BIG DATA VS. THE BIG IDEA – What is the future of human creativity in advertising?

Has creative advertising reached a John Henry moment? Will artificial intelligence and big data be the engine that drives human intelligence and the big idea to the brink of extinction? Will ad agency copywriters and art directors be relegated to the scrap heap of ad history?  (They were a clever lot, but no match for the pinpoint accuracy of data driven micro-marketing.)

Those questions were raised back in the summer of 2017 when Jason Heller of McKinsey & Company, declared, “the era of the big idea and big campaign is dead.” (Few, 2017) His statement was notable because Heller was the keynote speaker at the Cannes Festival of Creativity – arguably the most prestigious of all of the creative award shows.

Big idea super

The audacity of that statement rankled many on the creative side of advertising. It was pure heresy to suggest that the teachings and beliefs of ad legends like David Ogilvy, Leo Burnett and Bill Bernbach would take a back seat to the purveyors of research and statistical data. How could a guy from McKinsey, who never knew the sweat and toil that go into coming up with a big idea or selling a game-changing concept to a client, make such a statement at such a revered creative gathering?

In an effort to find an answer, I talked with two experts in their prospective fields representing the yin and yang of creative/data marketing.  Speaking for the Big Idea “yin” is Keith Reinhard, a founder of the Omnicom network, and Chairman Emeritus of DDB Worldwide, one of the most awarded global creative agencies. And for the “yang” with Big Data’s POV, I spoke with Joseph Panzarella, Director of Analytics at Rokkan, and a professor of data and analytics at NYU.

Keith & Joe

I asked them what they thought of the keynote speaker’s contention that the era of the big idea is dead. Here is what our creative guru had to say…

K:  I’ve been around this business for over 6 decades, and I’ve heard so many times about something being dead…agencies are dead, television is dead, and now the big idea is dead…or the big campaign. I would certainly agree with (Heller’s comment)…advertising isn’t about that one big Super bowl spot…but rather a cohesive message built across platforms in time.

It’s about a cohesive message…But that can be ignited or inspired by a big idea. And I don’t know what he says the substitute of the big idea is.

Joseph, the data expert, noted the timing of the keynote speaker’s statement and contends that things may have changed since that “headline” rocked the ad world.

J: That was pre-Facebook, Cambridge Analytica fiasco, 2017. I think anything happening before that event believed, yes, the big idea is dead. Because we can micro-target, data wise, programmatic buying, ad tech, etc. we can find whoever we want to find immediately, put the message in front of them based on their cookie stack…and no reason to invest in the big idea because we can find people with a very fine-toothed comb.

It was a brilliant thing that (Cambridge Analytica) did. They could take a survey and determine where people’s minds were politically, and then they got in trouble because they took not only your profile, but stole your friend’s info, that was the illegal part.

But if you look at it objectively, it was fantastic, and it worked. In that they were able to seed content in the Facebook platform, and elsewhere, to really get people to talk about pros and cons of different candidates.

So, it worked.  It is a great case study…but just because you can do something doesn’t make it morally correct.  As we see now it was morally incorrect, with the illegal part and privacy concerns.

But Joseph also noted the privacy issues and potential personal data protections on the horizon that may put a damper on the future of Big Data. The GDPR rules that were put into effect in the EU in May of 2018 will tighten already strict laws in the EU and seeks to control  what companies can do with people’s data. The law restricts the use of personal information like consumer’s names, phone number, location and IPA addresses, as well as even more sensitive information like sexual orientation, health data, and political opinions. These rules have a huge effect on doing business outside of the EU, including the US.   (Bahra, 2018)

J: I think what is going to happen now is a lot of those security protocols are going to be shutting down and it’s going to be a much more diluted, muted profile from a targeting perspective, therefore, from a creative perspective the messaging can’t be as tight.

But I think the big idea, the big creative, the ability to cut thru clutter is going to be in vogue and more fashionable again because you’re going to need that wedge to get people’s attention, and then do the micro-targeting at a less personal level.

From Keith’s vantage point, one thing is non-negotiable moving forward…the need for a “brand story.”

K: The other thing embedded in his (Heller’s) statement, the need for brands to have an enduring brand story. We need to figure out how we can put together a big brand idea, that then can be translated into, some, not necessarily all channels…

The idea for Old Spice, that was not just a single idea, after the big splash of the commercial there were opportunities for other actions, but it was inspired by a big idea.

Old Spice.png

Of course, Keith was referring to the much awarded and highly successful Old Spice “Smell Like a Man, Man,” campaign from Wieden + Kennedy, that not just led with a big idea but followed it up with a series of brilliant digital extensions tied into the brand story (O’Leary & Wasserman, 2010). Keith brought up a few other examples of his favorite brand stories:


K: For years I liked what Subaru was doing, consistently telling stories on TV, on radio, online. You go to the website and you see what their story is. Their advertising was very consistent.

For a long time, in the insurance category, Geico had a distinctive personality, the promise, they found a way to make you enjoy that way they were doing it…people relate, have an emotional connection to brands.

Our data expert, however, was not quite as sold on the need for a brand story.

J: That case study with Cambridge Analytica showed the power of not having to have a tent pole brand idea. Yes, it was the election.  But you could still micro-target and hit people’s hot spots without the need for the umbrella of something bigger.

But even he conceded in the current, pro-privacy GDPR environment, brand stories and the big idea may not be dead yet:

J: The big idea becomes more relevant again because of the privacy/security concerns of having to go after people.

Keith sees a future where both technology and human creativity could co-exist, and even benefit each other.

