Art and science

At Dell, Advertising Is A Combination Of Art And Science

The advertising landscape is surely evolving. New channels, platforms, and devices are cropping up regularly. Consumer adoption of technology is on the rise, too, as is their demand for seamless, relevant, and personalized advertising experiences that speak to them as individuals.

We sat down with Dell CMO Allison Dew to chat about the changes and how the 35-year-old technology company is transforming along with them. 


  • What in your view are the biggest challenges in advertising today?

    There are a couple of things that are not surprising but are really big, systemic issues that the industry at large is working through. One is just the incredible competition for our customers’ and would-be customers’ attention. Think about all of the different and potentially competing messages that are coming at our customers in the digital age. That makes it really difficult to break through.

    The second big challenge is the fact that many industries are increasingly going to the “as-a-service” model, which changes the definition of advertising. It means that besides using the traditional means of reaching customers, companies are also potentially reaching them from within their own products. How do you do that in a way that is respectful?

    The final challenge that I think is a really big issue across advertising, specifically, is around privacy. Brands want to be contextually relevant and serve up personalized content that’s directly applicable to their audiences. But it is tough to figure out that balance of personalized experiences while respecting the user’s privacy. Obviously, data is the key to that, but when the privacy rules and regulations are moving as fast as they are, that’s a big challenge for the industry.

  • What needs to happen in order for brands to jump these hurdles?

    It’s all about responsible use of data. The truth is the industry hasn’t always been as responsible about the use of customer information as we need to be. But in today’s landscape, brands that want to be authentic and above the fray must treat customer data and privacy with respect and serve up contextualized and personalized experiences that people actually want. Transparency is really important.

  • What will advertising of the future look like?

    I’ll start with a little bit of a joke. Most of my career has been in the PC business, and therefore I have been in an industry that’s been declared dead so many times. Well, in the words of Monty Python, "We’re not dead yet.”

    Along that same train of thought, I don’t think advertising is going to die. And frankly, I don’t think broadcast is going to die either. I think what advertising and broadcast means is different today than in years past. But as a brand marketer, I understand that as a company we have to stand for something. And while the mediums that allow us to be great at storytelling are super important to us, advertising is still about getting your story out in front of people.

    Ads are obviously everywhere in our life, and tactics such as experiential marketing and contextualized advertising will be very much embedded into future advertising strategies. I also foresee that more brands will use advertising as a means of taking a stance on something that they stand for.

    I believe we will start to see brands taking on more of a defining voice on the issues that are relevant to their businesses. For example, at Dell we are increasingly taking a stance around sustainability, and we are very big on the ethical supply chain. And while we don’t talk about that in our broad reach, we do talk about that in other parts of our advertising and marketing.

  • Any cool or interesting advertising endeavors by Dell recently that you want to share with our readers?

    One of the things that we’re most proud of, especially from a broadcast standpoint, is the work we’ve done with [Westworld actor] Jeffrey Wright [in our advertising] over the last number of years. In September 2016, Dell acquired EMC to become what is now Dell Technologies, and from this we became a family of seven brands consisting of Dell, Dell EMC, Pivotal, RSA, Secureworks, Virtustream, and VMware, but our customers and key stakeholders didn’t realize we had broadened our capabilities beyond our traditional PC sales. We started talking about this idea of Dell Technologies, which was a new concept for us, so we used the partnership with Wright and advertising as a way to really break through and educate the world about the new Dell Technologies, and we feel fantastic about those results. 

    Some of the other work that we do around our Dell Cinema [laptop technology] and Alienware [gaming subsidiary] within our consumer business continues to be really important to us as well. Those are places where we’ve got great momentum in the business.

  • Can you speak to how you use data to guide, improve, and optimize your advertising strategy?

    There’s a philosophy we adhere to as an organization, which is that advertising and marketing must be a combination of the art and the science. It is imperative not to lose the idea and what you stand for because, frankly, over the course of my career I’ve seen companies research away really good, creative ideas. So I do think you always have to manage this art and science component.

    When talking about the science part of it, I still believe in really old-fashioned things, like copy tests on some of our big-ticket items. This approach helps us to understand, before we launch something, how it’s going to perform and how it performs versus ads that we’ve run and competitors have run in the past. And then, of course, you get into performance data, which we have a lot of. This data allows us to do all of those more on-the-fly and real-time updates to creative, which allows us to programmatically respond more quickly.

    Customer data, which is not advertising-specific but still really important to us, is top-of-mind.  There’s a lot of talk about unlocking the power of our customer data and a lot of discussion about how to do this in a respectful way.

    Our biggest asset as a company is the customer data we have. So we’ve got a lot of work going on behind the scenes around how we’re using technology, like artificial intelligence and machine learning, to improve our customer targeting so that we can be more relevant and efficient.

  • Do you have any lessons or best practices to share in terms of what you have found resonates with your audience?

    We have found that the simplicity of language in messaging drives effectiveness. Simplicity is very important, especially in the technology industry. It can be so easy to just start talking to yourself. You get caught up in this jargon of your industry, and you launch ads that people just don’t understand. It’s gobbledygook.

    Being really precise about language and simple ideas has proved beneficial for us.

  • What’s the key to successful customer experience management?

    People, process, technology, and culture. Culture is the hardest because it is about getting to a fast-learner mindset and learning to be a bit more failure-tolerant. That means having an idea, testing it out, and learning from it if it doesn’t work out. Culturally, that is really hard for human beings because everybody wants to be right the first time. Also, the organization needs to have a data-driven culture in order to be failure-tolerant, with known parameters around experimentation.

  • Emerging technology, like 5G, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence, is top-of-mind for marketers today. How will these technologies impact the future of advertising?

    5G and AI, in particular, is going to drive an explosion of data, with even more data than we have today. We are just at the beginning of that data revolution. 5G will continue to unlock all these different data sources, making artificial intelligence and machine learning for real-time personalization even more important.

    But while AI and machine learning can speed things up significantly, here’s where I think the industry is having something of a wrong conversation because, at the same time, if you go back to my earlier hypothesis, you still need an idea. You still need to stand for something as a brand. You still need to connect with your customers who are human beings.

    So use all of these technologies, but also make sure that you have that human touch on top of it. Here’s a real example. If we were to just use AI and machine learning on our targeting for our Alienware advertising—because historically a higher percentage of our target audience has been men—the data would tell us to always only target men, and then you would get into a cycle where you’re targeting the same audience over and over again because it’s normative data based on past behaviors. And so you actually have to have a human who comes in over the top of that and understands that you may use this technology for a piece of the targeting strategy, but you also want to grow the ecosystem and perhaps target new customers as well.

  • If you weren’t a marketer, what would you do?

    I’m not remotely qualified for this, but I always say I would’ve loved to have been the editor of The New Yorker.

Connecting content and data to deliver great CX is a big theme at this year's Adobe MAX–The Creativity Conference.

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