Brand Alchemy: A Conversation with Artist of Science Spark Neuro’s Spencer Gerrol – Forbes

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  • January 19, 2020
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Data-led creativity has reached an inflection point. As a result, the era of art and commerce is giving way to a new age of art and science. We are amidst a data transformation revolution and the customer topography has never been more complex. Finding the right mix of algorithm and humanity is the Holy Grail or ultimate brand hack, no matter who you are, what you’re marketing, or who you are selling to.

A palpable need to formulate best-in-class “brand alchemy” is the new strategic imperative. This is the reason the past generation of “artists of business” I hailed in my book WE-Commerce, is quickly giving way to a new breed of executive that I am calling “artists of science”.

Consequently, I’ve decided to launch a new Brand Alchemy Q+A series in parallel with my Ask the CMO column. I’ve done this to get into the minds of this new species of leadership, as I believe they will ultimately emerge as the creative Darwinists defining the future of both business and brand. 

For my latest conversation in this special series, I sat down with my friend Spencer Gerrol, CEO of Spark Neuro. Spencer is a visionary leading the charge on the new neuroscience revolution, and someone who intimately understands the elegantly symbiotic relationship creativity and science must have today. Following is a recap of our conversation:

 Billee Howard: I would love to start with a very broad question, which is related to recent discussions around brands becoming too algorithmic. Now, there seems to be a course correction taking place and much discourse around how you marry humanity and science in the right way. What are your thoughts?

Spencer Gerrol: It’s a great question. Let’s start by reviewing the context behind how we got to this point through the history of brands working in the creative space and how that has evolved over time.

Rewind, and envision the days of Mad Men, the advertising world of the 1960s. Ads were created on gut instinct and dramatically pitching stories to brand executives—no data to speak of. Today, that sounds like blasphemy as brands have become hungry for data-driven decisions. 

Next the pendulum swung in the other direction; data was king, and numbers made the decisions—but creativity often suffered. When we see a pendulum swing, we need to look at the consequences.

The fact is that a huge part of any creative process is instinctual and that shouldn’t go away. At Spark Neuro we measure emotion and one thing we emphasize is that emotion is the most powerful tool human beings have. It’s not just how we process the stories we hear; it is also at the core of how people envision and create art. What we call instincts, your gut, is actually emotion doing its job to guide you.

When we fast-forward in time from Mad Men to today’s data-driven companies, some natural tension arose. Many creatives pay lip service to data (and even rebel against it) and researchers have become a tool to push in the other direction. 

I believe we’ve reached a pivotal point in finding the right balance to take us forward. You have to be data-driven, but you can’t lose the sense of humanity when listening to the numbers. If we’re looking at just who clicked on or watched what, that data is often devoid of understanding the core of human emotion. In order to study that emotional center, practical applications of neuroscience have made great strides.

Howard: I think that is a great place to pivot to my next question. I think it’s ironic that people have been less afraid of AI because of its ability to be scientific and sort through data when it often lacked a tremendous amount of humanity, whereas people have been more afraid of neuroscience, which actually has humanity and empathy at its core. I would love you to explain how the use of neuroscience can actually bring more humanity to brands and help sharpen customer understanding. 

Gerrol: The introduction of neuroscience into brand research starts with understanding the status quo of consumer research. When researchers started to introduce data, the tools at our disposal were rooted in self-report, that is, what people say. Surveys and focus groups do their best to tell us how people feel, but the methods are lacking. Group-think (everyone aligning or following a leader regardless of their true feelings), social desirability bias (people wanting to look good or not be judged and answering accordingly), and a host of other biases can steer us wrong even when we think the evidence is pointing us in the right direction. 

Then there’s the behavioral data; big data that tells you who’s doing what. That’s incredibly powerful, but by nature, big data tells you what people are doing, yet it doesn’t tell you why they are doing it. 

Companies can try to create models that predict those behaviors; however, at some point we need to make people feel a certain way to change or amplify behavior. 

In order to be more creative, we need better science and a better way of integrating that science with the creative process. Neuroscience allows us to dig deeper into what people really feel. It’s more than just what they do and it’s far more than what they say. We measure the underlying subconscious nature of how people process information, emotion, and decisions. That pushes the boundaries for how science can become more usefully blended in with art.

Howard: I think that’s a great way of articulating what I’ve been writing about a lot lately. It’s not science or creative, it’s that you’re looking at two sides of the same coin and you’ve got to figure out how to make them hand-in-glove. I think that’s what you were saying, right? 

Gerrol: Yes, it absolutely is. Science and art need to work better together. That means that as much as ever, we need emotionally intelligent people to contribute creative ideas that are worth scientifically testing, but we also need new ways to measure beyond big data that lacks empathy, or self-report that fosters biases. 

