The appliance of science must be proving our worth
A view from Claire Beale

The appliance of science must be proving our worth

Rarely can the House of Commons be relied upon to deliver sensible debate, but clear out the MPs and install a bunch of advertising people and you might just get a thoughtful, thought-provoking discussion.

At least, that’s what happened this week when Thinkbox sponsored a Debating Group exchange on art versus science in advertising. VCCP’s Charles Vallance proposed that science is squeezing the art out of advertising, arguing that growing numbers of people are in "danger of putting the precision cart in front of the persuasion horse".

His argument (at least, for the purposes of robust debate) wasn’t just that we are losing the art of art in advertising but that the wider media landscape is in danger. "Soon, we’ll have tailored media streams. We will move from one blockbuster creation to diverse versions for different audiences." And while that might satisfy the industry’s fashionable narrative of personalisation and programmatic creativity, if we are not careful the balance will tip. As Vallance pointed out: "It sounds innocuous, but look again and you begin to understand it’s the end of art. It’s the end of thinking differently. The end of building brands in public for everyone in plain view."

Marco Bertozzi from VivaKi countered the motion, arguing that combining data and creativity was "enabling the creativity we all want, not squeezing it out". Taken literally, it is hard to find much evidence to support Bertozzi’s view. Testing and delivering simple creative schemes based on individual consumer preferences is not the same as using data to shape brand-building creative ideas. So perhaps it was no surprise that Vallance carried the motion and art triumphed in the debate.

Yet setting art and science against each other doesn’t get the industry very far. I agree with Vallance that there is a world of difference between accuracy and effectiveness and that using data to segment and personalise creativity can lead not only to narrow thinking but can be downright dull. We have become obsessed with input rather than outcome with the result that – despite all the data and science the industry has developed and harnessed over the past decade – the standard of creative thinking has not got better. Arguably, it has got worse. 

But Bertozzi is right that proving the value and effectiveness of marketing communications has never been more necessary – and "science" has never been a more important tool in demonstrating the worth of the industry. Marketers are more accountable than ever and the ad industry must never lose sight of its reason to exist: to drive business growth. We are all in the business of generating sales and science is possibly our greatest ally in proving that’s what we (at our best) do.