Why Maths Men need Mad Men


Data and technology help you reach your audience. But are they enough to convert them?

Google knows you’re reading this. Amazon is about to recommend the boxed set of Mad Men, the final season, to you. And Facebook has decided the name of the child you’re having next year (just kidding on that one).

Isn’t it amazing what technology can do?

Not all of it is helping us. Every once in a while you see news items about how it’s taking our jobs, accompanied by a list of professions it’s replacing. I always check to see if copywriting is one of them.

The changing ad industry
Technology has dramatically changed the way agencies operate since Don Draper’s day. Not only does everyone now work on a computer; some practically live in front of their machines, eating meals and putting on their make-up and deodorant. And digital marketing has created all sorts of new agency roles, too – developers, UX and social media specialists are just some of them. Yet there are no more secretaries, and no researchers either, because everyone has Google. And there are fewer printed things, such as proofs, for us to check (still, I’ve never seen the paperless office computer marketers promised us 20 years ago, have you?).

Technology has also changed what agency people do. Now, in addition to ads, we make websites, apps, online direct marketing, and “content”. When we create campaigns they have to work across all sorts of media, from digital posters to social. And everything we do is more precisely targeted than ever before. Recently I had to write web copy that would change according to the device users were reading it on; so iPhone users would get one message, Android owners another.

The ascendance of Maths Men
Technology has become essential for helping us reach our increasingly fragmented audiences, which brings me to Sir Martin Sorrell’s “Maths Men”. These are the people who use data and algorithms to target customers – a skill the marketing world appears to value above all others.

Just recently, the British entrepreneur (and former adman) Luke Johnson commented on the state of the industry in a Sunday Times article, titled “Silicon Valley robber barons tuck into Mad Men’s lunch”. He said: “Today advertising is based less on creative faith, more on analytics.”

But some of us creatives wonder: is planning and buying your media more important than what goes into it? Is the media “impression” more valuable than the brand idea, the quality of art direction, design and copy?

Your customers aren’t machines
Using technology, you might be able to track me down in my bathtub and know when is the best time to talk to me about my pension, a new car or whatever you’re selling. But what are you going to say to me? And how are you going to say it?

Your highly targeted ad/content is worthless if it doesn’t interest me.

When your algorithm finds me, it needs to do more than just hit me with a relevant message. Whether you’re using digital posters, social media or other media, you have to engage me and make me feel something. I need to be surprised, charmed, inspired, made to think differently.

Could an algorithm write your copy?
Have you read copy written by a robot? The following is a piece generated by an LA Times algorithm last year:

“A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles.

According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days…”

Informative, but not very exciting, is it?

Human-to-human marketing
One approach that effective advertising uses is humour. Why? Because it breaks the ice between the advertiser and their audience, and allows a conversation to begin.

Two years ago, technologists at Edinburgh University used a computer to generate jokes that were then judged by humans. One of the judges, a professional stand-up comedian, admitted that the jokes were funny, but added:

“Jokes aren’t just about making people laugh, they are about making people connect with other humans – and computer jokes don’t do that.”

Yes, the Maths Men are great for helping you reach your audience and talk to potential customers as individuals. But ultimately, it’s the Mad Men who will do the hardest part of the job: connecting with your audience’s emotions and enthusing them about your brand.

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