Worshipping Data Ignores the Impact of Human (Creative) Insights

Worshipping Data

It’s a curious time in advertising and marketing. Our clients seem so much less inclined to heed agency advice and counsel than they are to blindly follow the latest tech trend or “hot” digital tool, especially if the great god DATA is involved.

This subservient devotion to machines and information over human advice is symptomatic of our increasing reliance on technology. Machines are valued more than human insight… or perhaps it is more accurate to say, machines are trusted more. Apparently, clients turn a blind eye to the fact that people program computers, with all of the potential for embedded biases, overlooked information and simple human error. Those trusted machines are no better than the people writing the algorithms. And the time is fast approaching when the machines will be trusted to parse human emotional responses.

AI may become a tool for steering human behavior.

Sensum, a global AI firm, is developing EmotionAI—programming that helps machines assess human emotion by measuring biometrics or facial reactions; and allowing for external factors affecting emotions ranging from weather/temperature, to lighting, to engagement with other humans. Machines will soon be capable of collecting and analyzing emotional data and sharing insights; in the very near future, those machines will be able to adapt experiences and services to align with (or manipulate) human emotions. We know an ad agency that already uses facial recognition software to test emotional reactions to ad concepts.

The folks at Sensum agree that there is a huge potential for misuse of AI, from mishandling vast amounts of personal data to using AI for surveillance, profiling and creepier types of invasive data-crunching. But the potential for emotional AI is also huge; machines may soon be useful in diagnosing the early stages of clinical depression; defusing road rage while driving by discovering the driver’s mood and playing music to alter it; or preventing people with addictions from pursuing impulsive behaviors by identifying vulnerable states and alerting them to seek support.

Perhaps AI will be useful in areas we have yet to fully explore—like managing climate-changing behaviors and activities to turn around our slide into planetary disaster. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

…but back to marketers’ focus on Big Data.

We’re now at a point in marketing where Big Data has become our idol—it’s up on a pedestal, and we seem to be called to serve the data, rather than the data serving agencies and our clients. If the focus is solely on collecting data, it is all too easy to lose sight of strategic goals and brand objectives. That is where agencies must continue to steer clients to use data intelligently. We can use data to identify opportunities and even provide feedback on what’s working, but machines can’t develop insights from that data, or create ideas to apply those insights in ways that serve client needs, or answer customer needs.

There is also evidence that the more data we have, the more we believe we can predict the outcomes we want—having data, in fact, makes us over-confident, and often draws us to put greater faith in data points that are of limited value (per studies by psychology professor Paul Slovic at the University of Oregon). Instead of concentrating on amassing as much data as we can, we should be spending our time determining which data is most valuable  for reaching marketing goals, and focusing data collection efforts on those data points. Data, after all, is about what happened in the past, and we cannot assume past behaviors will reliably predict future behaviors.

Data is only useful if you understand where you want to be; data guides you from point A to point B, but is not the only thing that matters. Agencies need to know client goals to help set objectives. More critically, agencies must study the customer/end user, and develop insights to arrive at creative ideas that will move customers to take desired actions. Advertising driven solely by data isn’t likely to stir an emotional reaction of any kind, except perhaps annoyance at being served more ads.

Creative ideas still motivate and persuade.

Seema Miller, co-founder of new creative consultancy Wolfgang, reminds us that data is about the past and the present—it takes creative thinking to imagine the future.

AI can save time in otherwise labor-intensive functions. But it hasn’t yet arrived at a point where it can create ideas that human beings will have an emotional response to. Acknowledge its benefits but recognize its limitations.

Programmatic ad serving is great in some cases, but is not the only way marketing should be delivered. It must also be monitored and analyzed to make sure the automated process is not causing issues (as when automated ad serving places ads against content you don’t want associated with your brand). We’re also (finally) recognizing that the “last click” is just that—the last step in an increasingly convoluted customer purchase journey. Over-investment in digital marketing and data is being shown up as marketing to people already disposed to buy. 

There also are limitations in ad personalization, especially if that personalization gets it wrong. A new Gartner for Marketers report forecasts that 80% of marketers will likely abandon many of their personalization efforts by 2025, due to poor returns and the labor in managing all of that data—and of course, because of increased regulation over data collection and privacy concerns. Gartner also predicts that one-third of PR disasters will be due to breaches in data ethics.

AI Can’t Yet Make Human Connections

Finally, AI has yet to achieve anything resembling human empathy. Prognosticators believe empathetic AI will happen… someday. For today, agencies must strive to make human connections a priority in client marketing. Marketers hew to a belief, trained into them in business schools and economics courses, that people are rational; therefore, data must be the key to unlocking the mysteries of why people do or don’t buy a product.

It’s our job to remind clients that human nature is irrational, and emotional appeals are the triggers that induce people to remember, consider and be persuaded that they need the client’s product. Until we replace the human brain with circuitry, creative ideas will always out-motivate data.


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