As data becomes all-pervasive in our lives, if not yet all-conquering, echoes of our industry’s own ongoing tug of war between art and science can increasingly be found in the most surprising places.
Last month, for example, The Times reported that there were fewer long range goals scored in football’s Premier League last season than at any time since records began. The remorselessly downward pattern is the same across each of Europe’s top leagues.
At first glance, this phenomenon might seem to have nothing to offer the advertising strategist, but the statistics are no fluke. They reflect football’s new data literacy and the extent to which that data now has an impact on modern coaching. Put simply, shots from long range hit the net with less frequency than those from short, so the game’s coaches "now have a statistical basis to instruct players not to let fly from downtown".
The tyrannical metric of "expected goals" - the likelihood that a shot results in a goal – has put paid to unexpected ones. The spectacle rendered less spectacular, maybe, but a small price to pay for three points in the bag.
The read across to advertising is irresistible. More data: tick. The palpable pursuit of certainty: tick. Less appetite for audacity: tick also. The slow death of more visceral thrills: discuss.
The tyrannical metric of "expected goals" - the likelihood that a shot results in a goal – has put paid to unexpected ones
In quelling their charge’s schoolboy urge to shoot from long range, the coaches - of course - are behaving completely rationally. They have been gifted new, solid state effectiveness metrics and are instructing their teams accordingly. So what if the showmen are snubbed? So what if the fans enjoy less "Wtf?" and "I was there!" moments? The game is all about results… and it’s morphed before.
Perhaps modern advertising choices, then, should be made in the same vein: favouring the near certainty of the close-range tap-in whenever we can, increasingly eschewing the game-changing long shot. Three points in the bag and all that. There are "noisy neighbours" in our industry who would do just that, and only that.
But on deeper reflection the read-across from football to advertising begins to fall apart. Football’s decision-makers are setting their teams up for success over 90 minutes. At the highest level, few now argue with this philosophy of "win at all costs", wistful mentions of the glory game notwithstanding. A Premier League coach’s objectives for "full year 17/18" - enough points to finish as champions, to qualify for Europe or merely to dodge relegation - break down into 38 short term bursts.
Advertising’s decision-makers, on the other hand, may crave instant returns but more helpfully and truthfully marshal their resources to achieve profitable growth, something that typically accrues to a company over time rather than immediately. Half of all advertising effect, after all, occurs over a year after exposure, because consumers either aren’t yet in the market for what you’re selling or because advertising’s price effects haven’t yet flowed through.
In this context, advertising that creates memories - aka "builds brands" - remains vitally important, and not just the more "certain" stuff that wrings a sale from today’s customer base. (Memorable advertising, just like those memorable goals, might also serve to renew the consent of our audience, but that’s another column.)
Data may be driving the speculative long shots out of football. But data - the right sort, anyway - remains supportive of the equivalent surprise package in advertising. In short, we should keep letting fly from downtown.
Laurence Green is an executive partner at MullenLowe London