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Martel et Compagnie
465 rue McGill, 8e Etage
Montreal, Quebec H2Y 2H1
+514 525 4290

Jean-Pierre Martel

President & Chief Creative Officer


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The Unsexy Middle Ground

Leo Burnett Chicago EVP, Head of Planning, Nic Chidiac discusses how agencies can find middle ground between hard data and human creativity – and why it works.

Data and the algorithm have become our industry’s new dirty words. Conferences and trade press have been besieged with critiques on what data cannot do and vilified it as the enslaver of creativity.

Leaders in our industry have declared a great divide between the agency whose heartbeat is data, and the one that beats with human ingenuity, courage, and hunch. The former is characterized as a soulless entity that applies personalization at scale to deliver micro-nudges across the consumer journey, while the latter is lauded for the ability to broker instant fame and cultural resonance.

This polarization is not only a reflection of our industry’s stubbornness and unwillingness to evolve, but it’s also harmful to our business at large. It suggests that these two worlds should stand in opposition, when in fact the future of our industry’s value lies in them complementing one another.

The agencies that will capture value will sit somewhere — rather unsexily — between these two seemingly opposite approaches. Those in the middle understand that algorithms alone are just math, and that humans alone are just human — a little less informed and subject to personal bias. Futurist Richard Watson eloquently stated that we should be thinking of the future in terms of “and not or.” If we don’t heed that wisdom, I expect we should fear the gloomy scenario captured succinctly by Contagious editor Alex Jenkins: “You won’t lose your jobs to a computer, but you will lose your job to someone who’s better at using one than you are.”

The Myth: Data has no role in the creation of culture

There’s a convention in our industry that culture can’t come from a data-driven model, but Netflix’s approach to development proves that notion wrong.

At the core of Netflix’s culture machine is a data-driven model the defines a starting point. One output, “House of Cards” has received over 33 Emmy award nominations. The decision to develop it was not some imaginative TV executive who wanted to “blue sky” it, but rather an algorithm defining a precise starting point for human creativity to take over.

Through their data, Netflix knew that within their 33 million subscribers, a large share were fans of David Fincher, Kevin Spacey (pre-#MeToo) and loved the original British series. The algorithm dictated the theme and protagonist; the rest was left up to the magic of human creativity. You could not create a “House of Cards” without the algorithm, nor could you have created it without David Fincher.

A more recent example comes from their unscripted show “Nailed It,” which simply spoofs a popular meme on Pinterest in which people document their wildly unsuccessful attempts at baking. Netflix created a certifiable hit by using social data as a starting point (baking fails) and then relying on the imagination of the production company Magical Elves (“Top Chef”) to design the format, select the cast and bring it to life.

Netflix is not alone in the way they develop content people want to spend time with. The approach to development in the entertainment industry at large is no longer open-ended invitations to make something bound only by the channels brand parameters.

Instead, they walk in with predefined variables: “We know our viewers are super interested in travel, really enjoy game show formats, and here are three hosts that we know have a track record for success. Now let’s figure out how to turn that into magic through the application of human creativity.” That’s what many conversations around the entertainment industry sound like today.

The implications for our industry are vast and obvious. We need to be less sensitive and more demanding regarding what informs our creative product. Our sale to the client needs to rely a little less on charisma and a little more on objectivity. The briefing process needs to be more than just a single interaction between a planner and a creative that exclusively defines a message as input. Instead, it needs to be a collaborative and iterative part of the creative process that may include all types of hypotheses and data explorations as a team.

For example, to help inform an idea, we might want to explore what kind of plot resonates with a consumer (revenge, coming of age, overcoming odds, etc.). To define humor type across execution, we might want to peek into the kinds of stand-up comedians your consumer enjoys watching (Is it Ricky Gervais or Ellen?). If we need music to stretch across generations, we might need to identify a song that resonates with one generation, and a genre to remix it into to appeal to another.

Through the pockets of data that exist either across our own tools, our clients’ tools or tools afforded to us through partnerships, we know a lot — and that only represents a fraction of what we know we know. So let’s use it.

I want to reiterate that I am not advocating a world of rule-based decision making or a formulaic approach to creativity. “This song + this celebrity + this dog + your logo = 55% chance of short-term sales lift” is absolutely not my point of view on how to deliver value. Knowledge is not in itself the solution.

What I am advocating for is a healthy middle ground, a future of ‘and’ with the intention that Richard Watson articulated: “We will work alongside our machines not only to make the world a more efficient place, but to make it a more inspiring and surprising one too.”

Nic Chidiac is an executive vice president, head of planning, at Leo Burnett Chicago.