Farmers Group’s Leesa Eichberger: In a Data-Centric World, Storytelling and Creativity Still Matter

'We’re at a very odd place where creative is not at the forefront'

Farmers' Leesa Eichberger is concerned about the focus on data versus creative. Sean T. Smith for Adweek
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Leesa Eichberger is every bit as committed to data as any savvy marketer these days, calling it “magical.” But the Farmers Group executive thinks that analytics’ current VIP status is overshadowing an equally vital tool for communicating with consumers, namely the art of the creative message.

“We’re at a very odd place where creative is not at the forefront of the industry,” she said. “It’s like Jeff Goodby said, we’re in an era of ‘target, yell, repeat.'”

Eichberger, who recently spoke at Brandweek in Palm Springs, Calif., said she’s concerned about the ongoing battle that’s pitting one side against the other, when she believes “it’s not an either-or proposition.”

The executive—head of brand marketing for Farmers Insurance who oversees the popular J.K. Simmons-starring campaign—spoke to Adweek about storytelling in the budget-crunched, churn-and-burn digital age, targeting run amok and Martin Sorrell’s declaration that he won’t include creative ad people in new company S4 Capital.

Adweek: Why is the data-versus-creative issue top-of-mind with you right now?
Eichberger: I’m thinking about it and talking about it in meetings all the time, as recently as this morning. Here’s the question: What happens to the quality of the creative product when data and analytics are driving so much of the marketing? How do we keep the quality where it should be? How do we keep it intriguing and interesting? There are branches of the marketing world that think the message doesn’t have to tell a story, that it doesn’t need a creative kernel. God, I hope that changes.

Creativity is king, but reality bites, right?
I fight with analytics sometimes over things like multimedia mix models, which don’t take into account the creative quality. They don’t give any weight—zero—to whether something’s interesting or engaging. They just say where you should run [advertising or content] to reach certain people.

At the same time, budgets are a real concern, and we’re all moving so fast, and we need something like 72,000 different executions, and we’re trying to avoid what Marc Pritchard laments as the “crap trap” of digital content. How do you produce beautiful creative at scale with budgets that aren’t growing?

Though you’re a data advocate, do you have a bone to pick with some targeting?
Personally, I spend so much time on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube that everybody has data on me. They know I’m a marketing professional, I own a home, I’m single, I’m a triathlete. My life is not a secret. And I get targeted with things like “Kids eat free at Applebees.”  You [as a marketer] should know enough about me to know that I’m into health food and don’t have children. That marketing is so awful it’s laughable. And other times I might get something about digital transformation, so at least that’s a point of interest, but it has a terrible stock photo, and there’s nothing compelling or engaging. There’s no story to go with it. It just becomes part of the noise.

What was your reaction to recent news about Sorrell’s plans for S4 Capital that don’t include creative executives?
It’s strange, considering he’s run agencies with the best creative in the world for the past 40 years. It seems short-sighted. When consumers have more ability to block ads and curate their experiences, they’re more likely to filter out the irrelevant and the uninteresting. Some brands may be able to just yell and focus on price and they’ll be okay, if they’re commodities. But there will start to be more pushback because there’s all this content thrown at people day after day. You have to break through and find a way to talk to them.

How can creative and data peacefully co-exist to their mutual benefit?
It will take good clients, good agencies and people willing to take a step back. I’m hoping smart brand leaders will keep us sane when we get so excited about things like targeting perfectly. Because the truth is, if you’re targeting perfectly, you can do some great creative now that you know your audience really well and know where they are. Creative is not a risk. It’s the way you’ll win. If you don’t spend money and you don’t take that “risk,” that’s actually riskier.

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.