How to use data insight in your ad creatives with Anastasia Leng

In this episode, Anastasia Leng, Founder & CEO at Creative X discusses how marketing teams can marry creatives and data.

You'll learn

  • How to use data to fuel your creativity
  • How to test different creatives across platforms
  • Tips to improve your creative quality

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Anna Shutko:

Hello, Anastasia. Welcome to the show.

Anastasia Leng:

Hi Anna, thanks for having me.

Anna Shutko:

It’s awesome to have you. I really, really love the topic we have today. Creatives are eating the world at [inaudible 00:01:10] and the analytics of creative are more important than they have ever been. So my first question to you Anastasia would be, this is an interesting one. Marketing organizations have always been divided into sort of two camps. So there are the creative folks. And then there are data folks. And then there is this art and craft department. And then there is the analytics department. And now for the first time in quite a while, we’re seeing that these worlds are merging. So my question here would be how are marketers at top brands fusing creativity with data and how can we facilitate that process?

Anastasia Leng:

Yeah, it’s a really big question. I think we’re still trying to figure out a lot of it. But where you are, seeing to your point is, this merging I think for really one of the first times. What’s happening is, as you’ve highlighted, that traditionally marketers or marketeers tend to get bundled into one of two camps. Either they were the analytical folks or they were the creative folks. And these two camps were almost thought to be mutually exclusive. But then what’s happened in the last few years is, creative and visual have become such a big part of the marketer toolkit.

90% for a lot of brands of the way that their message is received, is to what is ultimately called the creative. At the same time a lot of research started coming out that said, “Hey, if you look at your media mix, creative is the biggest driver of ROI.” So when you compare it to targeting or placement or any of these other things, which is optimized by typically the ‘analytics folks’, creative was seen to be the largest contributor to campaign ROI. But it was actually the least understood. So all of a sudden, as a result of this, all of our messaging is in the creative.

It’s such a big driver of ROI, yet it’s the least understood element of the marketing and media mix. So as a result of this, you start to see some organizations thinking about how do we blend these two things together. And it was less about, first of all, sort of thinking, ”Great, let’s see these two folks and put them in one camp.” I think it was a lot more subtle than that. I think a lot of brands, what they started doing was creating departments that were cross-functional by nature.

So they had their creative team sitting right next to their analytics team. I think the other thing that started happening is, which again is a good thing and a bad thing to some extent, the expectations that were placed on marketers, were those where we expected them to be good at a little bit of everything. And that’s really difficult. You know, my personal opinion is that it’s never been more difficult to be a marketer because you have to be creative and analytical and everything else in between.

You just have to do so much. And so, I think there was more burden placed on the individual, but also organizations started to think about how do we create these programs that get these people sitting next to each other and talking about these things together. And we’ve seen a really nice evolution of that, where you have traditionally the consumer marketing insights teams sitting next to people who were content creators, heads of creative strategy, and things like that. I think one place in the industry where that dynamic is still being figured out is the creative agency versus the media agency.

Typically, these things have sat in completely different camps. But even at an industry-wide level, you’re seeing a lot of prominent people talk about the fact that that doesn’t really make sense anymore, right? We need to have these teams talking to each other and sharing data. I think right now the problem is there is like a wall of separation. So the creative team makes the content, passes it over to the media team who is typically, kind of a big analytical partner who runs the content, but the data from that is not being shared back again.

And I think as a result of this wall that’s been artificially put up, what is happening is a lot of brands are actually trying to bring this in-house so that they can remove those separations and actually build both analytical and creative teams that are talking to another and making great work together.

Anna Shutko:

Awesome. I think you mentioned very, very solid points. I really loved your point about marketing becoming both analytical and creative and all the expectations which are placed on marketers and it was super interesting to hear that actually 90% of our messaging is in the creative. I think it’s a very, very interesting angle. So my next question here would be, what are the best practices to increase the creative quality? Now that we are using creatives to communicate the brand, the messaging, product benefits, so many things, how can we make these creative really high quality?

Anastasia Leng:

Yes. I think everyone is trying to figure that out, right? And the reality is there are some elements that are always going to be very specific to the brand than your audience, your market, and your message. But one of the things that we find is there does seem to be a baseline of creative quality that brands can very easily implement, in order to drive up, what we call their creative quality score, which we found is tied to things like lower CPMs, higher ad recall, better view-through rates, etc. So one of the things that we have done is look at data that essentially determines whether or not certain creative elements are statistically tied to better media performance.

