Recently I had the good fortune and privilege to give the keynote presentation at the AdMonsters Publisher Forum in San Diego. The topic of the presentation, “What’s So Funny About Innovation?”, focused on the parallels between stand-up comedy and the difficulties of innovating within a data-driven business culture.
Full disclosure: this was my first experience within the digital ad operations arena, so I was a little curious as to why I was invited to speak at this particular event. I’m a Principal at Method Inc., a digital and brand experience design firm based in San Francisco. We do things like design interfaces for digital devices, smartphones, and more traditional applications like graphic and service design. My presentation was based on an article I wrote for Method’s 10×10 series, a collection of thought pieces we publish on a somewhat regular basis. You can download a pdf of the article here if you’re interested.
Apparently, Rob Beeler at AdMonsters happened upon the article and asked if I’d be willing to speak at the Publisher’s Forum. Now I understand why and I’m really glad he did. One of the main ideas behind the comedy analogy is the often contentious relationship between data and creativity. Comedians don’t do traditional research, but they sure do study their target audiences. And just like digital advertising technologies, they don’t have to wait long wondering if their creative product was successful. They’re either laughing or they ain’t. Or worse. In contrast, the companies represented at the conference are awash in data. Or maybe saturated is a better word. Or drenched? You get the idea. That’s both a tremendous asset, and a huge liability.
After kicking off the conference with my presentation, I hung around for another day to listen to the other presentations. You know, the ones that were actually about the category everyone else in the room worked in. It really was fascinating to learn about the capabilities in place regarding real time bidding, reporting, and the ecosystem of brokers, exchanges, and technologies that have evolved so quickly to build an entire industry. I’ve been in the creative and marketing services business in one way or another for over 25 years, so I have a little perspective here. It’s clear to me that at the moment, the capabilities are way ahead of the advertisers’ ability to apply or even comprehend them. What a great place to be.
I realize that’s easy for me to say. I don’t have to work through all the intricacies such mountains of data create, both on the positive and negative side of the ledger. But perhaps because I can view it at a safe distance, I might offer a little perspective that can be tough to appreciate when you spend all day trying to wring more meaning, and therefore profit, from every beautiful detail. But innovation, and the profit and market share that can come with it, is often driven by the ability to see patterns others miss, instead of trying to find the answers in ever more granular or proprietary data. That’s where the parallel to comedy comes in. Comedians generally have the same life experiences as everyone else, they just develop the ability to step back and see what’s funny about the same stuff we all see, but somehow miss.
In my presentation, I tried to outline the differences between data, information, knowledge, understanding, all the way up to wisdom. Each higher level is made out of the stuff beneath it, so more data isn’t bad, it’s just more raw material. You still have to make it into something useful. And unlike the world of natural resources, data is becoming all too plentiful, not scarcer. So the presentations and insights I heard at the conference that were most interesting to me were the ones that moved data up that hierarchy as quickly and cleanly as possible.
Conversely, what bothered me was not in disagreeing with any of the products or platforms that were being debated (How could I? I have no direct experience with any of them), but with what I saw as value being left on the table. I saw the potential for not just matching buyers and sellers of ad space in ever-more efficient markets, but in a new set of patterns waiting to be identified and understood. I’m not talking about stalking individual site visitors wherever they roam, but about stepping back from the ad transactions to find the broader patterns only you can see – just like a great comedian.
Finally, the other key finding I took away from the conference is that shop talk doesn’t need to be dry, and even people who are direct competitors in business can still form a tight, supportive community. The only hot air flying around that conference was the warm San Diego breeze. The signal-to-noise ratio of both the formal presentations and casual conversations I heard was very, very high. And these people definitely know how to have a good time while working. I hope my presentation did a little more than just generate a few chuckles among the conference audience, because I would welcome the chance to hang out with this crew again as soon as possible.