Peter Horst is a Renaissance man when it comes to marketing. The Capital One senior vice president, brand marketing, has a passion for both the art and science of his discipline. Tending to this marriage benefits the financial services company, where data analytics practically qualifies as a religion.
Tell me about one of your current marketing passions.
What strikes me first is the intersection of art and science, where we pivot from a deep dive into the data to the art side. How do you create something magical out of the powerful catalyzing insights that are derived from the data? This dynamic is really the reason why I gravitated toward marketing in the first place.
How did your attraction occur?
I had a liberal arts degree in history and literature. I spent my early years after college bouncing around, trying to figure out what to do in life. My first job was at a talent agency, which I was drawn to because I had a creative background. But I soon discovered that I wasn’t using a part of my brain—the more intellectually structured and analytically rigorous part—that I wanted to apply. At that point I considered becoming an entertainment lawyer and went to work as a paralegal. But at the law firm, I felt I was letting the left side of my brain atrophy. I attended business school next. In my first marketing class I saw that I could roll around in the numbers and think both strategically and analytically while also digging into the art of generating something creative and new that didn’t come directly out of a regression line from the data. I’m not sure I’d ever even thought about the notion of marketing before that class. Marketing represented the best marriage of art and science I had come across at that point in my brief career.
How does this passion fit into your daily routine?
I am an absolute hawk, and, therefore, kind of a pain in the neck with my team, about zeroing in on that catalyzing insight. I’m talking about the key insight that’s derived from the data and tells us about a consumer belief, a consumer frustration, or some consumer gap that presents an opportunity. These core insights often form the basis of a marketing campaign brief or a product development initiative.
How do you zero-in on core insights?
One way is by recognizing the pitfall of wishful thinking straying into the process. Going back to my General Mills days, an example of wishful analytical thinking is concluding that consumers wish that their cereal could taste good and provided 12 essential minerals and vitamins. Well, that’s self-serving. A truer consumer insight would be that healthy cereal tastes bad. To get to that true insight, you have to rigorously pare away anything that you wish consumers are thinking. That means paring away any strains of your strategy that you want to see confirmed. You have to look for the absolute truth: What does a core sample of the consumer’s brain on this matter look like?
What’s the negative impact of this wishful thinking?
It’s almost like shooting an arrow at a target from 100 yards away. If your aim is off just one or two degrees, everything that follows is going to miss the target.
How do you limit this bias?
I think the most effective approach is practice. When you’re sitting down with the team reviewing a piece of work, it’s often tempting to say, “Let’s flip past the brief and get to the [creative] work.” Instead of doing that, it’s important to slow down and ask questions that challenge our understanding of the brief. Have we put coal on the diamond? Marketing is an ecosystem, and consumer insights, communications objectives, and core positioning ideas comprise the connective tissue that binds the ecosystem together. If there’s anything in the connective tissue with room for ambiguity, even a phrase, people can roam into their desired [wishful-thinking] territory. When that happens, you use that moment as a teaching opportunity.
On the other side, what’s crucial to the art of marketing?
You have to be equally obsessive about how the catalyzing insight is brought to life. There’s such a difference between being two or three concentric circles out in your creative articulation versus nailing the bull’s-eye. As a former student of history and literature, as well as somebody who got paid to write in a past life, I’m obsessive about language. Language is a huge part of the medium we work in as marketers. Have we found the most powerful expression? Have we put too much in there? Have we gotten sloppy with how we express it?
Does this require different muscles than analytical rigor?
Yes. It’s similar in that you’re meeting a high standard, but the execution is different. The challenge on the art side is that it’s a little harder to come to an agreement because there’s more judgment to it. We’re an extremely analytical company, so we conduct lots of testing from various perspectives and we do lots of in-market assessments. But when you’re sitting around the table, you’re ultimately relying on judgment and impressions to determine which approach is clearer, more powerful, more on-brand, and more competitively distinctive.
How do you integrate rigor into that process?
There’s not much rocket science involved. Sometimes, it means stepping back and reminding ourselves what we set out to get done: Who are we talking to, and what is their frame of mind? That can be eye-opening. You can get so engaged in the creative process that you can fall into making decisions within the narrower context of a piece of creative as opposed to making decisions based on your objective, the consumers’ world, and their limited time.
Why is time important?
We have to keep in mind how little attention the consumer is going to give us in this space. One of the best examples is creative for the sides of buses. When you’re looking at a PDF on your screen, you can say, “Great, we’ll have three bullets and we’ll talk about the interest rates, the ATM fees, and here’s a funny little bit of creative—and here’s another line, this is great.” And then, as you’re walking around the city and see a bus go by, you say, “Oh my God, what were we thinking? This thing is flashing by.”
The same holds true for billboards or print ads. I always think in multiple layers of engagement. If someone pauses for a second before they flip the page, did they take something away from the headline? If they stop for another 10 or 15 seconds looking at the ad, were they rewarded for that level of attention and did it accomplish something for us? We don’t want to construct a piece of work that requires the highest level of engagement…all the way down to the fine print at the bottom before we move the ball forward.
What other art/science challenges do you contend with?
The tyranny of deadlines. One reason that a body of creative output is not gelling stems back to how we articulated the insight at the start. So, we go back and revisit that original insight. By doing so, we run up against deadlines—people in the business tapping their feet and waiting for the work to roll off the factory floor.
It’s tempting to say, “Well, it’s good enough and we have this deadline….” We want to stay deadline-driven while finding a way not to sacrifice quality.
In all candor, the [actor Samuel L.] Jackson scripts [for Capital One’s new Quicksilver credit card campaign] that we wound up shooting were not the first ones that rolled off the factory floor. It took some intestinal fortitude to stay with our drive for quality. It helped having a CEO who supported the deadline while also demanding that we not succumb to deadline pressure by sticking with it until we had a script we thought was great.
How do you know the art/science marriage is working?
When you’re doing this right, it’s almost like unclogging a pipe. You always struggle, but if you manage the relationship well, you make adjustments and then come back to the table with a sense of clarity. There’s a cleaner, better flow of work, and the output is obviously stronger.
Making the Marriage of Art and Science Last
1. Zero-in on the catalyzing insight. All marketing activities stem from insights, almost all of which are derived from data. Horst maintains a “hawkish” focus on the consumer belief, frustration, or need that analytics have identified.
2. Recognize and remove wishful thinking. Horst says he is “rigorous about paring away anything we want consumers to think,” while focusing on “absolute truth.” Wishful thinking about consumer thinking from Horst’s previous work in consumer packaged goods industry: Consumers want cereal that tastes good and provides 12 essential minerals and vitamins. Consumer truth: Healthy cereal tastes bad.
3. Take creative back to the source. Rather than rushing past the marketing brief to get to judging creative work, Horst challenges his team to “bore into the brief.” He wants to be “obsessive” about ensuring that the original objective of the creative work is expressed in clear language and on target.
4. Be truthful about time. Horst frequently reminds his team how precious little time consumers devote to their creative messages: poring over a PDF draft on a screen is vastly different than seeing the same ad zip by on the side of a bus.