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Why bias is the bane of high-performing ad creative

Bias has no place in today's ad creative. By embracing better testing methods, we can eliminate bias and make better decisions that lead to improved performance.
Jess Cook

Ask any digital marketer and they’ll tell you they’ve spent a good percentage of their career debating and defending their creative decisions. They’re met with feedback like:

“I’m not sure about the color.”

“I don't think the copy will resonate with our audience.”

“Feels like we should make the logo bigger.”

What’s wrong with all of these critiques? They’re based solely on feelings and opinions — and not at all on meaningful data.

With all the creative testing and metrics now available to marketers, there's no place for bias and “intuition” in today's ad creative. And yet it’s still applied haphazardly to the detriment of performance and conversion.

In episode 4 of Resting Ad Face, our VP of Performance Marketing, Susan Wenograd, and I share our personal experiences of how bias gets in the way of creativity and ad performance, and what you can do to eliminate it from your ad-building process altogether.

Here are some highlights:

Bias kills performance and creativity

We’ve all been part of a creative campaign that started off with strong, bold ideas. But then we watched, week after week, as it was watered down with second-guessing and subjective feedback — usually from the highest titles in the room. 

When bias enters the creative process, the probability of delivering fresh, original ideas dwindles. Creatives start taking a Pavlovian approach, bringing only “safe” concepts to the table because they know they’ll wind up there anyway.

Testing takes the risk out of big, bold ideas. In a matter of days, it will be clear if an ad is resonating or not. This is not to say that safe concepts won’t also perform well. The point is that there’s no way to know unless they’re tested in-market, in front of the brand’s actual audience. 

In short: if an ad concept is on brand and on brief, then it is the marketing team’s responsibility to test it because that’s the only way to know for sure if it’s a winner or not.

Agencies that don’t test at scale are in for a wake-up call

The measuring stick of a quality advertising agency is rapidly shifting. Traditionally, awards, accolades, and industry press were what put them on the map. But with the rise of automated creative testing, agencies will now need to demonstrate their ability to use data to drive design and messaging decisions — and ultimately increase conversion.

TL;DR: Gone are the days of, "I'll know it when I see it." We've entered the era of, "I'll know it when the data tells me."

Brands evaluating ad agencies should ask:

  • How do you decide which creative concepts you present to your clients?
  • What is your creative testing process?
  • What is your track record for boosting your clients' ad performance?

And agencies should adjust their processes to align with this new mindset:

  • Remove limits on the number of ideas and the places or people they can come from
  • Create a testing strategy that allows you to test and learn at scale
  • Understand which ad concepts perform best — and why (a multivariate testing tool can tell you this)
  • Build a library of creative intelligence for your clients so you can pull learnings forward for future campaigns

For more, watch the full episode — CTRL + ALT + DEL the bias out of your ad creative — or subscribe to Resting Ad Face on your favorite podcast platform.

Transcript

[00:00:00]

[00:00:05] Susan: Hey, everybody. Welcome back to Resting Ad Face. I am Susan Wenograd, VP of Performance Marketing at Marpipe and I am here with my amazing co-host, Jess Cook.

[00:00:15] Jess: Hey, hey, I'm Jess Cook. I'm Head of Content here at Marpipe and this is Resting Ad Face where Susan and I rant and rave about all things ad creative, ad testing, you name it.

[00:00:28] Susan: Data stuff. Biases, which we'll talk about today.

[00:00:33] Jess: Yes, yes, exactly. So today we wanna talk about getting bias out of your ad creative, which is an age, old problem that's been around in advertising since the beginning of advertising. And you know, Susan and I have been around for a very long time in terms of,

[00:00:52] Susan: Let's not, let's not name the years, Jess.

[00:00:55] Jess: Yeah. We will not say how long, but just know we have plenty of [00:01:00] experience in the agency world and have, have some great stories around what happens when people try to insert their opinions into creative. So what, what do you have a couple favorite stories, Susan?

[00:01:13] Susan: Yeah, I think the decision by committee thing I feel like was something, especially with larger brands, it's very pervasive and I was laughing cuz someone posted on, like, Twitter the other day, or there was some discussion about how the fact, like all of these brands are using the same font now. Have you noticed this? Like Panera rebranded, like everyone that's rebranded, they're all using the same font.

[00:01:38] Jess: It's like very, there's no personality to it either.

[00:01:41] Susan: No.

[00:01:41] Jess: Very Helvetica.