K: Jim Collins said, ”Be aware of the tyranny of “OR” versus the genius of “AND”, it’s not this OR that, but this AND that…” (Jim Collins, 2018)

Combine knowledge, technology AND talent…If advertising could make a brand popular in the general society, and then leverage that using AI, and making custom ads, then that could work.


Our data specialist agrees that advertising is a human art, but it can be assisted by science:

J: Some might say it’s a combination of both, but I do believe it’s the human art – and I’m a data guy! I believe the ability to scale it is where the science comes in. How can you touch more people, the same idea can resonate with different people, I think that data analytics and insights can help from that stand point, but I do believe that art is still key.  I’m a contrarian data analyst.

Additionally, Keith sees a threat from what he calls, “short-termism” and constant AB testing.

K: The problem with short-termism, created by two things, shareholder primacy, where CEO’s have to be worried about 3 months, instead of the longer term, and then the fact that we think we can test in real time and quickly change direction, this means the integrity of the brand story is threatened, and breached.

The threats are micro-media, short-termism, and speed.  We have to acknowledge that speed is the currency, but sometimes it takes a little longer to really establish a brand.

And Keith has some very scientific, statistical proof of the need for these brand stories and emotion in advertising. He referred to a graph provided by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (Binet, 2012).  It shows that, after three years’ time, in terms of profit, those advertisers that committed to emotional appeals, outnumbered by nearly two to one, those who relied on rational argument.


K: The IPA shows that emotional advertising, connecting with human emotion, we now have scientific evidence to prove that this is how people behave, this is how they vote, choose brands, this is how they choose partners, life partners, is emotion…

A click is not a connection, and now there is scientific evidence that this is true. We knew this all along…

If you’re going to use testing, be sure that everything you’re testing is right for that brand, comes out of that brand, if you really believe you get insights that A is better than B, than C, make sure you’re telling the story of the brand.


Joe agrees that A/B testing may not be the answer for everybody, but a more promising testing approach can be found in multi-variate testing.

J: There’s some debate on A/B testing your way to the answer or do you do something else…you need to be a heavy spender in the digital space to put together all of the variables to the test.  If you’re ATT, Verizon, State Farm, a big spender.  But if you’re not a big spender, it’s going to take a long time. And you’re just going to get incrementally better over time.

But can all of this testing, data collection and AI actually create an ad that would move a consumer, a living human being, to become a brand loyalist? Could machine learning teach itself to create an emotional attachment to a brand?  Keith is skeptical:

K: We know computers can compute faster than human brains, Watson can do all that stuff. But, I’ve heard some really bad tunes written by computers, and I’m sure they might learn to write better tunes, movies, and books, but that human element (is key) the creator understanding the emotional appeal of the science.

When asked if machine learning could ever create a good ad, Joe brings up the famous “Rembrandt” experiment” (Nudd, 2016). In this project, created by J Walter Thompson Amsterdam for its banking client ING, (which won 16 Cannes Lions in 2016 – by the way) the “next” Rembrandt painting was “painted by a computer” as a result of studying the Dutch master’s works and creating algorithms to replicate his process and progress. Could similar technology conceive effective advertising?

Next Rembrandt.png

J:  I think it could initially, but once you get away from human inputs, it becomes very similar. Without new information coming in, it will get incrementally better, but I think it will get stale quickly. It needs new observations that are off the beaten path.

In the Rembrandt study, they took all of the Rembrandt paintings, and fed a machine chronologically, here’s the first one he did, then the next and the next…Now that you’ve seen how his brush stroke changed, how his colors evolved, what would be the next painting he would do, then the next 10 he would do? I think 3, 4, 5 would be very similar and they wouldn’t improve.

If was infusion of new data along the way, then maybe version 10 or 20 would be different. But if there wasn’t new information, personally I think the machine learning will get stale in a fast period of time.

So, to answer our original question, “What is the future of human creativity in advertising? Our experts seem to suggest that the combination of human art AND statistical science can create advertising that is more innovative, emotionally charged, better targeted, and possibly more effective in the future.

And for a final word on the future of creativity in advertising, let’s go back to the past and  remember the words of the great Bill Bernbach.

Is advertising’s John Henry moment at hand?  Perhaps not.

At least, not yet…



(2018, May 16). Retrieved November 25, 2018, from

Binet, L. (2012, December 6). Emotional Campaigns are more Profitable. Retrieved November 25, 2018, from

Few, L. (2017, June 19). Is the Era of the Big Idea Dead? Retrieved November 25, 2018, from

Genius of the AND. (n.d.). Retrieved November 25, 2018, from

Nudd, T. (2016, June 27). Inside ‘The Next Rembrandt’: How JWT Got a Computer to Paint Like the Old Master. Retrieved November 25, 2018, from

O’Leary, N., & Wasserman, T. (2010, July 25). Old Spice Campaign Smells Like a Sales Success, Too. Retrieved from

Panzarella, J. (2018, November 13). Big Data vs the Big Idea [Personal interview].

Reinhard, K. (2018, November 12). Big Data vs the Big Idea [Personal interview].


Author: DigiDan

Hi, I'm Dan. I live in Stamford Ct, and work in New York City. I am the father of two very creative kids, both graduates from Syracuse, and the husband to an amazing woman who is going back to school as I am. I work as a creative director and copywriter at a NYC advertising agency and have lived over 4 years of my life onboard MetroNorth, the commuter train that goes into New York (that's 2 hours/day, 5 day/week, 50 weeks/year, for 28 years - Do the Math!). In my spare time, I love playing music, piano mostly, and I spend inordinate amounts of time at my health club. That's enough for'll get to know me more from my posts!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s