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I was pleased to see WPP boss Sir Martin Sorrell recently defending his position on the whole ‘creativity in the age of the maths men’ debate.

Sorrell seems to be right on the money when he states that ‘the future of advertising and marketing services belongs as much to Maths Men (and women) as it does to Mad Men (and women)’.

Naturally this sparked much wailing and gnashing of teeth; largely amongst those unwilling to take the statement at face value and understand (as Sorrel himself has taken great pains to point out) that this does not in any way denigrate the importance of creativity, or the pursuit of that all powerful ‘big idea’.

We’ve seen this debate play out in interesting ways within our own business.

Coolpink as an agency was ‘born’ in the Dot Com days and we spent most of our early years happily building websites and undertaking technology projects. We definitely thought of ourselves as a ‘web development’ company and, to be perfectly honest, had little or no knowledge of or interest in ‘marketing’ in its broader scope. Back then, everything was a bit partisan and very few people involved on either side of the marketing / technology divide had much interest in or respect for their opposite numbers.

We thought all the traditional marketers were luddites for not getting this new fangled digital stuff – and they regarded anyone vaguely involved in digital as a dweeb or a nerd; to be humored at best, but preferably ignored entirely until hopefully they would eventually go away and everything would go back to ‘how it used to be’.

To be entirely fair to both groups, looking back, perhaps neither of us was actually very far off the mark, except that of course digital didn’t go away.

In fact for a while, I’d agree that the balance probably swung a little bit too far towards the realm of the maths men.

Suddenly marketers had access to never-before-imagined levels of data and insight, all at the click of a mouse. The age of UX, Multivariate Testing, Analytics and Conversion Optimization had begun! Books were published and literally millions of studies were undertaken. The web was (and still is) awash with whitepapers and webinars prescribing exactly how to squeeze the last 1/100ths of a percentage point out of your onsite conversion by applying boilerplate ‘best practice’ techniques to web layouts. Everything could be measured and analyzed, right down to the individual click. The maths men were finally calling the shots and having their day in the sun. Hurrah!

Meanwhile ‘creative’ was in danger of turning into nothing more than a glorified exercise in coloring-inside-the-lines; an activity which creative types are of course genetically programmed not to comply with, let alone feel existentially fulfilled by!

Something was wrong. Something essential seemed to be missing among all those ones and zeros.

The answer, of course, lies in exactly what Mr. Sorrell is proposing.

I don’t know about you, but I’m a human; always have been, probably always will be. As a typical human, I like to think of myself as a reasonable, intelligent, rational being. But of course, like all humans, in actual fact nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst my rational brain likes to sift data and carefully weigh its options, my dumb-ass emotions are busy running riot, stirred by an endless stream of conscious and unconscious influences.

Punchy headlines, impactful imagery, stirring music, powerful ideas; all have the ability to unbalance my rational decision making machinery – tilting me haphazardly this way or that – often without me being aware that it’s even happening.

That’s brand. That’s Creative. That’s the power of the Mad Men, working their insidious (not always) subtle magic. You can’t plan that stuff on a spreadsheet. Nor will you find a formula for writing a killer headline in your ‘Best Practice in UX’ book.

So the Mad Men and ‘creative’ are fundamentally important. Agreed. 100%

The only real difference being that, now days, the output of this process is just as likely to be a YouTube clip, Facebook App or Social Campaign as it is a 48 sheet outdoor poster or 30 second TV spot. In fact, more than ever, maybe it’s all of those things.

In short, it’s eminently possibly to create dull, ineffective or just plain rubbish advertising and marketing, irrespective of the deployment channel.

Digital marketing, when powered by powerful insights and outstanding creative, will undoubtedly impact the target audience and drive desired responses. But so will a truly great TV ad.

The future of marketing and advertising really depends upon us completely abandoning our preconceptions about what ‘being creative’ looks like and indeed, who is ‘allowed’ (or expected!) to have creative ideas. Manipulating the medium for maximum effect is right at the heart of the advertising creative approach. Today we have new channels with new rules. Some of the rules that apply to traditional mediums are not going to be directly transferable.

In conclusion, it’s obvious that some old dogs are going to need to learn a few new tricks. But at the same time, let’s not assume that the young guns have all the answers either. Kind of reminds me of the old joke about two bulls on a hill… but probably best if let you look that one up for yourselves!

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