[00:01:42] Susan: Oh, super. And it's, I feel like that really crystallizes the decision by committee thing. And so this would happen so often in the creative execution piece where, you know, I was on the, on the campaign management side. So I was really in just [00:02:00] the serve up the ads thing, but we worked with a, you know, national car name and it was so obviously decision by committee because we were connected to the people that were doing the media buying, but we'd also see iterations of creative that came from the creative agency. And it was always so interesting to see what the creative agency came up with initially and what it got to by the time it got to us, because you could tell 50 different people gave their opinion on all these different pieces to the point where it just doesn't look like anything. It just looks like a plain background with a drop shadow and a car. And like, there was just nothing else. And you could almost hear the meetings that happened around these creatives as far as what they did or didn't like when you look at the before and after. And it was, it was so sad to me because the initial creatives almost always would've done so well.

[00:02:56] These were huge, you know, interactive banners. So it was like the rollovers [00:03:00] that would open up. I mean, they were super interactive. So you want them to be eye-catching, you want them to have things to look at, things to do to invite you in. By the time it was done, there was just, there was very little of that.

[00:03:12] So that was always the one thing I would notice when we dealt with large companies was things would wind up really watered down to the point that it almost doesn't look branded, like that font. Yeah, the Helvetica everywhere thing. it was almost the same thing. That was always one of the things I noticed from a, a big brand perspective.

[00:03:30] Jess: Yeah.

[00:03:31] Susan: I'm sure you ran into that on copy and stuff too.

[00:03:33] Jess: Oh yeah. I have two very specific stories. But one is this was a very big packaged food brand and we had, you know, brought a couple concepts to a client meeting.

[00:03:49] We're trying to sell in some banner ads. And we used a very certain color pink that was, I mean, I'm guessing part of the [00:04:00] color palette for the brand. I don't think we would've used it otherwise. And I remember one of the brand managers saying, "That pink. I just don't, the color pink just gives me a stomachache."

[00:04:12] And, and so we couldn't use it. And so it was like, well,

[00:04:16] Susan: That's a great reason to not stay on brand.

[00:04:18] Jess: Yeah. First of all, that is a problem you're gonna need to deal with on like, a mental level. Second, what if your audience likes pink? And now we'll never know because you know, you have this bias against this color for whatever reason.

[00:04:34] So that one is very, like really sticks out to me as one of my favorite stories to like tell. And same kind of big packaged foods company worked on a print ad for them and, and went through, I kid you not, 25 rounds of concepts before we landed on, like you said, a very [00:05:00] safe.

[00:05:00] Susan: Vanilla.

[00:05:02] Jess: Very for the masses idea, right? And you could go back to the very beginning and see where we had started out with all this enthusiasm and all this excitement. And we had these very bold ideas. And like you say, as you go, it gets watered down and watered down and watered down because 17 people give their opinion.

[00:05:20] They're afraid it's a little too edgy. Is that really what our people wanna hear? And how would you know? Right. Yeah. And until you test it, and none of these things were tested and they were just launched live. So we spent all this money you know, on a, a placement in Women's Health and other kind of like big name, magazines like that.

[00:05:40] And. Right. Who knows? So I think, you know, bias is really a killer of performance, honestly.

[00:05:50] Susan: It's killer of creativity too. I mean, it's yeah. Cause after you do that to a creative staff long enough, and after a while, they're like, I'm just gonna turn out when I know it'll they'll approve and it's something so boring [00:06:00] and these people are usually so talented.

[00:06:02] They have all these amazing ideas and you're like, what a waste. I mean, if you're just gonna, you know, do a top-down thing where it's like an executive decides that this is how it should look, don't hire experienced creative directors. Hire interns that will just execute what you want, because why are you paying for the expertise these people have just to not use it?

[00:06:21] Jess: Exactly. And, and not to mention all of those creative executions we're on brief, right? Yeah. So if it's on brief, Who cares if you like it. Yeah. If we all,

[00:06:32] Susan: It's not like they went off and went crazy and just plucked something outta the sky, to their creatives. Yeah.

[00:06:37] Jess: Right. And so if it's on brief and we all feel it's on brand, let's just test it and see what works. And if it doesn't work, we can go back to it. We're no one, no one in a creative department is short on ideas. Yeah. Or how to execute against a brief. Yeah. And so I think that's a, a really, really important lesson.

