Back in the 1920s - many decades before performance marketing had a name, and long before we were wallowing in all this data - BBDO copywriting legend John Caples, a naval engineer turned creative, developed a method that works just as well today: try something, see if it works; when it does, adapt it, use it again. Let results guide your creative approach.
Those who believe that today’s incredible, data-fed technology is gradually doing creative humans out of a job need to pick up a copy of Caples’ 1961 book Tested Advertising Methods. Creativity will always be vital to advertising. But as Caples knew, creativity has to stay connected to results and insights, and today’s data gives us more of those than he could ever have imagined.
Nearly 100 years after John Caples embarked on his career, technology gives marketers a very justified expectation of real results each time they launch a campaign. But the best work we see, time and again, is not just a triumph of data but the work of creativity and data combined.
From a Grand Prix-winning BA digital billboard in central London pointing out the destination of planes flying overhead, to the real-time transfer-window ads Netflix and The Guardian created for Narcos 2, the greatest ideas finds human insight and technology working hand in hand.
Tech releases human ambition, and the better creatives thrive on this. They love the insights that data and tech bring and the measurability of the results. Like Caples, they love adapting, changing, refining. Technology makes us better if we use it right. Creatives who detach themselves from the business, from the revelations that technology feeds back, are working in a vacuum.
Search marketing, in its humble way, has been preparing us for this situation for a long time. Those who practice it know that technology always works better in creative hands. In search, we used the tech, mastered it, hacked it, found new ways to apply it, crafted and tested and sniffed out results - a microcosm of human ambition in a world of machines.
The principles of search - which are essentially the principles of John Caples - are the same principles that are seeping into all areas of marketing as programmatic technology gets a hold. In the end, all marketing will be performance marketing.
Today’s sophisticated advertising technology might seem like an endgame, but in fact it has to be an opportunity to let our creativity off the leash. When everyone has access to the same technology - and each tech platform persuasively claims that you should spend your next marketing dollar with them - tech alone isn’t going to drive sustainable competitive advantage.
The secret about the psychology of modern consumers, meanwhile, is that people don’t change much at heart. As Drayton Bird spelled it out, there are still only nine basic human motivations: make money, save money, save time and effort, help their families, feel secure, impress others, gain pleasure, improve themselves, belong to a group.
Technology gets us closer to our audiences, helps us better understand or pre-empt their motivations at a given time and place, and then it allows human creativity to talk to them.
The great disadvantage of modern audiences, in contrast to those in the 1920s, is that they’ve seen advertising coming. If we were going to be grand about it, we might say we need to make advertising great again. But actually, what we really need is just to make advertising work again.
As Edward Bray, The Guardian’s head of programmatic trading told one of our breakfast seminars at the end of last year, humans are hardwired to ignore what isn’t creative. “Human brains like novelty and they don’t like repetition, and this thirst for novelty is a key driver of creativity,” he said. If advertising isn’t working, in other words, it’s because it isn’t often interesting enough.
We have all the tools to create all the interesting content the world could want. So as an industry, we need to use them. Perhaps we all need to set ourselves the goal of making people hate advertising just a little bit less every day - by being just a little bit more intelligent, by using our technology more creatively, and by feeding more of the possibilities of technology into our creative processes.