Marketing is increasingly viewed as a science, where sophisticated modelling and data-driven decision-making are taking centre stage. Against this backdrop, has creativity become a less important marketing skill? It has certainly been argued that marketers come in two shapes – the scientist and the artist. My contention is that significant marketing success requires a careful balancing of both, and that neither is the superior marketing skill.

In a previous discussion (What To Say When), I scoped out the decision-making process, and the appropriate communications approach at each stage. So, working on the assumption that a decision to buy starts at awareness, let’s also start here in reviewing the relative roles of science and creativity on marketing success.

In my first major agency role with Mason Zimbler, our MD used a simple equation to set the scene which has stayed with me ever since:

Frequency x Impact = Awareness

The premise is that if either element is out of balance, your chances of success are limited. It is a simple concept. In regard to frequency, think ‘it takes more than one drip of water to get wet’. The Chartered Institute of Marketing in the UK suggest that it takes three sightings of an ad to really notice it. When we talk about impact, the most important element is relevance – did your ad, email, banner, blog, etc strike a chord with the recipient, if not they won’t notice you. (There’s also more on this in my article ‘what to say when’). So, if your piece is dull and irrelevant, your audience will not see it. Or, if your piece is stunningly relevant, but they only see if briefly, you’re unlikely to really get the message across. Taking these two elements as our bases of comparison, we’ll review the contribution of science and creativity to each.

The scientific approach to communication frequency: The scientific approach to managing the frequency of your marketing messaging is to model an ideal contact density for each segment or, in highly sophisticated set-ups, for each individual. By which we mean the number of exposures to a message typically required to elicit a response. This enables the marketer to develop a communications plan that ensures the optimum number of touches. Large consumer organisations, like banks, also use this technique to ensure that their customers aren’t over-communicated – having observed that over-communication can trigger complaints or defections, smart technology-driven rules are applied to ensure that this risk is minimised.

The creative approach to communication frequency: A creative approach to communications frequency is to think laterally. The best example of a really creative approach to this is the innovative use of ambient media. By putting themselves in the shoes of the audience, a creative team will dream up highly creative media placements to ensure that the message gets to people regularly. A great example from the not-for-profit sector is an NUS (National Union of Students) sexual health campaign, using stickered ten pence pieces scattered in student bars. This is creative thinking on many levels – firstly the location, then the assumption that a student would pick up a stray coin, and the association of the money having passed through many hands linking directly to the message itself. Another example of this is the use that Amplex deodorants made of placing their ads on the hanging hold bars on underground trains and busses – we all know how unpleasant it is to be on crowded public transport where someone nearby has a body odour issue. Creatively tapping into this gave Amplex a highly creative media placement opportunity – ensuring that commuters in London were served this message every time they travelled. By mapping out a buyer’s journey and thinking about how to get your message across creatively at each point, you can vastly increase your opportunity-to-see.

The scientific approach to communication relevance: Scientific marketing has increased the likely relevance of marketing messages exponentially in recent years. There is real value in powerful analytics, particularly if you’re able to cross hatch your analyses to build a full and rich picture of your market. Right message, right time, right medium can now be worked out for you using powerful optimisation software. The various data strategy awards are littered with excellent examples of this approach.

The creative approach to communication relevance: When it comes to creativity and relevance, we need only look to viral marketing for lessons in why creativity is essential. The Gadbury Gorilla ad would never have come about by virtue of scientific messaging development. Marketers need to remember that they are talking to people, with feelings and a sense of humour. We also all know that a recommendation from a friend is vastly superior in terms of our likelihood to listen than an official piece of marketing. As such, tapping into word of mouth is essential and creativity is king in the ‘click to forward’ world. The earlier examples of creative media placement also show how creativity can increase relevance by being appropriately positioned to amplify your message.