[00:06:56] Susan: It just always amazes me when those large scale decisions are [00:07:00] made based on opinions and nothing is tested. I mean, we're not psychic. It's not like we know what's always gonna work, but to spend that much money wasting time and just watering things down, it, it makes no sense to me.

[00:07:13] Jess: One of the phrases I would love to eliminate from any kind of creative review is, "I'll know it when I see it."

[00:07:19] Susan: Oh

[00:07:21] Jess: It's one of the most,

[00:07:21] Susan: All that means is we're gonna generate 50 million ideas and just keep putting them in front of you.

[00:07:27] Jess: And I think that goes back to the necessity for testing, right? Like if you test something and then you find out what is working or what isn't, that's very easy to verbalize, right? You know, I think that phrase needs to be turned around to, "I'll know it when the data tells me."

[00:07:43] Susan: I think that's the interesting part when we talk to people about Marpipe is there's this hesitancy, cuz they're like, well, it'll remove all creativity. I'm like, no, actually it can let your people be more creative because then it's not based on decisions anymore.

[00:07:56] We're not taking away creativity. We're, we're arming [00:08:00] them with the way that the decision makers think and talk about things so that they can, you know, spearhead their own work. Right now, it's just kind of like, well, they just didn't like it. And that's not, that's not a data driven reason, but because there's not any data around it, that's just how decisions are made.

[00:08:17] So I feel like it actually kind of gives creatives an advantage compared to where they used to be, because now they actually have something they can go in and be like, you evaluate everything on data. Here is the data on the creative.

[00:08:28] Jess: Yeah. And I think, you know, for so long. Like a hot shot, creative was known as somebody who would just like come up with all these, you know, great ideas.

[00:08:38] But there's never any data behind it. And I think we're starting to see there's this new form of creative, copywriter, designer, art director, whatever who really cares about the performance. And now we have the tools to prove that like my work has actually had this impact mm-hmm and we've not really had that before.

[00:08:57] Yeah. And, and that feels [00:09:00] really big. That feels like a shift could be coming in terms of like, I'm a copywriter who has been able to increase my clients' you know, ROAS by 60% on average, whatever, whatever the case may be. Right. And so. That feels like a huge shift that we've never seen before, as opposed to look at my portfolio and the cool ideas I've I have, or the fact that like I was on the Super Bowl with a commercial once, what did it do?

[00:09:28] Susan: When I first started in eCommerce, I was a writer and I just remember we'd have creative reviews and they were just brutal. I mean, part of it was the management, they were just not particularly kind people, but it was just this dressing down of ideas in front of so many people that was based on nothing other than they're a supposed expert.

[00:09:49] And I used to get, so that was why I wound up going to marketing because I was like, I, I just, I can't stand the objective nature of it. I need data. I can't. So when I started doing the copywriting for the email team, I was like this, [00:10:00] it felt validating. Cause I'm like, this tells me what works and what doesn't, I don't need your opinion anymore.

[00:10:04] And it just fit much better with my mentality, but I just think back to some of those awful creative meetings where it's like people left crying. I mean, it was just so bad and it was just based on nothing. You're like, it was just based on one person's opinion. But the problem is that person's your boss, right?

[00:10:19] Yeah. So it's like, it becomes all about appeasing them versus what actually is gonna move the business forward.

[00:10:24] Jess: Yeah. And I think we're gonna see a shift there as well, because if we have the data, I don't need your opinion no matter what your title is. Yeah. So I think a creative director's role will then become: Is this on, on brand?

[00:10:38] Is this on brief? If so, let's test it, right? Yeah. And so I don't think there will, there shouldn't be any of this kind of bias thrown in just because you have creative director in your title. In fact, as people are evaluating agencies nowadays, like I would wanna know what is your process yeah.

[00:10:59] For [00:11:00] deciding which creative moves forward. Yeah. You know, is it arbitrary? Is it based on who's opinion, your opinion? Why would that matter? Are you in the audience? No. So what's your process for making sure that the creative your team is building for me is actually going to work. And I think the brands that are gonna succeed, the big brands of the future, those are the kinds of methods they're using. And so agencies who don't do that are gonna be falling behind.

[00:11:28] We're talking about the creative process, really changing if we're no longer, you know, hopefully in this ideal world using opinions to, you know, base all of our decisions on. And I think one of the things that that could alter is this idea that we have to limit the number of ideas.

[00:11:49] So usually you go into a pitch or you go into a client meeting and like, there's this magic number of three, right? You always bring three concepts. There's like one really bold. One, one kind of safe one and one in the middle [00:12:00] clients always wanna go with the safe one agency always likes the bold one. But like why put that limit on it?

