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The 'Big Idea' in Big Data

A Short History of Creativity and Data in Advertising
Brett Friedman

The debate over the use of data in creative has raged on for years: does immense creativity and intuition make an ad perform or is it constant iteration, hyper-personalization, product data streams that make your numbers each quarter?

To make a judgement call one way or the other, you need to understand a few things:

  • The history of creativity in advertising
  • The history of data in advertising
  • Where we are today

Let's get started.

The History of Creativity in Advertising

Before 1960, advertising was formulaic. You found out why your customers bought things in your industry, that is, what their problems were, then you marketed your product as a solution to those problems. It was a product focused pitch using your 'unique selling proposition' (USP), focused around the benefits your product could provide for buyers.

A classic Rosser Reeves ad, the pioneer of USP Advertising

After 1960, everything changed. As part of the rapid cultural evolution, there was the Creative Revolution in advertising. Consumers grew bored of traditional ads and needed something more stimulating to catch their attention. This is when the 'Big Idea' took over.

Advertisers began breaking the rules, focusing on image rather than benefit, warm connection with the audience rather than cold research and a hard sell. Ads centered around the 'Big Idea', a single concept so clever that anyone who saw your ad would purchase from you.

A classic Bill Bernbach ad, the pioneer of Creative Advertising

Since the 60's creativity has essentially dominated advertising. Creative teams became a major part of agency structure. Advertisers hired artists, authors, and film directors to organize their ads. Award ceremonies like the Clios and Cannes' International Advertising Festival cropped up to prize the most clever ads each year. And for good reason

Since then, not much has changed... except for the research.

The History of Data in Advertising

Before there was data, there was research. Qualitative studies about what makes people purchase a product. With the invention of computers, research turned quantitative. With the widespread usage of the internet, quantitative research turned into big data.

World's first banner ad, AT&T 1994

By 1995 WebConnect began collecting demographic data to help advertisers target their ideal customers where they were most likely to go. 1996, DoubleClick invented online attribution and the CPM model. Within a decade, teh rise of social media brought hyper-personalization.

Facebook and Google allow advertisers to use location, interests, web searches, apps and technology used, industry, occupation, networks, calendars, browsing history and just about everything ever uttered online. All this led to an audience-targeting' revolution. Companies could now learn what people wanted more than ever, re-focusing emphasis on ads like Reeve's that emphasize product benefits, this time to the unique individual viewing the ad.

Musicbed shows off their hyper-targeting data with individualized ads

So where does that leave us today?

Creativity and Data in Advertising Today

To answer that question, we asked 5 marketers whether they subscribed to the 'Big Idea' or if they leveraged data to make their ads effective.

The answer was a resounding: 'both.'

Andrus Purde, CEO of Outfunnel, and former head of marketing at Pipedrive, says, "Success is definitely more attainable when you combine both "Big Idea" and data."

Mike Vossen, Digital Ads Expert at Vendasta agrees, noting, "The data we collect gives us a better understanding for where and how to market ourselves, but the big idea will be the beating heart of any ad campaign."

Today, the creative department remains a staple of every ad agency and in-house marketing team. In the past 30 years, the data department has become equally important. And today, collaboration across the two has launched a new realm: creative data.

Creative data is the result of scientific method applied to advertising in conjunction with better performance attribution than ever before. By tagging creative components in your ads, systematically changing components, and testing all possible component combinations, advertisers can quickly gauge which colors, copy, products, prices, and more make their ads most effective. Moreover, they no longer have to rely on one single 'big idea'. Creatives can generate dozens of creative concepts and test them all for relatively little money. Using performance indicators like clicks or purchases, advertisers can then optimize their campaigns to find ad-audience fit.

Though the numbers are fake, this is a real example of creative data

While some may argue that the creative concept is what drives performance, today, most advertisers will agree that the two perform best in harmony.

For more information, see perspectives from the 5 marketers we asked below.

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1. "What is a "Big Idea"? It doesn't have to be a 100% risky shot in the dark.

If you're not using data to drive decisions then you're not being efficient with spending.
Running a high-performance ad campaign means you're optimizing for metrics from user engagement to budget.

Success is definitely more attainable when you combine both "Big Idea" and data.

You should be asking: Why will this Big Idea work and how does it affect the bottom line?
This is definitely worth considering especially if this Big Idea carries a Big Dollar Sign.

This does not necessarily mean stop being creative. Rather, the opposite. You should always try to be more creative since your competitors will always try to play catchup with your well-performing ad campaigns." - Andrus Purde, CEO, Outfunnel

2. "I believe that some of the best campaigns are a combination of both [the big idea and data]. Advertising to me is a mix of hard and soft sciences.

When managing a campaign, we rely heavily on quantifiable data. We apply that to mathematical models and perform controlled experiments. In that light, it is very data driven.

However, it's ultimately the other side of the picture that has the greatest impact on a campaign's success. Understanding principles of psychology and the behavior of these audiences is crucial in the ultimate success of a campaign.

Frank Luntz, a political advisor, coined a phrase that sums this up neatly:

"It's not what you say, it's what people hear"


The data we collect gives us a better understanding for where and how to market ourselves, but the big idea will be the beating heart of any ad campaign." - Mike Vossen, Product Expert for Digital Ads, Vendasta

3. "In order to run successful campaigns I am strictly a data driven person. To me, being successful all comes down to testing, and tweaking. I treat advertising like a science experiment. I do some initial research and create a hypothesis as to what I think will work. I then go out and test my theory, and I come back and look at the results. I learn through each iteration and tweak my advertising throughout the process. It’s a never-ending cycle, and you're continuously testing and learning.

While, I think creating some revolutionary big idea could work really well. In fact, You’ll probably even be more successful if you get it to work. However, I feel a data driven campaign has a much higher probability of succeeding and I’ll take that over the risk of going too big and not making anything any day." - Sean Pour, Founder, SellMax

4. "When I do ads, I always begin with the data. Getting to know who I'm catering to and what they want/need is extremely important. I want to get as many people as I can to see it, of course. However, data ends up being meaningless if our customers can't make a connection with our brand. Personally, my big idea is creating a genuine human connection, so I always direct my ads to customer engagement by making it entertaining and worth their time after I analyze the data." - Rafa Parra, Author, Homeschool Spanish Academy

5. "I started a global branding and marketing firm 19 years ago. Earlier in my career I worked in Brand Management at Procter & Gamble and at P&G everything starts with Market Research. They drill into you the importance of customer data to make decisions. The job of data is to be a support point to accelerate the sales cycle. It does not matter what you, your friends and family like it is all about your target audience and what motivates them to purchase.

At P&G we did lots of customer satisfaction monitors, quantitative (surveys) and qualitative (focus group) research over months but as a small business owner you have to be scrappy and work fast with a limited budget. When I worked in the cosmetics business at P&G for example we did anthropological research to watch women put on their makeup and beauty products in the bathroom which was fascinating to see their habits and practices. Surveys can also help you collect data on habits and practices and focus groups allow you to probe deeper and ask questions to test assumptions or see if they like a particular ad. I remember one series of teen focus groups we did with makeup where we showed potential ads and talked about products and shades but the real insight came from which colors they took with them to go home not what they said in the room where they may want to fit in or one voice can dominate or they may not want to speak up.

When real customers are willing to pay real money for your product or service, you have a real business. When advertising works you move the needle. Sales happen if the data is convincing. It becomes a proof point to justify the purchase. Ideas come and go but I always trust the data when it comes to ads." - Paige Arnof-Fenn, CEO, Mavens and Moguls

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