The non-existent line between art, science, and modern advertising

Asking people to part with their money has always meant the best advertising needs to balance artistry with scientific persuasion. Creativity captures the attention but data science can maximise the impact of a campaign, making art and science in advertising more inseparable than ever... Brian O'Kelley, CEO of AppNexus, writes.

Mass-media campaigns changed the daily habits of Americans by appealing to the fact that American audiences revered scientific validity
Mass-media campaigns changed the daily habits of Americans by appealing to the fact that American audiences revered scientific validity

As Marshall McLuhan once put it: "Advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century." And in a candid 1987 interview with Rolling Stone, the great American film director Stanley Kubrick said: "Leave content out of it, and some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials."

The Madmen-era executives of New York advertising would certainly have backed up that sort of talk. No less than William Bernbach – one of the legendary co-founders of DDB – is said to have proclaimed: "Advertising is fundamentally persuasion and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art."

While all this remains true, there’s more to advertising than meets the art. Advertising is as much a science – and has long been understood to be one. Edward Bernays, the nephew of Sigmund Freud and one of the founding fathers of modern-day PR, famously defined PR as the "engineering of consent".

The new age of marketing is here. Come to the Programmable Marketing Forum on Wednesday 8th June and you're already ahead of the curve.

By understanding the psychological mindset of audience segments – in particular how they adhered to the opinions of third-party experts like doctors and dentists – Bernays argued that advertisers could find scientifically quantifiable ways to convince people to adopt certain products or positions.

Over a long (and controversial) career, Bernays designed mass-media campaigns that changed the daily habits of Americans: everything from eating bacon as part of a hearty breakfast to adopting fluoride to prevent tooth decay – all of it by appealing to the fact that American audiences revered scientific validity.

But nobody – neither Bernays nor Bernbach – could have anticipated the digital multiverse of today. No one could have foreseen advances like programmable marketing, cross-device advertising, and the application of big data analytics to provide predictive shopping experiences to individual consumers.

To put it another way, no one standing in the midst of a 1950s Sears Roebucks could have predicted an

Today, the art and science in advertising are nearly inseparable. While creativity is needed more than ever to capture an audience’s attention in today’s distractive world, advertisers need to use the power of data science to maximise the impact of their campaigns.

Art, science – and individuality
By using millions of real-time data points gleaned across different channels, marketers can now develop algorithms able to engage individual consumers on a real-time level as they swiftly move between locales, devices, weather patterns, as well as wants and needs. Suppose you’re in the financial vertical, and an online user in Glasgow is at this moment browsing travel blogs to get the best possible travel deal to Prague.

They stumble across a blog that describes how your credit card has partnered with a major airline. They’re intrigued. They click on the CTA to learn more and watch a 30-second sizzle reel produced by your in-house video content team.

Based on the trail of data points the user’s just made – and based on previous data points you’ve collected – you’re now in a position to serve your Glaswegian with a customised banner featuring an image of Prague based on whatever appeals to them on a highly individual level (are they the type of person who wants to hit the Prague nightclubs, visit Kafka’s birthplace or maybe both?)

Any way you slice it, you’ve advertised to them artistically, scientifically and – here’s what’s most important – individually. You’ve increased the likelihood an individual consumer will swipe your card to sign aboard the next plane to Prague.

The closed cage
Unfortunately, most algorithms are neither proprietary nor portable – meaning, marketers are usually locked into using black-box algorithms. They can put their data in but they can’t pull their data out, and when they port their business to a new platform, they’re locked into yet another black box.

In the eyes of the black box, it doesn’t altogether matter if your brand is Fray Bentos or the British Army: it’s one and the same to the programmatic algorithm. But by finding an open programmable platform that lets you build your own algorithms, you suddenly have an exit out of the black box… and a powerful means to differentiate the way you engage customers.

For the time being, today’s programmatic technology isn’t able, by and large, to support these kinds of proprietary and portable algorithms. If any progress is to be made, programmatic platforms must do just that.

The final point is this: brands and agencies need technology platforms that allow them to interweave their personalised creativity with data-driven intelligence. It might take artistry to develop creative campaigns able to capture eyes and win over audiences. But it also requires customised algorithms to bring that creativity to automated scale.

Brian O'Kelley is CEO of AppNexus

The new age of marketing is here. Come to the Programmable Marketing Forum on Wednesday 8th June and you're already ahead of the curve.


Subscribe to Campaign from just £57 per quarter

Includes the weekly magazine and quarterly Campaign IQ, plus unrestricted online access.


Looking for a new job?

Get the latest creative jobs in advertising, media, marketing and digital delivered directly to your inbox each day.

Create an Alert Now

1 How Sainsbury's ads revolutionised the UK's food culture

Abbott Mead Vickers' press ads for Sainsbury's in the 1980s formed the most influential and culturally significant campaign the UK has ever produced, argues Paul Burke.

Just published