Baseball has brought me maybe more joy than just about anything else in the world. I’ve half-joked that the St. Louis Cardinals are my one true love. I even keep a fresh, new baseball at work and one at home that’s much more scuffed from years of use. I find that holding, gripping and twirling either helps me concentrate.
With the start of this year’s season, I’m again struck by the similarities between the sport I’ve always loved and the industry I’ve grown to love. The parallels between baseball and advertising help me understand each better, and appreciate the other more.
Creating Competitive Advantage
“There’s nothing wrong with failing, unless you keep doing it the same way.” – Greg Maddux, HOF Pitcher
Many people consider baseball a game of failure, based on success rates of the different actions in the sport. Pitchers rarely hit their intended target, defensive routes are never perfectly efficient, and reaching base just 32% of the time can earn enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Given that a hitter’s main job is to get on base, the best are still worse than a coin flip.
The same could be said in advertising when customers don’t respond as we expect. The old adage of “half of my advertising is waste” could ring true, but that would be cynical. Rather, we celebrate the constant search for improvement inherent in both of these highly competitive industries.
Baseball has seen a steady and significant uptick in homeruns recently – jumping more than 40 percent from 2014 to 2017. Theories abound from steroids to evolution of the ball itself. The more obvious is that players have realized the value of increasing their launch angles to hit the ball in the air farther and more often. Like a digital media buy, they’ve since “optimized” their swings, stances and plate approaches.
As an industry, we still wrestle with online advertising performance. Take note of speeches and writings of industry leaders like P&G’s Marc Pritchard. An average rich media banner returns clicks “only” .1% of the time, and social platforms’ targetability and performance will continue to evolve in light of recent events. But the companies that are succeeding are those exploring new ways to hit the ball. This perpetual pursuit manifests itself in the exploration of perfectly fine-tuned SEO practices, personalized content, and the marrying of content and context.
Digging into the Data
“In baseball, you have terrific data and can be a lot more creative with it.” – Nate Silver, Founder of 538, previously Baseball Prospectus
Baseball is rich with statistically significant and forecastable data. The nature of repeatable actions makes every pitch, batted ball and each player’s position in the field inherently trackable. Sites like Baseball Reference and Fangraphs have long compiled and analyzed publicly available data. Recently, teams began investing in companies to create new avenues of data to dissect, like Trackman and Statcast. Doing so helped advance discussion from backward-looking statistics like RsBI, wins and saves to exit velocity, spin rate and route efficiency – analysis that improves the decision-making process within the game.
This same data richness is found in advertising. Once as simple as demography and psychography of best or likely users, it now includes search history, purchases, location and predictive modeling. All point toward desired actions, from affinity to purchase to loyalty. The benefits are obvious. And while some scoff at the idea of their data being used, 70 percent of people in a recent study say they prefer targeted ads that speak to them more directly.
In both baseball and advertising, some of the most sought-after positions are database experts who can build, parse through and apply the ever-growing pile of data at hand. There will always be more data than can be processed, and there will always be the desire to find the next advantage. Every team in baseball has an analytics department now, and every agency uses data. The big step forward comes when both teams and agencies use that data to play the game, not just keep score.
Is Data Destroying the Game?
“This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.” – Nuke LaLoosh, Bull Durham
Discussions of data and optimization often spur conversations about the role people play, or the concern we’ll be replaced. Moneyball introduced this debate in baseball – that the proliferation of statistics works against the scouting departments.
Similarly, advertising agencies and the clients they serve have been working to find the right mix. How can we balance our reliance on data and automation, and the human instincts and ability to create emotion, beauty and wit? Artificial intelligence can buy media efficiently, but only a person can know why a site placement might work or not for a brand. It can write a headline that predicts open rates, but not yet know how to discover an insightful way to stir a heart. We believe it’s the combination of the two that makes our processes efficient, and delightful.
In both games, our pursuit of optimization with data is paramount and pervasive. But the best data in the world is irrelevant without the perfect pitch. In both, new information isn’t helpful unless embraced by all who apply it and are impacted by it, which is why I’ve come to love them so much. Perhaps it helps working just down the street from Busch Stadium. Perhaps I’m just really excited for the season to start. In any case, I’m happy that a cold beer goes well with both.