After more than a century of modern advertising, so much of it is still scrabbling around in the dark. “Everything we do is still based on assumptions, and we’re only scratching the surface of what we know about advertising,” says Jan Jelle de Boer, EMEA head of content at Media.Monks. That’s someone speaking as a production expert at one of the most cutting edge advertising companies in the world.
Sergio Lopez Ferrero, global head of production at Publicis Groupe, agrees. “The industry had been flying by the seat of its pants; until recently, a creative business based solely on intuition and good taste. There has been some iconic work throughout the years and piles of campaigns that were irrelevant and wasteful because they talked in the wrong way to the wrong audience.”
But there’s a data-driven revolution rumbling beneath the business, and while its fumes occasionally vent in thought-leadership pieces on sites like Little Black Book, the full extent of its transformative power has yet to be witnessed.
“Data gives us insights to make more meaningful connections between brands and consumers,” says Sergio, who has been preoccupied with ensuring Publicis Groupe leads in this area. “We are now flying the Concorde of advertising and we have an amazing cockpit with all types of data gauges to guide our crew fly at supersonic speeds. That does not mean giving up on creative, quite the opposite. Creativity thrives on constraints and context.”
As chief production officer for EMEA at CRAFT, the production arm of McCann Worldgroup, Ben Clark has also been ensuring his network immerses itself in the data that can supercharge production. “The intelligent use of data enables teams to focus on which elements of creative content are best to appeal to a particular audience,” he says. “By employing appropriate technology, relative, meaningful creative content can be crafted carefully to deliver high performance creative at scale.”
So what are those gauges and dials in that production-minded ad agency executive’s ‘cockpit’? Jan Jelle from Media.Monks says there are various levels of data that need to be paid attention to.
These all take forms that the industry is familiar with. As Stefan Kerridge, chief strategy and marketing officer at Murphy Cobb Associates lays out, there’s performance marketing, programmatic media, addressable content, and the growth of online. “All of which have benefited and in turn created more and more data for marketers, creative agencies and content creators to utilise. In turn, the production of assets and overall campaign delivery is becoming an increasingly complex process for all stakeholders with the explosion of channels and the increased access to data, allowing more defined targeting both in terms of media delivery and creativity.”
Depending on the size and scope of the assignment, Jan Jelle advises leveraging different types of data that technology platforms can provide to inform content production on different levels.
Firstly, media channel, moment or audience data. Probably the most basic level of data in this picture, this typically comes from media partners, providing insight into which audiences on which channels consumers best interact with brands. “This already has a big impact on content performance,” he says, “as we can adapt creative ideas upstream to fit a range of best performance ad formats and audience types.”
Sam Balderstone, head of CYLNDR Global, the creative production company and full-service studio sitting at the heart of Cheil and BMB in London, notes that advertising people regularly read that the success of a campaign is between 70-75% dependent on the quality of the creative. “Those of us in the creative industry collectively join in a sigh of relief, knowing that our work is important to our clients. However, what we often fail to recognise is the vital importance of media in supplying the data that confirms our collective brilliance!”
Listening to this data naturally leads to less monolithic, broad advertising such as one hero TV commercial forming the basis of a brand campaign. Every proponent of data-driven production stresses there is still an important place for TV commercials as part of the mix, but as Ben at CRAFT says, “It’s not as simple as placing longform spots on digital channels. We need to think more holistically about creating meaningful experiences across multiple touchpoints that are culturally relevant and personalised for the audience.”
WPP’s global head of production Dave Rolfe predicts a split occurring in the ethos driving advertising production to account for this loss of the big TVC. “There's going to be more appreciation of production au naturel when a marketer comes for an organic narrative that is built in traditional ways. There's going to be less of that, but I think it's going to still try to build profound experiences. And then much of the rest is about messaging-oriented engagement. There are going to be areas that have a great deal of appreciation for storytelling, but where it’s messaging and engagement is going to see very profound automation.”
All of this will form a patchwork of assets that make up increasingly integrated, increasingly customised campaigns. Which means to build a holistic approach, production partners of brands need to become much more integrated and much more strategic.
That means that for larger brands with aims to resonate with global audiences across many walks of life, production will often need to be consolidated and planned in a more centralised manner. To ensure campaigns have all the parts needed to resonate with each audience, on each channel, at each specific moment, means creating huge toolkits of hundreds of assets in shoots on an unprecedented scale.
“To fuel this engine our creatives and producers need to think carefully, early on in the process when capturing content,” says Ben. “Increasingly we are looking to ‘bundle’ productions and think about ‘super shoots’ to give us as much content as we can in as cost-effective a manner as possible. Whilst in production and pre production we need to think about an ecosystem of deliverables that are channel specific in terms of best practice – and relevant to the intricacies and features of the end-channel experience of that specific audience.”
