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Mad men become math men

Mad men become math men

The big idea drove advertising campaigns for decades.  Brand owners looked to their advertising agencies to conceive clever answers to their big questions “what’s the concept?” and “where’s the hook?”  They were in constant search of the big idea so clever and compelling that customers would be left with no other choice than to want to buy.  In the era of big brands going to mass markets with big messages, the Creative Director and Copywriter ruled the advertising agency.

Children of the 1970s will remember “A Mars a day helps you work rest and play”, “People like Polo”, “A drink’s too wet without one” and “clunk click every trip”; some might even remember the pre–cursor to “Have a break, have a Kit–Kat”, the brilliant “You can’t sing, you can’t dance, you look awful – you’ll go a long way”.  The 1960s, 70s and 80s were halcyon days for above–the–line interruption advertising and heady times for the inventive communications agency with a talented Creative Director.

Agencies were appointed based on reputation and Creative Directors such as John Webster and Copywriters such as Charles Saatchi made reputations for themselves, making their agencies the destination of choice for big brands and their ensuing production and media budgets.

The gut feel of the genius Creative Director was a key component in releasing millions of pounds of budget to launch campaigns.

This bohemian approach to the communications process was great fun but it was ultimately unsustainable.  For every campaign which resonated there were just as many which flopped.  “You’re never alone with a Strand” famously singlehandedly destroyed the cigarette brand it sought to build but there were many more which enjoyed as much media space at the time but never made it out of the blocks.  Virtually none of us recall Pepsi’s “Have a Pepsi day”, Bic’s “Flick your Bic!” and a personal favourite, Denim’s “Denim – for men who don’t have to try too hard”!

As brand owners grew increasingly anxious about relying on the subjective genius of the Creative Director so the Media Director grew more powerful in the decision making process.  New types of media were emerging and the science of KPI measurement was honed, allowing for more accurate and targeted media placement than ever before.

Accurate messaging became as important as clever messaging, with efficient use of media budget becoming a major driver of the big decisions.

Increasingly the Media Director found herself in the spotlight, with the big project decisions leaning on her, and pre and post–campaign success determined by media exposure, brand recognition and ultimately the impact on sales.

From this Media Director versus Creative Director power struggle emerged the Strategist, someone who knew enough about both disciplines to understand their complementary importance and drive campaign direction with a foot in both camps.  The Director of Strategy was rarely as flamboyant as the Creative Director or as analytical as the Media Director but knew enough about how to piece a campaign together, how to conduct good research and how to impress prospective clients to get the best from his Creative and Media colleagues.

And then along came digital.

Communications was no longer presentational but it was interactive.  The brand, so used to being in full control of the message, was no longer in control.  The user, with access to the keyboard, the mouse and the touch–screen could do whatever they want.  Punch–drunk on this level of power, the demanding customer would engage with a brand’s digital communications any way they wished, thank–you–very–much.

With the customer in full control the strategist was the right guy to meet the challenge, and his only means of succeeding was by obsessing about the fully in–control customer.  Specifically he could get the information he needed by gleaning evidence from research.  It was behaviorally–led rather than opinion–led research; more a case of “observe what I do” rather than “observe what I say I’ll do”.

This meant knowing everything about Analytics.  And heat maps.  User tests and user surveys.  Focus groups and stakeholder analysis.  With the user in total control the means of connecting to her wasn’t about getting attention through the big idea, rather it was about giving attention through big insight.

In the 1960s the mad man with the big idea called the shots.  In the 2010s the man to listen to is the math man with the big insight.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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