Paint by Numbers: Data Goes Visual

NEW YORK Greg Green has a problem: Eyes tend to glaze over when he tells people what he does.

“I’ve been in analytics for 20 years,” said the Digitas svp of media operations. “It’s hard to not be a conversation killer at a cocktail party. When you say you do the math stuff, they don’t want to talk to you.”

But Green hopes the Web platform he spearheaded this year, the Global Marketing Navigator, will make him a bit more popular at the Publicis Groupe holiday party. The platform, which embeds a wide range of information—from the number of transactions an ad receives to search activity and brand metrics—aims to make analytics friendlier to agencies and clients by combining visuals with real-time reports on the performance of creative executions

“We’re making analytics approachable for people who don’t think through numbers,” Green said.

A client or agency, for example, can call up two different ads in an online campaign and see, among other things, comparative data for clickthroughs. And one of Navigator’s most interesting features, said Green, is it allows clients to click through to an ad’s online media placement so that data can literally be put into context.

At every step along the way, Green noted, his team has sought to avoid the feel of an Excel spreadsheet, the typical home for campaign data.

The tool, which launched in the summer, is in use at Publicis media and creative agencies, including Starcom MediaVest, Leo Burnett and Digitas. Clients so far include Samsung and General Motors. While Navigator is now mostly used for online campaigns, it can also be used for other media, e.g., TV spots and print executions.

The move is part of Publicis CEO Maurice Lévy’s vow to embed digital in all of the company’s agencies through the $1.3 billion acquisition of Digitas.

Because both clients and agencies will have access to what ads are performing well in near real time—as opposed to agencies packaging the data for clients—it requires some cultural barriers to be overcome, said Digitas CCO Mark Beeching. (For an agency with its roots in direct marketing like Digitas, this is old hat; but that is not the case at many creative shops.)

“It’s about [agencies] having the confidence not to be defensive,” he said. “We all need the confidence to make ourselves vulnerable to the marketplace and transparent to clients.”

For Digitas CEO David Kenny, this transparent approach is needed for agencies to concentrate on strategic insights for clients. At the same time, with a view into which specific pieces of creative are driving results, the temptation for clients is to lose sight of the forest for the trees, Kenny said.

“We have to train the client to not overreact,” he said. “Those are culture and process changes, but they’re important.”

Interpublic Group’s DraftFCB is going through a similar challenge. A year and a half ago, the shop started Smart Wall, an in-house wall of eight screens that aggregates client, agency and syndicated data. The information is used to help develop brand ideas and creative strategies as well as track, measure and refine ads once a campaign launches. Clients, who receive weekly summaries, are welcome to view the information in the office.

“It’s a cultural challenge of how to make it happen at an agency,” said Michael Fassnacht, chief customer intelligence officer at DraftFCB in Chicago. “The sales pitch is we have a system that helps us to decrease the uncertainty before we launch something in the market. So you can come up with much more out-of-the-box thinking and creative work and we can guesstimate much better [about] whether it will be successful or not.”

While digital tools like Navigator are new, said Leo Burnett worldwide CCO Mark Tutssel, they are essentially extensions of a key part of the creative process: soaking up information on how people behave.

“At the end of the day, any self-respecting creative must have an eternal appetite for knowledge and basically be that sponge,” he said. “Absorb life and the way that people operate in life, the way people live their life and then bring it to your work to solve the problem.”

But there’s a risk to such detailed, visually contextual data, said Greg Verdino, former director of emerging media platforms at Digitas and current chief strategy officer at new marketing agency Crayon. “You run the risk of being so cookie cutter and saying we know yellow backgrounds give us .2 percent lift, so you put yellow background on everything,” he said.

Green readily admits that the tool is “not for every client. Data is going to be more and more important,” he said. “We need to manage the complex in a way that feels simple.”

—With Andrew McMains