Magazine article Marketing

Mark Ritson on Branding: Socrates vs Descartes

Magazine article Marketing

Mark Ritson on Branding: Socrates vs Descartes

Article excerpt

Is the rising emphasis on using analytics to guide marketing decisions stifling marketers' creativity?

Just over a decade ago Douglas Bowman launched an interactive consultancy called Stopdesign. His work for clients such as Capgemini quickly made him one of the most respected creative directors in web design.

In 2006 Bowman made a big announcement on his Stopdesign blog: he was off to Google to become its head of visual design. Bowman signed off the post: 'Here's to hoping and wishing for a successful adventure and many great things to come.'

Three years and several hundred blogs later, Bowman made another announcement. He was leaving Google for a specific reason: his time there had been blighted by a stultifying focus on data. 'When a company is filled with engineers,' he concluded in a blog this year, 'it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favour? OK, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data becomes a crutch for every decision, paralysing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.'

Bowman might be working at the new frontier of marketing, but his experiences at Google are just the latest manifestation of an ancient question: is creativity constrained or catalysed by consumer data? In advertising agencies this debate plays out in the constant power struggle between planners and creatives. In market research, it's the qualitative- vs quantitative-method tussle. For brand managers, it's when you either trust your gut or commission another survey. And if you want to go all the way back, it's Plato's conviction that creativity is sent down from the heavens versus Descartes' belief that any challenge can be best answered by breaking it down into its constituent parts Unfortunately for marketers, we can legitimately find ourselves attracted to both schools of thought.

The prime directive of marketing - to listen to consumers - impels us to agree with Google (and Descartes) and use as much market data as possible to guide our decisions. Websites such as Google rarely make any bold decisions any more; instead they roll out multiple iterations of their site and opt for the one that tests the best. Bowman cites one example where Google tested 41 shades of blue before it decided on the colour of its toolbox. It's a similar story at Wal-Mart and Tesco where analytics, not marketers, drive every decision from stock levels to direct mailshots. …

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