The Tyranny of Undiluted Numbers

Last week, the always-worth-a-read Dominic Mills, writing on Mediatel’s Newsline commented on Starcom’s tool to automate content. As part of a larger initiative that has been running for several years, the agency has licenced access to archive content from various magazine titles in the Americas, has systematised this content, and is now making ‘repurposed’ versions of the original available to clients for use on their (the clients’) sites.

On the one hand this is smart. There is, at least for the moment an advertiser demand for ‘content’. The difficulty with ‘content’ is that someone has to create it, and media agencies don’t as a matter of course have journalists, or as I suppose we should refer to them ‘content creators’ on their staff. So why not take what’s out there, sitting in an archive somewhere and use it?

On the other hand it seems to me to be the latest manifestation of a rather concerning trend, media agencies’ obsession with having to quantify, to systematise everything.

Media agencies’ services have expanded enormously and largely usefully over the last decade. If forced to sum up what they offer, in a trite sentence, it would be something like ‘we own the numbers’.

Anything that can be quantified is meat and drink to the media agencies. Furthermore they are much more pragmatic, and customer-focussed than (say) the market research agencies, who seem to find themselves caught in a paralysis of self-doubt if anyone ever dreams of questioning why they do what they do. Read a few of the market research blogs and user group discussions out there and you too will start to wonder if there is a future. The media agency solution would just be to shrug and do it differently.

Look at marketing science, or econometrics. Media agencies would claim the edge over independent specialist operations in that they take the findings through to execution, to the planning and buying of the communication. Specialists might be technically ‘better’ (whatever that might mean), but the promise of a seamless move from analysing something to actioning the findings makes the agencies’ offerings (available through their own specialist operating units, like WPP’s OHAL) attractive to many (despite the fact that marking your own homework poses a whole other set of questions).

Or take the digital trading operations. They have brought an ability to crunch large quantities of data and to take the results through to the buy. Whatever the carpers might say (and I speak as a major carper) there is no doubt that large amounts of data are indeed crunched and used.

So ‘we own the numbers’ isn’t a bad mantra.

But I can’t help thinking it’s soul-less. Numbers can only take you so far. As Kim Shillinglaw, who heads two BBC TV channels, BBC2 and BBC4 said in an interview last week “Small audiences of people who are indifferent are a problem. But a small audience that is really responding to something is a wonderful thing.”

Or: ‘large numbers of people who are reached at the right moment and engage fully with the message are far more attractive than even larger numbers of people who are indifferent.’

That’s what’s wrong with many media agency tools. Yes the numbers might work on a CPM, or CPC or CPAnything basis; but without some creativity to add the magic the solutions won’t move people to do anything.

The mix of numbers tempered with creative thought is what existed in the best full-service ad agency media departments. The potency of the numerate/creative mix survived in some of the best of the media agencies where at least some individuals believed in the importance of working alongside their creative counterparts. And of course it fuels that interesting hybrid, the communications planner inside a creative agency.

Numbers need context, they need creative dilution in the same way that the more extreme creative ideas need some pragmatism and scale. It’s frankly depressing to think, as many, especially in the specialist digital world of today seem to do that everything can be quantified.

By all means own the numbers, but don’t confuse that with creativity. And don’t think that one without the other is anything other than half the solution.

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