And we analyzed this across some of the biggest digital platforms out there. So YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. Then there are five themes that come out of this that seem to be almost creative. Some of our brand partners call this Creative Hygiene, right? There are these near-universal best practices that shouldn’t impede or restrict anyone’s creative freedom, but give your content an opportunity to be seen and to be heard. It’s almost like a canvas, right? They create a frame in which your content has a chance of being seen.

And these five best practices, they’re really quite simple, but they’re very high-impact. So the first one is you have to brand your content, right? Very obvious. But if you do brand it, you have to make sure the brand is present, in about the first two to five seconds of the piece of content. And that’s because most people are… The average view time of a Facebook video is about two seconds. For YouTube, it is five. So, when you have these [inaudible 00:07:48] form pieces of content and your brand isn’t seen until the very end, that’s a complete waste of impressions. So brand your content.

On top of that, there’s been a lot of research that shows that showing the product, whatever the product is, is really important. But again, there has been sort of a trend of the big product reveal at the end, which should not be as high impactful as showing your product up front. So brand upfront show product upfront. There are a couple of other best practices that are really about making sure your content is set up for success on whatever platform is going on. So the first one is about making sure your piece of content is sized correctly. Typically, what we see is because there tends to be a lot of content recycling, people will take an ad that’s meant for Instagram, which is a 9×16, and put it on YouTube, which is 16×9. And all of a sudden this real estate that you have is completely wasted because you have a horizontal ad running in a vertical space or vice versa. And so another best practice we see is, make sure that you’re utilizing the full real estate that you have, to capture the attention of your users.

Another best practice is around sound. So, and here again, you see conflicting data on different platforms. Facebook and Instagram is a platform where most consumers will engage without the sound having been turned on, right? You’re at work you’re on the subway, whatever the case may be. So best practice on those platforms is, if you are running video content, make sure that someone can really get your message without sound — meaning that use subtitles, use supers. Make sure the story is understandable without a language barrier. If you’re on YouTube, the best practice is actually the opposite, where sound is a big part of the engagement in the platform. So the recommendation is, use the audio file to actually amplify your message because the two work greater together.

And the final best practice that we see that is relatively universal, is really just around brevity and being concise. Both in terms of the video length and the content length of your message, also in terms of the text and the copy, both in and around the message. So the shorter your message tends to be, the more likely people are to respond to it.

Anna Shutko:

Awesome. I really, really love how you broke it down into five very precise elements and I do agree that showing the brand, showing content and appropriate sound and size regulations are really, really key. Now let’s take a little bit of a deeper dive into how you can actually analyze the performance of these ads and creatives. So, you’ve conducted an analysis of thousands of different Facebook ads. Can you please describe the steps you take to analyze all these data and the different kinds of insights you’ve arrived at? And maybe you could provide a couple of relevant examples here.

Anastasia Leng:

Yeah, absolutely. So we recently did a master report of all the data we had in our system. Not all of it, but a big percentage of the data we had in our system. Looking at over a million ads, trillion impressions, and a billion dollars in ad spend. And really the question we were trying to ask is, what is the relationship between this new metric that we’re really trying to get marketers to pay attention to, something we call ‘the creative quality score and media performance’.

So one of the things that we did was isolate these statistically proven best practices. Like some of the things, you and I have been talking about. And for all the content in our system we looked at, are brands adhering to some of those best practices, right? Do they have the logo and the brand, are they showing the product? Is the ad optimized for sound-on or sound-off consumption depending on the platform? And based on that, we associated each piece of content with the creative quality score. And then basically what we did is, we looked at what is the relationship to media performance. In this case, we focused on CPM, ad recall, and engagement as measured by views, right? Focusing on the view side of things, because the video is so important to a lot of the marketers we work with.

What is the relationship between this creative quality score and some of these media KPIs? And the results are really astounding. Because I think everyone has known for ages that creative is important for media, but there’s been a question of how do you really quantify it. And how do you quantify in a way that’s, sort of objective and near-universal, so everyone can take something away from it?

So one of the things we found is that, for every 10% increase in creative quality score, you get a 2% decrease in CPM. Meaning that your ads are essentially somehow getting favored by the auction. You’re getting cheaper impressions. You’re getting a 2% increase in ad recall. And we’re getting about a 5% decrease to cost-per-view. So again, we’re getting more views than a higher view-through rate. Now, this is for every 10% increase in creative quality score.

To put this in context, the average brand in our system, their average creative quality score was 20%. Meaning that as you go from 20% to something like 80%, which is typically where we see most brands on [inaudible 00:13:09] after about six months to a year of using our product, you’re seeing really significant gains from both a cost point of view, a view-through point of view and ad recall point of view. These things that form the creative quality score are again, things that should not get any creative director or strategist to feel like their vision is being hindered, right? We’re not saying, “Hey, you should use more of this color or you need to have people, or here’s how you make a great ad.” What we’re seeing is, there are some fundamental basics that when done, increase the chances of your message actually getting to the audience that you’re trying to get to.

