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Re:think 2015: Searching For Truths in the Analytic Age

The ARF has a rich heritage and is keen to celebrate it. It’s also an organisation with an eye on what’s coming next – the ghost of research future. Re:think 2015 looked to reconcile old and new.

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By Tom Ewing

As anyone present at the Advertising Research Foundation’s Great Mind Awards – presented near the close of their Re:think 2015 conference – could tell you, the ARF has a rich heritage and is keen to celebrate it. It’s also an organisation with an eye on what’s coming next – the ghost of research future, in the form of an $100bn analytics industry three times the size of ‘trad’ research, loomed large over this conference.

Re:think 2015 looked to reconcile old and new, though at times it had the feeling of an uneasy summit meeting. For every Stan Sthanunathan of Unilever, teasing investment in breakthrough technologies and delightedly interviewing a robot, there was a David Poltrack of CBS, laying out in no uncertain terms that TV was still King and waving aside digital ad expenditure as “experimentation”. The shudder of outrage that ran through Twitter at this phrasing suggested that many feel digital advertising is well beyond that stage. But Poltrack’s brawling speech was a reminder that uneasy summits are the most interesting kind.

In his marvellous book on the history of ideas about advertising, The Anatomy of Humbug, planner Paul Feldwick holds up the ARF as an example of a regrettable divide between academic work on advertising and the ideas that actually hold sway in agencies. Agency people, he says, rarely attend, which means they miss out on useful experimental work, and the researchers lack input from those at the creative sharp end. Evidence of this divide between theory and practise wasn’t hard to find: you could go through all the first day of Re:think 2015 collecting plenty of buzzwords, but seeing no actual ads.

On Monday, in fact, the technocrats reigned. Unilever’s Sthanunathan and Keith Weed offered a future-focused overview of modern marketing, with programmatic advertising, purpose branding, snackable content and authenticity all getting a look-in. The speech came to life when it got practical. Weed offered a lovely example of data-led content marketing – a Unilever site that used big data to predict hair trends three months in advance, giving the company time to get ahead on search keywords and how-to video content before the trend actually hits. Sthanunathan issued imperatives for researchers looking to survive in the new world – demanding we as an industry move from risk mitigation to imagining the possibilities for our clients. “We are going to be remembered for what outcomes we drove, not what insights we brought to the table.”

The rest of the day’s speakers took him to heart – there was a particular emphasis on marketing mix modelling and how to improve it. The theme that kept coming up, led by Jim Spaeth of Sequent, was how in its emphasis on channels and different media – rather than creative – modelling did a great disservice to the long-term brand building ability of great creative. Creative, as multiple speakers concluded, drives 70% of ROI offline, and even at 40% it’s the single biggest contributor to a digital campaign’s success.

On Tuesday, creative struck back. We got to see our first campaign – a Snapchat-based piece of creative work by BBDO for a New Zealand don’t drive stoned PSA. “Tinny Vision” was a brilliant concept – reaching the right audience at the right time on a channel they trusted – exactly the kind of work to thrive in the bright future promised on Day 1.

And in general on Day 2 and 3, storytelling, great creative and great content got their due, with some fascinating case studies and inspiring presentations. Big Data may have the numbers, but insights still has the style, with marvellously smooth and engaging presentations from Tasha Space of CS SPACE, Barry Blyn of ESPN and Greg Hewitt of SEEK Company among others. Hewitt’s presentation was a personal highlight of the conference – he explored the idea of empathy, both unconscious (Contagious Empathy, as when we see film of a mountain climber and our palms get sweaty) and willed (Cognitive Empathy, when we make ourselves feel the other person’s perspective). For anyone interested in the role of emotion in decision making, Hewitt’s talk was fascinating, and had practical applications: SEEK worked with Always on their smash hit #likeagirl campaign at this year’s Super Bowl.

Other great case studies included Coca-Cola’s use of advanced text analytics and their use of real-time emotional tracking to respond rapidly to changes of sentiment in Brazil during the world cup*, Wells Fargo telling stories to help newly married same-sex couples understand their financial options, Susan Komen’s use of metaphor to conceptualise the experiences of breast cancer survivors, and Comedy Central’s brilliant and provocative explanation of how useless analysis of “millennials” as a whole had been for understanding race.