Step one is getting people to understand the true impact of emotion. While we think we’re rational beings, at the end of the day, our emotions and our instincts are driving us. Emotion is controlling all of our perceptions, decisions, and actions. When we realize that and see how important emotion is, we then recognize that we need to be able to measure it. 

All of the old ways of evaluating impact are not giving us effective data to understand that emotional layer. To get there, neuroscience unlocks the ability to measure in a way that we couldn’t have done before. We can actually measure emotion, do it with second-by-second precision, and quantify what was previously unquantifiable, confidently understanding the emotional impact of a given piece of creative.

Howard: The last decade of neuroscience left a lot to be desired. There seems to be a new frontier ahead of us. I’d love if you could articulate why this is happening and how much things have changed related to the efficacy of the field?

Gerrol: Neuroscience, for all intents and purposes, is a fledgling industry with the amount we know about the human brain still barely scratching the surface. In fact, every hard science, even things like physics, start out part philosophy. Remember, there was a time when we were trying to figure out whether or not the earth was flat or round or if the earth rotated around the sun, or vice versa. Great philosophers debated about these scientific questions because we didn’t yet have all the measurement tools necessary. There was this mixing of philosophy and science that eventually gave way to more hard science. 

Neuroscience has been in that same realm, mixing philosophy and science. First, we debated about emotion and decision-making (and we still debate about the nature of consciousness), but eventually our measurement tools evolved. 

It also goes far beyond the tools themselves. EEG, for example, is a device that measures brain activity and has been around for nearly one hundred years. However, it is also a tool that collects massive amounts of often messy data that is hard to make sense of, far more than even the most brilliant scientist can manage manually. 

With EEG you are looking at the brain releasing electricity through your scalp, at very small amounts, in different locations, with different frequencies, and different amplitudes of electricity. Meanwhile, every time somebody blinks, clenches their jaw, or any muscle movement or electrical interference creates noise in the data.  Now computational power is leagues beyond what it was even just a few years ago and data science has allowed us to leapfrog what was possible before. 

In our new world, we have the ability to clean out those noisy artifacts, train algorithms using a data-driven process through machine learning, and do so real-time as the data is being collected—no more waiting weeks for data processing. We quite literally process emotional reactions live as they are coming straight from your brain. 

Howard: These advances are so exciting and it’s amazing to see how far practical applications of neuroscience have come. With all of these advances, what should we be careful of?

Gerrol: Yes, the science has come a long way, but buyer beware. There are still, perhaps more than ever, people peddling snake oil. I sometimes compare it to buying a bottle of wine as someone like me who is not a wine connoisseur. When I go to buy a bottle of wine, I look at the label, I look at the price and I think, ‘OK. this one’s a little more expensive than that one and the label looks nice, so I’ll buy it.’ But, I don’t really know if it’s a good bottle as I’m not a wine expert. Similarly, because neuroscience is such a complex topic, people should be skeptical and be able to come at any of us in this industry and ask the hard questions. 

If you smell B.S. it’s likely you might be onto something. Your emotions, as usual, are probably telling you something valuable. We need to continue to be aware of that, because much like I’m not a wine connoisseur, your customer is likely not a neuroscientist. We need to make sure that we hold the industry to a high standard. 

Howard: All terrific points. Thanks for so clearly explaining all of that. Last question. I think of you as an artist of science and I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the relationship between creatives and scientists needs to look like as we move forward. 

Gerrol: Thank you Billee. I appreciate that and am looking forward to our future collaboration together through that lens. 

If you look at how research and creative have evolved, it’s different across different industries. I’ve been a part of the user experience industry for over 15 years, then the advertising industry, and the entertainment world, which are all totally different animals when it comes to research. If you talk about research to support designing a better website or app, you don’t get much pushback on using data to help drive the decisions. Because web design and app design grew up within a data-driven age, it’s less of a confrontational relationship and more of a symbiotic relationship.

With advertising, on the other hand, and even more so in Hollywood, there can be tension between research and creative. Advertising didn’t grow up with science as part of the process. Science came later and the type of science being used is typically rooted in self-reported opinions. Think of the old Henry Ford adage, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’ 

Artists naturally don’t want the opinions of every person in the focus group to be treated like their creative director. In fact, all of that feedback can create an aversion to risk and water down the art. So the industry produces too much of the same and not enough stands out.

This has led to a new opportunity in today’s world where relationship creatives and scientists can once again be symbiotic. We, as scientists, should respect and admire the emotional instincts that create great art. Instead of stepping on toes with people’s rationalized opinions, we can now provide a measurement that hits at the heart of what creatives really care about—are people emotionally engaged?

This allows us to empower creatives with data that they can make actionable. We have reached a point where neuroscience can be the tool that creatives lean on to find opportunities to confidently try new things, take risks, and reinforce great storytelling instead of watering down the art.