Marketers Are Using Customer Data to Drive Smarter, More Creative Storytelling

An abundance of insights often leads to new ideas

Last winter, as the East Coast was being hammered by a series of blizzards, spirits vendor Pernod Ricard and its delivery service partner Minibar observed an intriguing data point.

The lower the thermometer drops, they noted, the more liquor home deliveries rise. So why not capitalize on all those snow-bound tipplers with a targeted ad campaign?

“We knew that bad weather drives booze purchases,” says Abbey Klaassen, president of New York-based 360i, Pernod’s media agency of record. “We thought, how can we take advantage of this to make sure our products are top of mind?”

Pernod used location, weather and customer data to identify consumers who were over the age of 21, likely to be trapped at home and probably craving a scotch right about now. When these people searched for terms like “heavy snow,” “freezing rain” or “winter cocktail,” an ad for Jameson, Absolut or one of Pernod’s other brands would appear on Google, Facebook and any other platform that could be programmatically targeted, Klaassen says.

Each ad was prepped ahead of time, featured a weather-inspired caption, like “Stay warm in the winter cold” or “Everyone drinks White Russians on snow days,” and was automatically delivered by 360i’s Contextual Actions Platform when the target criteria were met.

Pernod’s sales on Minibar saw a 126 percent lift, Klaassen says, a likely result of its “Winter Weather” campaign. It was an informational trifecta: Data inspired the campaign, drove the targeting and proved its effectiveness.

“The beauty of this approach is we can use the same data to generate insight around a piece of work and to target people on the backend,” she says. “When we’re doing our best work it’s because we’re pulling together multiple types of data, which gives you a much richer picture of the consumer.”

Insights and inspiration

Increasingly, agency creative is starting with data, in part because brands need constant reassurance they’re making the right decisions, says Brent Poer, president and executive creative director for Zenith in New York.

“Data is leading a lot of the creative process right now,” he says. “Budgets are tighter, there’s more competition than ever and people don’t have the luxury to make mistakes and fail forward.”

Poer adds that customer data often leads to insights that generate new ideas.

“People are looking for brands that reflect images of their lives,” he says. “The more you know about the consumer, the more likely you are to replicate a story that relates back to their lives and makes them say, ‘I want to be loyal to this brand because they get me.'”

One of the factors driving the creative data movement is the ubiquity of tools like Adobe Experience Manager and supporting technologies, which makes it relatively easy to customize content based on a consumer’s profile and past online behavior, says Daniel Murphy, svp and director of digital operations for Deutsch in New York.

Another is that brands are finally starting to figure out how to extract insights from all that data they’ve been collecting over the years, he adds.

“Many clients have been sitting on a lot of data,” he says. “This has been like oil under the ground. For some of them it’s still the old trope of ‘Eddie, our prototypical user.’ Now we know a lot more about Eddie than we did in the past. That helps to inform the creative; you move away from one generic Eddie to to a room full of very specific people.”

Besides using data to identify the right people to target, brands are using data to generate the right content for those people, says Alan Schulman, managing director of brand creative and content marketing at Deloitte Digital.

A year ago, Deloitte acquired Blab, a social intelligence platform that monitors social media and predicts where conversations are headed up to a week in advance. Deloitte uses Blab data to help create ads that are relevant to the conversation without interrupting it.

“That enables us to understand where the zeitgeist of consumer conversation is and then create content there,” Schulman says. “These days, creating content at the speed of culture in a noninterruptive manner is what it’s all about.”

Schulman says Deloitte is working with a well-known media company to grow its social community. His content team uses social and search data to generate instant 6- to 10-second video ads that drive viewers to the publisher’s sites.

“The data is telling us where the conversation is trending and then we create the custom content there,” he says. “We know there’s real intent behind the conversation. That tells us there’s relevance and that brands can create content there. The creative part comes in how you do that without it seeming to come completely out of left field. That’s the tricky part.”

‘How my foot taste?’

The other tricky part is building creative teams that can absorb a firehose of information and turn it into relevant, unobtrusive ads within minutes.

Achieving that may require radically changing how creative teams are organized and how they operate, says Aaron Lang, managing director of Heat, a San Francisco agency that was acquired by Deloitte in 2016.

In the new data-driven universe, agency creatives will start to look less like scruffy grad students tossing ideas around a conference table and more like scrums of software developers who are constantly cranking out code, testing it and revising it based on the results.

In the past, you might have 10 or 20 weeks to craft a new campaign and get it approved by every stakeholder, says Lang. In today’s real-time environment you may have 30 to 60 seconds to capture the moment before it evaporates.

“Data is really changing the creative process,” he says. “When you rely more heavily on analytics, you need to become more agile and iterative in your process. The traditional production process doesn’t work at that speed, so you need to find ways to apply creativity in real time.”

For example, Heat collaborated with Grow and Google Creative on an ad campaign for EA Sports’ Madden NFL game franchise using GIFs that mimic’d action on the field. Fans surfing sports and gaming sites during the game would see an ad that synced with what their team had just done, based on their location and browser data.

After Pittsburgh Steeler receiver Antonio Brown kicked Cleveland Browns punter Spencer Lanning in the mouth during a game a few years ago, a GIF ad featuring the EA version of Brown appeared 30 seconds later with the caption, “Tell me how my foot taste.” After introducing the campaign, Heat launched a GIFerator site where fans could create up to 100,000 different trash-talking animations.

While the ad copy was generated on the fly, it still took weeks of preparation, using the Madden game engine to generate a library containing thousands of GIFs that could be pulled up in time to match the action, says Lang.

The campaign took home a slew of Cannes Lions for the then newly created category of Creative Data, helped increased purchase intent by 40 percent and boosted sales of the game by 14 percent.

“If you have access to data analytics, and you know where people are and what they are doing, you can still get really creative and smart,” says Lang.

The data tsunami

One huge challenge brands face is making sense of the sheer volume of data that’s become available, says Peter Kang, managing director and brand creative lead for Accenture Interactive.

“The next chapters of digital transformation are directly tied to the amount of data being created and ingested,” Kang says. “It’s massively staggering to understand how to deal with that amount of data as a brand right now.”

Brands need the expertise to separate the useful data from the rest and put the right infrastructure in place to make use of it, he adds.

Others worry about ceding too much creative control to technology. There’s always risk involved when algorithms drive creative content production, notes Murphy, who came to Deutsch from Google.

“There’s a danger in playing with these tools and not understanding the bad outcomes that can happen,” he says. “We’ve all seen the examples of Google Autocomplete going awry. If your ads are pulling from a repository of approved articles, nothing bad is likely to happen. But when you start generating things from the web, it could be something too racy for a brand to engage with. When something is programmed on the fly, you don’t know what’s possible with the output unless you spend a long time putting guardrails and parameters in place.”

And it’s possible to rely too heavily on data, admits Poer. Data needs to be more of a starting point than an end in itself.

“As a creative, people say, ‘Oh, data is a hindrance,'” says Poer. “I think data is amazing. It gives you the hook to build an idea from. But there’s still a lot of art and science in our business. You need to look at data, but you also need to follow your gut. It is called creative, after all.”

This story first appeared in the June 11, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.