warn you against believing that advertising is a science."

Yet, the industry is enthralled by the notion that data can prove that its ads actually work. That would certainly go a long way toward silencing cynics who still characterize advertising as "alchemy." The problem, however, is that data can easily be misinterpreted, particularly if you're not a scientist.

"Data can really be magical and useful, but it's hard. It's a hard kind of magic. That's why science is hard," said Jaron Lanier, a partner architect in Microsoft's research division. "There are often illusions. It takes a lot of time to know that something is good. So, data is wonderful, but you can't treat it as a magic bullet or a guarantee."

Lanier and WPP Group CEO Martin Sorrell shared the stage for an open-ended discussion about technology, social media and, yes, data. Ironically, Sorrell seemed more bullish than his Microsoft counterpart about the impact of technology.

Asked by moderator Rob Norman of GroupM if Internet technology has ruined as much social, commercial and creative value as it has created in the last 20 years, the dreadlocked Lanier replied: "We've probably destroyed more than we've created." In contrast, the suited Sorrell said, "I think that's palpable nonsense."

Sorrell broadly noted the political, social and economic benefits that have arisen from technology and specifically credited Google with improving the consumer experience online. That said, he tempered his enthusiasm with concerns about individual privacy and the superficiality of much social media chatter. 

Interestingly, however, it was the techie, Lanier, who urged ad leaders to stop worshipping data and stay focused on the business of "creating romance." That seemed to resonate among the estimated 1,200 who gathered in Beverly Hills, Calif., for the three-day conference.