Co-authored by Evan Mitchell, Director, Love & Wine
BEFORE HE GOES ON to become the White House Press Secretary and Communications Director, The West Wing’s Will Bailey is running an upstart Congressional campaign in Orange County, for a Democrat candidate who’s DEAD but still on the ballot. Asked an awkward question concerning his campaign policy being on the losing side of popular opinion, he responds:
“Sixty percent is 6 of 10 in a focus group. We change one mind it’s a dead heat. We change two, it’s a landslide.”
On the face of it, them’s fightin’ words.
But dig a little deeper, and what’s most apparent is the superficiality and inherent impracticality of data-&-stat obsessed micro-analysis.
When the devil’s not in the detail, the devil is the detail – giving overly ambitious illusions of surety and deceptions of predictive efficacy.
That detail is one side of a current battle raging for the soul of Adland – Big Idea versus Big Data.
In the blue corner (signifying its intuitive, blue-sky thinking) stands Big Idea. An industry old-timer and decades-long undisputed advertising heavyweight champ, Big Idea has seen better days. No longer as flash as in heydays gone by, critics are saying “too old, too tired, too slow.”
In the red corner, the up-start challenger, Big Data, with slicker gear, fresher tats and sharper hair.
It’s a slugfest with significant implications for all of marketing and advertising, and perhaps even all communications in general. Will proven endurance or quicker footwork prevail?
Advertising’s raison d’être
At the beginning of the sixties a development occurred that defined the ad industry for the next forty plus years. Agency creatives threw off the iron yoke of accounts and began to usurp the customary authority over the spirit and content of what went into client ads. Often exemplified by the DDB “Think small” campaign for VW, the creative revolution had begun. The “big idea” became the Holy Grail, and the standard by which the industry judged its own. Fearless, original, intuitive, counter-intuitive, forward-looking, exciting, it was so legitimately the soul of advertising that it defied the oxymoron jibes of outside cynics.
The big idea concept had a freshness and theoretical innocence, an aspirational integrity that transcended the morals of its servants. It attracted the off-beat, the intensely curious and talented, spawned empires, and gave the industry a goal other than money. In doing so it also created its monsters, inadvertently contributing to the culture of excess that helped to kill the goose laying all those golden eggs – so well described in Andrew Cracknell’s The Real Mad Men, and Michael Farmer’s Madison Avenue Manslaughter. Its critics now see the big idea as anachronism or afterthought, still of some use in its place perhaps, but not the stuff that strategies are any longer built on.
Scientia potentia est
The phrase hails originally from political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, had a retreatment from polymath Francis Bacon, a tweaking by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and has been popularly misattributed to Nietzsche (on account of his theory of Will-to-Power). From there it’s become a standard in pop culture. It was a mantra given by Walter White to his students early on in Breaking Bad (when he was still more chem teacher than meth dealer), and is the House motto of Game of Thrones conniving Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish.
Typically, such shifts are facilitated by new technology. Scan data technology in FMCG, for instance, significantly curtailed the power of manufacturers’ brands and gave large retailers the power predominance.
“Knowledge is Power” heralds in the challenger to the big idea. Pouring over entrails, casting runes and reading tealeaves were once the pursuits of venerable mages. Their modern day equivalents are of a very different cut and serve a more hipster deity. The new god of Big Data.
The advent of the big idea occurred organically, the breakthroughs of trail blazing individuals driving creativity’s ultimate ascendency. The rise of big data was explosive. The temptation to make the most of big numbers always had a logical inevitability about it – the inherent challenge and appeal of Moonshots. And, oh, how the big numbers are BIG. With an estimated 35 billion connected devices worldwide, mass data must be measured in exabytes – that’s a billion billion (or a quintillion, if you like) bytes. And as in so many other areas of endeavour, the march of tech far outstrips the capacity to keep up of both legislation and morality. Big data and all its analysis towards meaningful patterns has implications not even imagined yet, for the ethics of privacy, research, intellectual property and consent.
Still, big data’s not going away, and it works in specific applications and circumstances (bearing in mind the various caveats of ethicists, some AI specialists and old-school “creative” ad men).
But a qualified victory is never enough for the zealous. So we have a situation of contrived mutual exclusivity. A battle between the old – or at least the balding, pot-bellied middle-aged – and the new.
Draw, TKO, or an ugly points decision?
For his sins, years back (dragged by a winsome young structuralist) one of the authors attended a post-modern conference-cum-happening called Futurefall. (the French semiotician Jean Baudrillard was the Key Note Performer, and that should give a sense of the evening’s proceedings). A paper was given, titled Hardboiled Hegel in which a philosophy and literature academic opined (apparently from an obscure reference in Hegel’s correspondence) that the Hegelian Dialectic, in its cut and thrust, punch, counter-punch and counter-counter, was born out of the sweet science of boxing. (During the performance, the academic – a heavyweight boxer himself at the University of Sydney – continuously curled a dumb bell as he spoke, an impressive feat of endurance if not of philosophical subtlety).
Still, the claim does not lack appeal. Hegel’s process of thesis – antithesis – synthesis is a suggestive metaphor of the bout itself, but perhaps more importantly of each combatant’s necessary adaptations in the face of unexpected tactics and circumstances.
Back in adland, extending the metaphor would give us Big Idea as thesis, contending with its antithesis in Big Data. Where and when, then, the synthesis?
Not in their respective clubbing and clobbering of the other. Their eventual synthesis will need to be more nuanced than either – cutting away Big Idea’s exposed flab, but equally reining in Big Data’s simultaneous limitations and excesses.
Can there be a resolution between such seeming opposites? There can and will be. And it will come about through generational revolution.
They cannot be engaged in a sustaining way other than by big ideas that target these values. By the same token, their obsession with technology is total. Tech is both means and end for Millennials. The benefits of big data may need to be refined, but the supply will adjust to meet demand. It was ever thus.
Does that mean the decision will be a draw? The blue corner may accept that. But the headlines the next day will probably be written by the red.
Andrew Cracknell, The Real Mad Men, London: Quercus, 2011.
Michael Farmer, Madison Avenue Manslaughter, NY: LID Publishing, 2015.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Francis Bacon, The Essays, ed. John Pitcher, Harmondsworth UK: Penguin, 1986.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selected Writings, NY: Signet, 1983.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Trans. Adrian del Caro, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Michael Zimmer, “OkCupid Study Reveals the Perils of Big-Data Science”, Wired, 05/14/16.
Lisa Arthur, “What is Big Data?” Forbes, 8/15/13.
Chris Pehura, “Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Human Intelligence”, BizCatalyst360, March 2016.
Brian Mitchell and Evan Mitchell, “Shadowing Science: a Lesson for Marketing on Paradigm Shift”, BizCatalyst360, April 2016.