[00:12:07] You could bring as many as you are able to come up with, again, being on brand and on brief and then test them all, right? Yes. And I think there, we could see a shift now having the, the access to data like you can have within Marpipe or you know, from testing your ads that. we won't need to put that limit on it because we can very quickly scale that process of creation and testing.

[00:12:32] Susan: It's interesting you say that, cuz here's the opposite effect that can actually work well. So, so many DTC companies, they rely on UGC. So user generated content. And sometimes like I work with a client, they have so much of it. I mean, they have raving fans that, I mean, they get hundreds of photos a month.

[00:12:50] So, in a way, what is nice is that when we get the data, then they can give them direction on what to create. So it's kind of the opposite effect where it's like, [00:13:00] historically they would just have so many different things where it's like, some of them they'd be in the picture, some of them, they wouldn't.

[00:13:06] And so we've done enough testing now to kind of know, even though both versions can do well, more often than not, we see like this do better when you're not in the picture. Right? But it's like, it's, it's like an in situ you know, kind of lay flat or whatever. So it's been nice because then it's not like I'm not sorting through folders of stuff where there's, I, I mean, I would look at them and be like, any of these could work, I don't know.

[00:13:31] Right. And there'd be like a hundred of them. So it was the opposite problem where it's like, you had so many that you could make a case for testing every, almost every single one of them. So it's helped them be able to understand, here are the things that we know consistently work well. So when we get UGC from people,

[00:13:47] they automatically know, like these will probably work well and they can divide them into folders of like, these should work. These should work based on the formula that we know works. So it's, it's interesting how it, it can work both ways where it's like, it can help expand in [00:14:00] situations where there were traditionally not a lot of ideas, but then also now that everybody sources creative from their users and most brands have a lot of users, it helps tamp down a little bit on just this sheer variety of what they get.

[00:14:13] Jess: I love that example so much, cuz I think it shows like the, the virtuous circle right. Where it's like you test because you wanna know and now, you know, so you know what to create and then you test again to see if it's working and now, you know, so you create more, right?

[00:14:27] Yeah. And so it's like this really nice little cycle that you can build for yourself of like in-market feedback, from your audience that you can continue to pull forward through the future, which is amazing.

[00:14:39] Susan: No more opinions.

[00:14:40] Jess: Yeah. I have one more thought and that is with this new, you know, hopefully ideal world of where people are not using opinions anymore to make creative decisions.

[00:14:53] What happens to the dreaded agency RFP process? And I think this is like [00:15:00] a, really one of the,

[00:15:00] Susan: It needed to die 20 years ago. Yeah. Like to, I mean, that whole thing it's so outdated and it's such a waste of everyone's time and it's such a dog and pony show.

[00:15:10] Jess: I'm hoping this is one of like one of the straws and, you know, that broke the camel's back kind of thing. And I think that's because, you know, brands who are looking for an agency, they're not gonna care about awards. What does that even show besides again, like a huge panel of people who have personal biases liked your stuff. Who cares. Yep. And, and too, they are going to care a lot more about how your ideas are able to move the needle. Yeah. Than what they look like or how excited you were about them or that they used some new technology that had never been done before. Right. Which all those things could move the needle, but you won't know if you don't test it.

[00:15:52] Susan: Right. They're not, I haven't gotten data on it historically to show that it actually did anything.

[00:15:57] Jess: Yeah. It might have landed you in, [00:16:00] you know, Ad Week. But again, what does that do for your audience? Probably nothing.

[00:16:06] Susan: You're just talking to other marketers.

[00:16:08] Jess: Exactly. You're building a recruiting campaign is what you're doing.

[00:16:11] Susan: Yeah.

[00:16:12] Jess: You're not building any kind of conversion impact.

[00:16:16] Susan: Agreed. Completely.

[00:16:19] Jess: So yeah, that's it, everyone. Control, Alt, Delete the bias in your ads. Get it outta there. Test everything. You never know what you'll find, you'll find opportunities for, for impact in terms of performance that you never even knew were there.

[00:16:36] Thanks for joining us on Resting Ad Face. We'll be back. We have some really exciting things coming up for you. Maybe even a guest. Yes. Which is really exciting. Our first guest. Yay. Looking forward to that. We'll see you next time.

[00:16:53] Susan: Bye.

[00:16:53] Jess: Bye.

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