Giles Keeble: are ‘math men’ clients driving us towards Peppa Pig advertising?

I came across an article in The New Yorker about how the ‘Math Men’ with their algorithms have replaced the ’Mad Men’ as the kingpins of ad agencies. This is because they can sell ‘access to the realtime flow of your daily life to directly influence your behaviour for profit.’ Apparently, Unilever ran a 30 second ad in Brazil with 100,000 permutations so the creatives are bound to have had a lesser role. But a few thoughts occur to me. One is that someone had to create the original ad in the first place, and unless this was done by AI (which might in fact produce ads as bad or good as some of the ones we see – a point I’ve made before) then the creative department had been involved.

I also wonder if 100,000 variations was necessary. A film or a novel can appeal to millions of people without permutations because it says something to all those people, though no doubt in different ways. Traditionally, good advertising tried to do the same, and planners of one sort or another tried to make sure the most clearly defined target audience got a chance or two to see it, and for it to be relevant to them.

It would be interesting to know if any decent research was done to follow up on those 100,000 and how that compared to a control group. Another point is made by Francis Ford Coppola in Time magazine: he says that what algorithms do is ‘categorise’ and that art can’t be made that way. We measure what we can measure, not necessarily what needs to be measured. And we certainly don’t always understand what we have measured.


I used to run a course on Judgement in advertising which wasn’t just about looking at ads and deciding whether it was good or not but looking at all the points along the way that might affect the final product. The important point is to have shared criteria. If you can’t agree on the role of the advertising, the TA and the creative strategy, it will be a mess. I had a number of clients who said they wanted ‘cutting edge’ advertising, but when we showed them what we thought that meant, we soon discovered it was not what they had in mind.

To kick the workshop off I showed a cartoon. Some of the participants got it, some didn’t, some found it funny, some didn’t, for a number of reasons – language, culture, sense of humour. But out of well over a hundred participants, only one ever said the criteria was whether it made you laugh.

I was reminded of this when I read about the British Professor going up in a lift who made the “Are you being Served’ remark ‘Ladies’ Lingerie!’ which so offended an American woman professor that she lodged a complaint. I’m not going into the rights and wrongs here, just that there was no shared knowledge of the ‘joke.’

Language and cultural differences can cause problems in communication. When I was on the Cannes Jury this was evident. But it seems that the English that we (and to some extent the Americans) speak is in danger of not being the English that non-English speakers understand because it uses so many cultural phrases and metaphors. I hope this doesn’t lead to yet more lowest common denominator work, but when work is targeted at a global audience (how many 100s of thousands?!) then it has to be understood at some level by everyone. I once showed a rough idea for kid’s book to an agent – it was liked but it wouldn’t translate. Peppa Pig – that’s the way forward!


To take up a point made above about bad ads. Many of us over the years have spent time, thought and energy trying to champion the idea that ’smart dimes will beat dumb dollars’ and simply putting across a message may work in the short term but not as a brand campaign that can have a positive longer term effect on the business. It might seem invidious to choose just one ad to make the point, but I will single out the wedding ad for Purple Bricks, though there are others.

Does the message that Purple Bricks is an online estate agent but with real people come across? Yes. Is it appallingly written, shot and acted, and as a result totally over-exposed? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Will people use Purple Bricks when they sell or buy a home? I do hope not.

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