Numbers don’t lie, or so we’re told, and it’s no surprise that as advertisers gain more and more tools, they are increasingly looking to see if their assumptions are backed up by the numbers.

This is particularly true when it comes to the $130bn/year television ad market, where advertisers frequently do significant amounts of market testing before rolling a campaign out at scale.

The virtues of testing are obvious, but is testing overrated?

At the Association of National Advertisers annual meeting last week, Allstate SVP of marketing, Lisa Cochrane, explained to the audience how the company bucked best practice in launching the super-popular Mayhem ad campaign:

There was a lot of internal pressure to kill it [but] I knew that ‘Mayhem’ was the right idea at the right time. I could feel it. We didn’t do any market testing or focus groups. I just asked myself, “Would I want to watch those ads?”

The answer to that question was enough: Cochrane decided to proceed without the testing typically performed, and the rest is history.

The perils of testing

It’s easy to applaud Allstate for its bold move. After all, the Mayhem campaign was a hit and still has staying power years after it was launched. But most campaigns don’t achieve that type of success, highlighting the perils of moving forward without sort of testing.

But the perils of too much testing shouldn’t be ignored either. In Allstate’s case, the insurer was facing big competition. Cochrane was a little bit too comfortable with Allstate’s conservative response to it. “Comfortable is boring,” she explained. To stand out, more was needed. “The perfect time to start some mayhem is when there is no mayhem in sight.”

Had Allstate stuck with the tried-and-true approach, executives might have been able to sleep at night believing that their campaigns were validated by the numbers, but that wouldn’t have meant that the brand was well-positioned vis-à-vis the competition.

Applicable to digital?

Digital advertising, of course, isn’t television advertising. With most digital campaigns, advertisers can experiment with creative much more easily, and data is constantly flowing in. That makes it easy to figure out what’s working and what’s not working, and to adjust accordingly in near real-time.

But that doesn’t mean that advertisers can’t learn anything from Allstate’s handling of the Mayhem television campaign. In launching the Mayhem campaign sans testing, Allstate was making a bet on the positioning of its brand, and the positioning of the brand came first.

While it still remains to be seen whether the positioning is right, it’s important to recognize that strategic decisions like brand positioning — decisions which inform ad campaigns — are rarely exclusively data-driven and almost always involve some subjective analysis.

It’s easy to look at data and understand where you have been and where you are right now, but predicting the future is hard and regardless of the channel, advertisers should remember that one of their jobs is to help lead a brand into the future, not simply follow today’s numbers.