Evolving the User Experience of Advertising for the Next Era of Data-Driven Creativity

Reunifying media and creative in pursuit of dynamic personal relevance

This essay is part of Data + Creativity 2020, a Muse by Clio insight report exploring that critical intersection in marketing—and how to leverage it to create more impactful work. Click here to download the full PDF report of 12 essays, or here to read them on the Muse site.

The words "advertising" and "user experience" rarely go together in our industry. Different tribes, different cultures. Frenemies when left to their own devices; often worse when asked to work together. For one, the product (and the user) is sacrosanct. For the other, it's all about the big idea and the message.

As a creative who came up in the world of user experience, I never understood the difference. And I wager our audiences, who now live their lives online all the time, don't draw a distinction either.

Today, a truly memorable brand experience is the sum of its parts: advertising, product, retail and packaging, all working together in a unified system. The brands we love—Nike, Google, Apple, Spotify, Netflix, Peloton, Airbnb—all understand that context and relevance are key to making these experiences work for today's consumer. And they are able to deploy advertising and customer experiences that reinforce each other and resonate deeply because they are supported by robust technology and connected to personalization algorithms and massive pools of data.

This is what it takes to create a great brand today. But in the creative community, our conversations are still far too focused on just one component of the overall equation: our ads. Whether we're celebrating a visual expression sure to sweep at the award shows or a clever film that entertains more than it informs, the goals of much of today's creativity are misaligned with customer experience. This disconnect leaves many creatives uninvested in how their ads are actually received and consumed in the real world, not to mention the role their work plays in the broader brand experience.

Just as important, this disconnect means advertising has not learned to incorporate the advances made by customer experience in thinking about and leveraging data. As a result, the data in much of today's "data-driven creativity" does not utilize the kind of sources or thinking that animates today's best customer experiences. This industry-wide blind spot is diminishing the value of the craft that we love. 

Over the past two years at Essence, our team has been working to reunify media and creative and rethink what data-driven creativity means for the world we live in today. This work has convinced me that the future of creativity is indeed data-driven and rooted in dynamic personal relevance. Instead of relying on a single idea, communicated broadly, brands will win by using data to personalize advertising experiences for millions of individuals in real time, serving up the most relevant, helpful information and products for individual consumers' needs, goals, and budgets. 

Our recent work in partnership with Google exemplifies this. By using machine learning to ensure ads are automatically customized to be relevant to the article page they are appearing on, media is powering Google's business and connecting users directly to relevant products and experiences with messaging specific to information they are seeking out. Taking this user-centric approach to demonstrate the usefulness of products like Google Home and Google Assistant, and to drive adoption of Google Meet in a world working at home, frees the brand to use its mass communication initiatives to take leadership stances on important issues.

Or consider Nike, whose data-driven agility gives the brand the confidence to lead the national conversation on issues of race, gender equality, and public health. Nike's understanding of its audience leaves them safe in the knowledge that not only are these issues important to their core customers, but potential political retaliation and boycotts will only endear them more deeply to their increasingly invested fans. 

This is the unification of data, media and customer experience into a single, real-time brand experience that is no longer static and reactive, but living and anticipatory. It's the recognition that we need to think about media and creativity as a system—a system with massive reach and participation, on the same scale of the world's biggest products and platforms.

To meet the moment, creatives need to evolve how we think about what data is and move beyond creativity that is more interested in its own "cleverness" and self-referential jokes. We should be striving for something far more meaningful instead: creativity deeply rooted in data that reflects true signals from our audience—their true intent, desires, attitudes and actions.

This is the battleground where brands will have to compete going forward. But while this shift was always going to play out over the next decade, the timetable for disruption has been accelerated. The world has changed dramatically over the last few months, and the global pandemic is pushing and dragging brands into the future now, ready or not. Out of the chaos we'll see winners and losers that we expect, and winners and losers that will surprise us. Many will not make it. 

What are you doing to be ready? 

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