There were controversial opinions too. In a detailed but passionate defense of loyalty marketing, Leslie Wood of Nielsen sounded outraged that anyone might target mere reach. Clorox announced that anyone 35 and up was dead to them. And Dirk Ziems of ConceptM had a modest proposal for the many marketers struggling to understand the multi-channel and multi-screen impact of a cross-media campaign. Ditch the complex touchpoint studies, he implied, and just do some great qual.

Still, the harsher realities of the modern business kept on surfacing. A minor theme of the conference was ad avoidance – people pushing brands away, ignoring or simply shutting off ads. Ad avoidance is where the industry’s preaching of consumer centricity finds its limit – marketers constantly interpret the clear wish to see less as a secret desire to see more, but louder or more supposedly relevant.

Unfortunately, nobody seriously challenged the idea that you combat ad avoidance by ever-fiercer grabs for attention. But Duane Varan of MediaScience at least came close, in an excellent presentation pointing out the simple truth that most ad avoidance is down to behavioural factors, and has almost nothing to do with the content of the ads. Co-viewing with others, or visceral states like thirst and hunger, play a far larger part in determining ad avoidance than anything happening on the screen.

The ARF this decade has had a real sense of mission around re-establishing and building on the “ground truths” of advertising. In particular, ARF President Gayle Fuguitt’s keynote claim that “brands are built in the brain” is backed up by a series of strong studies focusing on neuroscience. At Re:think 2015, Fuguitt announced half a dozen ground truth experiments on topics like cross-platform interaction effects and the merits of advertising versus promotion. Participants were asked to get involved with these. Analytics may be the big story right now, but the ARF looks well placed to analyse the analytics era with rigour.


  1. From Facebook: Mobile is where the initial flirtation with a purchase happens, but for high-friction buys it’s still desktops that seal the deal: psychologically at-PC purchase feels more permanent and serious.
  2. From Wells Fargo: Storytelling starts with a “dream hypothesis” – imagine the ideal outcome of your research and the story you most want to tell. Then modify it to fit the reality.
  3. From Shareablee: 18-24 year olds don’t share, or care about stories much: funny and smart stuff is what motivates them to spread content. Storytelling only kicks in once you hit your 30s and presumably are getting too old to actually live the stories!
  4. From CivicScience: The single most predictive celebrity – as in, the one where a “like” is most useful in predicting the outcomes to a whole range of other questions – is Toronto rapper Drake.
  5. From ESPN: The difference between a good research report and a great one is a willingness to spend time in the “foggy part” of analysis, hunting the insight and working on getting the metaphor and summary exactly right.
  6. From Kantar Operations: A survey on household device usage was 43% accurate. Analysing the output of meters raised that to 87%.
  7. From Neuro Insight: Many ads suffer from a ‘closure effect’ where the story ends before the final logo or brand shot. This is explicitly telling the brain to switch off!
  8. From the NCAA: A great way to create “snapback” – switching attention suddenly from a device screen back to TV – is to yell out an athlete’s name in the middle of an advert. It’s crude, but it works.
  9. From Comedy Central: Just studying “millennials” tells you almost nothing about minority experience – you have to go deeper. “The multicultural millennial is a white construct.”

From BBDO: “95% of consumption is off-strategy”. OK, it’s an old industry saying, but it’s always good to be reminded that the reality of consumer behaviour only occasionally aligns with our tidy models of it.

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One response to “Re:think 2015: Searching For Truths in the Analytic Age

  1. You KNOW that I wish I had been there after reading this Tom. lot’s of great thought starters. I really like the contextual difference between mobile and PC interactions you point out from FB. this idea that same message/ different technology delivery delivers different emotional connections is an interesting one. which got me thinking about Mr Poltrack’ s in many ways justifiable comment about television. I have long suspected that the television’s role as the dominant electronic social medium is far from over. and especially perhaps for the generations ( and dominant spenders ) that Clorox seems to feel they don’t need to reach anymore. so many great starting points for drinks time debates. well done

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