No Substitute for Creativity in Marketing: Appier COO Winnie Lee

Data and automation have rewritten the marketer’s manual, but creativity still goes a long way.

Every year, marketing professionals deliver exciting new campaigns in the digital space. These entertain, inspire, inform and occasionally, persuade. Take for instance this year’s Moldy Whopper campaign by Burger King featuring a rotting Whopper, or Samsung’s Bandersnatch-style Instagram story thread.

These campaigns are driven by creative thought and amplified by technological power. But the holy grail in digital marketing is ROI and campaign success. Omni channel online engagements and jargon-heavy metrics make it difficult for companies to establish a direct relationship between their digital spends and wins.

Brands would previously crunch engagement and impression numbers without understanding how to integrate them into their marketing. Now, technology is no longer a silent spectator in the digital marketing arena.

With marketers putting more stock in marketing technologies, the trend is set. Where there were about 150 documented marketing solutions in 2011, they have proliferated to 8000 today. That’s a growth of over 5000%.

And digital marketing will continue to grow as a mix of art and science, Winnie Lee tells Jumpstart during the 2020 Web Summit conference. Lee is the COO of Appier, a marketing tech company based in Taiwan.

“At every stage of the customer engagement journey between a company to their end users, different approaches are required to meet different purposes,” Lee says. “All these different purposes will require very different type of strategy and communication plans. That’s the reason why [digital marketing] is a combination of art and science going forward.”

Digital marketing is a creative-analytical hybrid

A range of tech solutions have emerged to enable automation, analytics, and optimization in marketing. They come under the umbrella of marketing technology, or ‘martech’ as it is otherwise called. The industry, worth over US$120 billion, turbocharges marketing efforts across the web, email, apps, and social media.

Appier, which Lee currently heads, provides some of these solutions. The company uses AI and big data to guide companies across the marketing funnel. This includes customer acquisition and engagement, revenue generation, and behavior mapping and prediction.

Lee notes that making sense out of data is a major pain point for brands. The data points that form the base for analysis and predictions are fragmented across channels, she explains. They become more complex as they accumulate. So the case for marketing technology was already made when big data burst into the scene.

“Beyond three dimensions, as a human it’s difficult to identify patterns. This is where AI came into play because AI can make sense of data from multi-dimensional aspects,” Lee says.

This year, companies are also contending with the urgency to digitally adapt to changing consumer behavior. The case for solutions such as Appier’s has only become stronger post-pandemic this year. Going digital is no longer opt-in.

What has also become clear is that marketing technology is no replacement for creativity. It needs the active application of the human mind for deployment across content creation, social media, search engines, and the many other channels of reach that exist. The contemporary marketer’s challenge is to execute campaigns using both creativity and tech tools.

Lee points out that marketing communications is about reaching real human beings. It’s why creativity in tune with ground-level insights are so important. Crafting a brand message to achieve this is not something that technology can replace.

This is because machines and intelligent models are trained using vast databases of existing material. Even if they were to do something creative, such as make music, they’re not making anything new. They’re piecing together elements that work from what already exists.

At the same time, Lee notes that brands need to ensure that the messaging is delivered to the right users appropriately. That’s where data can help. “It has to be timely and relevant to these end users’ current contexts and situations so they will appreciate receiving these messages.”

The relevance of the data economy is not lost on marketers. Today’s leading marketers are highly likely to invest in improving the quality and volume of primary data they capture. Further, they agree that machine learning can help to build a personalized customer journey. When paired with data, it can also discover the right potential customers.

The fine lines of data in digital marketing

The fact that marketers now work with data can add a layer of untrustworthiness to the practice.

Certain campaigns have attracted criticism for over-selling, manipulation, and questionable messaging. Take for instance Budweiser’s ‘Reunited with Buds’ commercial, which Co:Collective’s Neil Parker called a “criminal abnegation of responsibility.”

Consequently, data adds a level of ethical complexity to digital marketing because how it can be used, or misused.

The closest thing the world currently has to a solid data protection framework is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or the GDPR.

The GDPR has become a standard for drafting privacy policies and data regulation owing to its stringency. Companies and governments alike are catching up, but gaps in privacy and personal data protection persist the world over, in Asia as well.

Yet, the absence of data, a competitive advantage in business, is bad news for marketers. Current discourse centers around using data in a way that does not affect personal privacy concerns, Lee says.

“Marketing strategies or activities will go back maybe 10 years [without data],” Lee points out. “But we also don’t want people in the industry to aggressively accumulate end users’ data without their permission or informing them of what kind of data will be collected and utilized, and for what purposes.”

She adds that regulation will be healthy for the industry. By making users comfortable with the way their data is used, and helping marketers work with purpose-driven data with consent, it can add value to the industry in the long-term.

“If we can do this right, I do believe data can still be used to help people’s life… and the end user can feel the clear benefits, because everyone, including myself, wants to receive more relevant information,” Lee says.

This ties back to the sum and substance of marketing. Several wordy definitions exist, but truncated, they all boil down to communication.

Marketing is a communication between a company and a consumer. It’s the brand talking about its solutions, yes, but also its narrative and principles. It’s the consumer communicating their expectations to the brand, asking them to adapt.

Successful marketing emerges by establishing this line of communication. When the communication endures, it becomes meaningful. Even as marketing technologies pursue ROI, their job is only done when they create meaning in a boundless digital landscape.

Header image courtesy of Appier

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