Ben Wood
Apr 16, 2014

Not so fast with the 'Math men'

Are the 'math men' of today replacing the so-called 'mad men' of yesterday with the revolution in the use of data and technology? Not so fast.

Ben Wood
Ben Wood

There has been some debate in the communications industry this past year about a new generation of ‘math men’: data and technology savvy advertising pioneers who are rewriting the rules and displacing yesterday’s more creative, and, dare I say it, traditional, ‘mad men’. 

Born from Search, ‘digital performance media’ and, latterly, the revolution in programmatic display media buying, these math men and women are purported to be more comfortable with algorithms, technology platforms and data management than they are with traditional notions of great account management, planning and creativity—comfortable to hand over the reins to the machines, with the data driving the new levels of optimisation, targeting and addressability about which they evangelise.

My business, iProspect, has sat front and centre of this new ecosystem.  Many of our people are as 'math' as you’ll get.

Indeed, we have traditionally differentiated our approach through our more sophisticated utilisation of data and technology and our skew to the scientific end of the agency spectrum. The sell has been that it’s the data that drives the business performance we deliver for our clients.

However, I now feel the need to gently challenge and evolve this model, acknowledging that we helped to create the monster in the first place.  

The truth is, it can’t be one world versus another: art versus science, creativity versus data, math versus mad. It has to be both. We are learning that great creativity is as much a driver of business performance for our clients as great science. 

And I know that the winning agencies in this evolving, output-centric, digital advertising landscape will be those that embrace both sides of the coin.

To help illustrate my argument here are a couple of simple examples:

For every hyper-optimised and brilliantly structured paid-search campaign, there needs to be a landing page experience and user journey that immediately engages the consumer, capturing their heart, mind and wallet—and this is a creative endeavour.

…Or let’s think about the evolution of Natural Search (SEO) where the single biggest driver of success for clients is now the creation (often at scale) of relevant, fresh, socially viable and unique multiplatform content. What if this is not a job for the mad man?

…Or let’s reflect on the last retargeted e-commerce banner that followed us, like a lost dog, across the web, regardless of our subsequent offline behaviour? Is this not a situation where a healthy dose of creativity might have been a better route?

…Or lastly, let’s think about the client hoping to put social-media solutions at the heart of the relationship they are building with their consumers. These brands are evolving to become storytellers, scripting always-on, two-way and adaptable narrative. Yes, there is the role for scientific rigour in the amplification of these efforts but, at the heart, is the need for good old-fashioned consumer insight, planning acumen and brilliant creativity.

In the spirit of transparency, I think it’s probably as difficult being math men, looking to inject a healthy dose of madness, as for those in the majority who are looking at the transition in the reverse. It requires structural and, more importantly, cultural evolution.

Math is great but let’s remember the magic of a moment of madness.

Ben Wood is global president, iProspect

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