To go beyond the basic level of audience data, Jan Jelle identifies, more integration between production and areas it previously failed to communicate with is vital. “For us to go deeper, we need to have creative that is designed to learn and true integration between data, content, media and tech to work together,” he says.
Social data is another level of data that can inform production. It can be used to understand new opportunities for brands to tap into, what conversations are happening in culture that brands can use to help optimise the way they talk about their product, and optimise their creative and content production.
Part of what that demands is more reactive content, for which a structure needs to be set up for fast-paced production. “For content production, we can create scans a few times a year to provide these insights to drive the campaign and content production process,” says Jan Jelle. “Or in a more real-time setup. For content production this means you need a very reactive structure to create content fast based on new conversation opportunities that can basically happen at any time around the world.”
Search data can also feed into making production more efficient and resonant. As Jan Jelle sees it, this data grants a brand “understanding [of] where you need to show up based on consumer interest and demand. This is really valuable data because these are high intentional consumers with an urge and are easy to convert. And as a brand this is where you need to show up with relevant content or offering.”
That means creating content more frequently and throughout the year, however, or having a deep bank of modular assets that can rework creative to suit real-time trends. “So you need a rhythm in which you create content more frequently throughout the year,” says Jan Jelle, adding that in his view, something completely underutilised is search data on platforms like Google, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok. “It's time for brands to step up and show up in these conversations.”
This is in the spirit of what Cam DeArmond has been experimenting with as CEO and executive creative director of Conscious Minds, although through a process that goes deeper than just social listening and lands on something more specific to a brand’s place in culture and conversation. “What I find most exciting is using data non-traditionally,” he says. “One of the things that distinguishes our process (at CM) is that we engage the audience directly through a bespoke conversation that uncovers what they truly desire and value from a particular brand. Our process expands to include data collection, listening to the audience, first party mining, and the creative development process.”
Conscious Minds’ process then uses the dataset created from these conversations to “mine for new experiences that an audience would value.” The goal of this process is to discover and define new levels of engagement, which Cam asserts will bolster a brand’s “courage to create novel content that speaks directly to the desires of the audience for that particular brand, rather than following a general market trend.”
Essentially it’s inserting deeper strategy into the production of content, tailoring it specifically for a brand’s audience that is aligned deeply with their wants and intentions. “In departing from the need to be aligned with trends, we help to differentiate the resulting content by enabling the brand to create authentically made content for their audiences,” says Cam. “If you’ve had a strategic conversation with the brand’s audience – and if you’ve executed your data collection, listening, first party mining, and creative development process well – then you will have the opportunity to create a unique series of content that is very ownable by the brand.”
This type of process results in content that can’t be replicated by other brands, he claims, because they don’t have the same product offering, leverage, voice or connection to the audience. “It is entirely original to a particular brand and its distinct audience.”
One of the great promises of data, of course, is measurement of effectiveness that paves the way for refinement and iteration. “Using performance data to optimise content and media to increase effectiveness and ROI is not a one-off project – but requires a broader long term partnership and expertise across creative, production, media, and tech,” says Jan Jelle.
It’s at the core of what Ben is trying to get right at CRAFT. “We aim to iteratively build, test and tweak content to drive impact, which achieves a greater ROI. Our teams go to great effort to test our creative to make sure that it will deliver the best possible performance, but consciously strive to learn, improve and evolve our work, and methodologies in line with performance and audience response.”
This is a step change in how production people in advertising must think, says Sergio of Publicis Groupe. “The biggest shift for creative and production is going from ‘one-fits-all linear storytelling’ to a ‘many-fits-many-and-then-we-constantly-improve-it’ approach. It is a different mindset for creatives who are now enabled to develop different versions of the same ideas for different audiences, producers who need to make it happen and directors having to think about multiple storylines and alternative scenes.”
The problem is, post-campaign wash-ups deliver little or no improvement to the current campaign, says Sam at CYLNDR. “By the time we implement the learnings, it’s a new campaign and the creative is different, so 70-75% of the insight is out of date. We should no longer accept islands of data. We need reporting that connects insights to action, showing us exactly what’s happening and providing the tools to do something about it.” CYLNDR’s creative automation platform, IGNYTION is an attempt at this. Sam says it allows them to uniquely link the media plan to the omnichannel content. “In a single screen, we see what creative went where, how much was invested and using advanced automation, we can change it.
“Importantly, this is informing our upfront creative production process, and gives us the ability to continually improve content at scale and breadth. By using data insight, alongside both craft and tech, we can optimise our creative product and ensure it’s at its most effective.”
That way of thinking means building creative and producing assets through adaptive frameworks that prepare for the many directions a campaign might possibly take. Like writing a choose-your-own adventure book in which the audience is deciding where the narrative of a brand will take them next, according to how well they respond to each stage, execution or iteration of a campaign.
