Don’t Blame the Data, Blame the Truth

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German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who died in 1860, made three points about truth that have held true in the advertising business for many, many years. He said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Reflecting back on the greatest ideas and work I’ve witnessed in my thirty-year career, I can see this phrase play out many times.

The campaigns were generally met with extreme skepticism. Weak client-service people and creatives were afraid; clients “weren’t comfortable” or were flat-out terrified. If produced, initial reception was often critical, inspiring cruel commentary, acidic critiques or outright mockery. The assistant brand manager who listened to the first CD of our Bud Light Real Men of Genius campaign hated it so much, he ejected it and threw it out the window.

Ultimately, though, the critics became silent as the truly inspired nature of these ideas led to their acceptance at large. Campaigns became recognized, heralded and copied ad infinitum, but this industry continues to fight the battles of Schopenhauer’s first two points on a daily basis.

Look at data. More specifically, data’s role in modern marketing. We universally recognize the importance of data, yet he advantages of data-driven creative are not being fully accepted as self-evident though that day is soon coming.

To even the most skeptical marketers, data is “the oil of the information age.” While most understand the need to do something with it, they don’t necessarily recognize it for what is really is: incorruptible intelligence highlighting useful truths about your product and consumers on a massive scale.

Inspired marketers recognize data’s value and use it. The uninspired half-heartedly listen but dismiss data as “irrelevant at this time” or “relevant but unproven.” Even when data has revealed that a strong preconception is wrong, the marketer can’t believe it. It’s just not possible that “housewives 18-34 in suburban metro areas who shop at Costco” are no longer the key buyer of creamy peanut butter.

When we adopt a “faulty data” mindset, wrongheaded messages aimed at wrongheaded buyers in wrongheaded mediums are sure to follow.

Battle two is fought with marketers who accept the truths of data but in a lukewarm fashion, as in “I like the insight but I wish it was something else.” This battle tends to also result in wrongheaded messaging aimed at another wrongheaded consumer but with a caveat: testing.

This “real learning” is usually akin to something like “Joe from Kokomo thinks frame four is ‘too blue’” or “Marcia from Poughkeepsie didn’t think the peanut butter in the money shot actually looked ‘oh so creamy and dreamy.’”

There is nothing quite like a marketer trying to blaze a bold new trail using the flawed, useless research techniques of 1973. The truth, as the consumer sees it, doesn’t always jive with the truth as the marketer sees it. Consumers don’t always think your hamburger is the most delicious you’ll ever have, your car won’t say you’ve arrived in style, and your jeans won’t make a whole new you.

Data is the purest form of truth and truth can scare people. It doesn’t prove that your product is unsellable. It just means it’s unsellable the way you insist on selling it.

Which is why, data-driven creative “being accepted as self-evident,” is not only probable, it is inevitable. Data is intelligence and intelligence means sales. Lack of sales means some brands (actually many brands) are going to become extinct. And with them, the dinosaurs that didn’t embrace data to help them adapt.

This really shouldn’t surprise anyone. Dinosaurs weren’t exactly known for their smarts or prosperity.

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