Anna Shutko:

Awesome. I really, really love how you outlined the correlation between the quality score increase and increase in other different metrics. Now, let’s talk a bit more about this. So while you testing on different platforms, what are the key metrics to pay attention to? So you briefly mentioned Facebook and Instagram during the course of our interview. But maybe you could provide a couple of more examples of how marketers can test creatives effectively depending on the platform or what they should pay attention to depending on the platform?

Anastasia Leng:

Yes. And I wish there was a one-size-fits-all answer, but unfortunately, there isn’t. I think it all starts with, what’s your campaign objective, right? A lot of the brands that we work with tend to be Fortune 500 brands. And a lot of what they care about, their objectives are really about brand objectives. Because when they’re doing digital advertising, ultimately the goal is to drive in-store traffic and in-store purchase. Obviously, the COVID has upended some of that. So we have seen a lot more brands moving to direct response and e-commerce.

But traditionally speaking, the brands that we work with really care about brand objectives. Now that’s said if you are someone who is more on the direct response side and you’re trying to drive conversion, then what you should be looking at is, click-through, cost-per-click, clickthrough rate, conversion, cost-per-conversion, conversion rate, and things like that. Ultimately, the job of our platform is to pull all of this data in. You tell us what’s important, and then our system will figure out, is there a correlation? And is that correlation statistically significant between some of the elements that you’re tracking in your overall creative quality score and the metrics that you care about? But really what you’re optimizing for is going to depend on what is the ultimate goal that both the business and the marketing team are trying to drive?

Anna Shutko:

Right. Awesome. I really love how you connected the objective to the exact KPIs marketing should pay attention to. I think every single marketer should really keep these things in mind. And, my next question here would be, so now that you have tested your creatives, you made sure they’re coherent with the best practices, how would you actually optimize them? So if, for example, you see that a particular creative is not performing well, what are the steps you can take to improve it and to improve the metrics? Yeah.

Anastasia Leng:

Yes. The way that we think about it is actually less about testing and optimizing [inaudible 00:16:27], and more about some of these best practices. Our view is, you really shouldn’t be putting content out there that’s not adhering to these things. And the reason is again that this is not about kind of small micro-optimizations, like, is it this tagline or that tagline? Is this… like these are near universal best practices that have been validated by Facebook, validated by YouTube, validated by us as an independent third party that has no relationship with Facebook and Google. So we’re sort of independent of the money that marketers spend on those platforms.

And so the way that we’ve approached it is, rather than letting marketers kind of run that content that figured out, “Hey, this isn’t performing, because I haven’t incorporated these best practices”, we’ve created a tool called pre-flight. And pre-fight is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a tool that can be typically used by creative agencies or in-house teams where any new content they’re creating can be uploaded into our system and checked to make sure that it adheres to all of the best practices that you have. Whether they’re the universal ones that you and I have talked about or some specific learnings that you have for your brand, where you know, “Hey, I need to do X, Y, Z, because that’s really important.” And our system will flag anytime you have content that’s not adherent to some of the things, even before you put a single Dollar, Euro, Pound behind it.

We’ve also integrated with DAMs or Digital Asset Managers, such that we can simplify the workflow for marketers, where if you upload a piece of content into a Digital Asset Manager, that content can go to us automatically. Our system will screen that content and return it back to the Digital Asset Manager to say, “Hey, does this meet all the criteria you need for that content to dwell?” And if not, we’ll send it back to the person who uploaded it and say, “Hey, here’s some changes you have to make.” But again, all of this sort of happens in near real-time and automatically. So our job, and we think our value, as a company and as a platform for this part of the product, is really to prevent inefficient spending on content that doesn’t even have a chance to succeed.

And for some of these things that I’ve mentioned, you don’t need to test anymore, right? There’s almost like universal industry alignment that these are currently the things that have been repeatedly and statistically proven to drive better performance. So our job is to make sure you’re not putting money behind content that doesn’t have these best practices.

Anna Shutko:

All right. Fantastic Anastasia. And now, if the audience would love to learn more about you, where can they find you?

Anastasia Leng:

I am an Inbox Zero person. So I do check all of my emails, every email. So a great way to reach me is just by email anastasia@creativex. At LinkedIn, another good place. And then we constantly publish new research. Like some of the things we’ve talked about on this call, so they can just go to and sign up to get access to any of our latest research.

Anna Shutko:

Fantastic. I loved all your insights. Once again, thank you so much for coming to the show.

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