Mad Men + Maths Men = Successful Marketing in the Digital Age

Mad Men + Maths Men = Successful Marketing in the Digital Age

A great article and interview in The Times, on Saturday 24th October 2015, with Miles Young – the Chief Executive of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide.


His basic contention is something I’ve believed throughout my 17 years in the internet marketing space – that quality advertising in the 21st century requires both:

i) The scientific knowledge that comes from the excellent data we can utilise in the digital era (the “maths men” side of things).

ii) The human element of innovation and ingenuity that can only come from a creative approach (the “mad men” side of things – obviously a reference to the famous TV show of the same name).

And if I’m honest, despite my specialisation in the internet, I lean far more towards the “mad men” creative approach than I do to the “maths men” analytical approach.

One of the things I’ve always tried to explain to clients or other internet marketers is that the most important word in the phrase ‘internet marketing’ is the word ‘marketing’, NOT the word ‘internet’.

I’ll illustrate this with a bit of background that might initially appear to disprove my theory:

Before we had such things as Click Through Rates and Cost Per Impression measurements, one of the ways advertising agencies determined how many people were seeing their adverts was to park up next to a billboard poster. They’d then count the number of cars driving past the poster and devise a calculation based on the number of vehicles they spotted in a particular time frame. Thus they could suggest that x number of people were looking at the poster every hour and then attempt to gauge how successful the poster might be based on that measurement.

Nowadays, of course, we can measure how many times a particular advert is shown online and follow that through with a tally of the number of people that click through to a website, and even further to determine how many of those people actually perform a desired action once they get to the site.

So yes, the current model of digital advertising is far more sophisticated and potentially beneficial to advertisers than the billboard example of advertising success measurement outlined above.

And yet, the basic principle of working out how many people in a particular sample group (the people who see the advert) are convinced to do something as a result of seeing that advert, is one that goes right back to the days of coupon clipping from the local newspaper.

My well-thumbed copy of the classic book, “Tested Advertising Methods”, by John Caples, features numerous examples of old school adverts that were both measurable and successful as a result of applying the knowledge gained from the testing process in order to fine tune the wording, colour scheme, layout etc.

{As an aside, if you’re not aware of the legacy of the legendary advertising man John Caples, you may well have come across one of his ads – which is certainly a candidate for the most influential print advert of all time – “They Laughed When I Sat Down At the Piano – But When I Started to Play!-”}

This method of testing, refining, testing, refining and so on, is one that works much more immediately on the internet, of course. But the principles and motivations behind it are the same as those of printing 2 different versions of an advert, then measuring how many coupons are sent back from each ad to determine the “winner”. (A process known as “Beat the Control”, as the winning ad is then classed as the Control ad, with all subsequent tests being made to try and beat this ad in terms of the number of coupons returned).

So certainly I’m not suggesting that the analytical measurement of data is pointless – far from it. But, as Miles Young says in the article from The Times:

“..There is an obsessive belief that the measure is the end and not the means… You can measure clicks but you’re not evaluating them.”

Which chimes with something I’ve always said to my clients – the only really important measure of whether something’s working or not is whether you’re generating more business as a result of it. The way I see it, extra cash in the till is the key measure for any advertising campaign, however many extra % points of CTR you might have been able to achieve.

So having looked a little at what the “maths men” do and deciding that it’s certainly useful, but only so much – just what is it that I suggest the “mad men” are bringing to the party to make them the more important factor for success?

Again I’ll reference a classic text in the field, this time “Scientific Advertising” by Claude C Hopkins. He, too, talks about coupons and the returns from printed adverts, but one of the things I think that sets him apart from the “bean counters” is the style of his writing. Consider this paragraph:

“A headline is intended to salute the people you desire to reach. It is just like a bell-boy in a hotel calling for Mr Jones. Here is a message for him. Or like the heading on a news article. All of us depend on headlines to point out what we desire to read.”

A perfect description of why headlines are valuable for adverts – whether they be in a daily newspaper or at the top of a Google AdWord.

It’s the creativity – the “mad” element – that is essential for the process of evaluation that Miles Young talks about. ie we can tell that advert A beat advert B in our test, but what we need to find out is why? And, more importantly, we need to know what to do about it.

Interestingly, my copies of the 2 classic advertising books I’ve discussed so far each feature references to probably the most famous advertising man of all time – David Ogilvy. (He has a quote on the cover of my version of the Hopkins book and wrote a foreword to the Caples book).

Ogilvy, the man responsible for what is almost certainly the most famous (if usually misquoted) piece of copywriting ever – “At 60 miles an hour the loudest noise in this new Rolls-Royce comes from the electric clock” – was widely respected as a copywriting genius, but himself considered that his own “long suit” was in research, not copy. That is, he believed that his genius for coming up with effective slogans and promotional text was based on the fact that he took the time to understand as much as he possibly could about the subject he was trying to advertise.

He’d then think about what he was trying to achieve and see where he could make a connection between the message he wanted to put across and the facts he’d been able to gather during his research. (For example, the fact the Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud had an electric clock isn’t necessarily a great selling point, but when combined with the suggestion of effortless luxury implied by how quiet it is inside the cabin, it becomes an unforgettable and extremely persuasive image).

I would say this is much more of a human characteristic – the ability to make connections between seemingly unconnected facts – than being a simple function of analytical or mathematical reasoning.

So ultimately, if it’s good enough for David Ogilvy (and John Caples and Claude C Hopkins, among others), I see no reason why an approach that encompasses both the aspects discussed – be it more “mad” than “maths” – shouldn’t be the best way to be going about things for me, or for you.

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