When every asset will be different and personalised to each unique viewer, understanding the optimisation mechanics of key channels will be key, says Jan Jelle. “Typically the creative here is built through frameworks that can easily scale and adapt to fit different messaging, channels, moments, products or offers.” And when it comes to production, he notes that “there are limitations to the way how these assets are produced automatically.”
But continuing his prophecies, Dave at WPP expects giant ‘super production’ events will be more and more important in amassing the options needed for this. And he notes that they will inject an unprecedented level of automation into the craft side of the business. “We've heard about the blending of pre production, production and post production, but you're going to know what you're shooting before you shoot it with even more rigour than ever,” he says. “You're going to be literally building a pipeline. Now pipelines are constructed mid production, or even post production. With automation and virtual production, pipelines will be built in pre production… which will actually no longer be pre production. Because of modularity, it's going to be ingested, all associated with metadata, that can react and move directly into a post-production pipeline. The amount of de-manualisation is insane, when you think about it. That's how those shoots and that workflow conduit will work. It's going to be really amazing.”
Shifting so much of production into systems that are managed by tech means cataloguing and tagging assets so they can be found, assembled, measured and reworked. Something Jan Jelle stresses as crucial here is “the use [of] ad tech platforms to connect these frameworks with product feeds, and to automate the execution of these assets. Assets need to have the right taxonomy to track each asset performance and compare apples/apples.”
All of this shifts the position that production departments hold in an advertising agency. “Until recently production was regarded as purely the delivery function at the end of the creative process with little or no involvement until the very end,” says Ben. “Now in a world where clients are looking for partners able to integrate creative, media, agency, technology, brand, digital and social services at scale, the value of intelligent, strategic production collaborating with all creative capabilities from inception to completion is central to the delivery of the entire experience.
“In today’s landscape brands need a partner who can integrate a combination of services to build impact across the full customer journey. This in turn calls for an evolution of our model to encourage greater collaboration between different teams. The result evolves the industry from advertising delivered by agency brands to wider marketing solutions delivered by teams of specialists designed for the specific task in hand. Intelligent production can be the ‘conductor’ that connects the orchestra and blends the disciplines across data, creative content, digital media and technology services.”
This hints at the final layer in Jan Jelle’s list – ‘data foundation work’, which he describes as “the holy grail”. For large global brands this means building a data-driven organisation across business units, brands and countries. Each unit is provided with dashboards and insights to help decision-making in their area of responsibility. Watchwords for Jan Jelle here are: “Standardisation, centralisation, and integration of company data, analytics, templated ways of working, media integration.”
As Stefan notes, the use of data should be considered in a broader context in terms of managing an agency or department: gathering and consolidating data on the annual scope of work, helping to plan work and the production of assets throughout the year. These, he says, “can often drive more efficiency and creative consistency than any method of automation or use of data at the point of production. Data and developing a consistent set of metrics to link all of the parties, which are often siloed, together from media, creative, production and distribution can drive consistency and an optimised outcome throughout the asset development lifecycle.”
Creativity can be richer for being built on data, and data-led production needn’t lack in craft. “It works,” says Sergio. Publicis Groupe has seen that consumers connect with its content up to 60% more than with non-data driven work. “I do not think it is that surprising. Telling people stories that resonate with them in the right media, with the right message at the right time seems like a no brainer.
“Haters have rejected data driven content saying that it is a creative killer while it is quite the opposite. Take for example – Boomerang – our data driven creative production agency, which has won its fair share of Lions this year and ultimately delivered significant growth to our clients.”
No matter how smart your pipelines and modelling are, data needs to be processed and interpreted through human insight and expertise. It comes with several warnings, according to Stefan:
- “Data in isolation is useless, it needs to be interpreted and turned into insights, as I used to say to AC Nielsen as a marketeer, back in the day, having been presented with a 100-page PowerPoint deck – “don’t give me data, give me insights and recommendations.”
- “In the wrong hands it can actually be unhelpful and drive inefficiencies – with the number of data points growing the big question is what data you actually use and what you don’t.”
- “Accountability, the original celebration and adoption of programmatic has had the edges knocked off it with the well-published issues of transparency of costs and effectiveness.”
- “Data will always fall short of the skills and craft of experienced and qualified producers and creatives.”
“Data isn’t the panacea to solve all problems,” says Stefan. “But if used in the right way it can help with the heavy lifting and deliver targeted content at pace.”
Production stands at the brink of transforming its place in the advertising industry through data, and the people making these changes are exhilarated about the possibilities, but Sergio concludes with a realist vision of the path to those possibilities: “The key to this success resides not in technology (even though there is quite a bit of it) but rather a more collaborative way of working in which strategy, creative and production are working together as equals planning, creating, producing and optimising. A team of true creative makers.”