How a data-driven Baltimore firm won over a Silicon Valley creative

| 24 Jan, 2014

I started at the Jellyfish office in Baltimore a few months ago, as the first member of their new content team. I had no idea what to expect. What I found, though, changed the way IŠ—'ll think about web content for the rest of my career.


As a content strategist, my work is both art and science. I need to understand why things work, and I constantly wonder how to rewrite or rearrange content in just the right way to improve its effectiveness. My professional background, though, is creative. I went to art school to become a copywriter, and before I came to Baltimore, I worked in ad agencies founded by creative directors and dominated by their departments.

Creative advertising is rarely thought of as Š—“artŠ— by the general public, but itŠ—'s still treated that way by the people who make it. Decisions are based on what feels right, and while certain principles of behavior and psychology will go into the research behind a brief, the science part usually ends there. Creative departments prefer to treat digital work the same way they treat traditional advertising, even today, they spend far longer than they promised on a project, launch, enjoy a self-congratulatory happy hour, then kick back and wait for the awards to roll in.

But how is their work performing? Are website users turning into customers more frequently than they were before? What does the data tell us? Is there data? Did anyone even plan for post-launch updates? On so many projects I worked on in these agencies, creative directors would give me a blank stare when I asked these questions. At best, I was pointed to a lone analyst huddled in a dark corner. The most fundamental principle of science - experimentation - wasnŠ—'t even on the radar. The hard truth is, the creative directors at those places didnŠ—'t want it to be. They invested so much, emotionally and financially, on creating and selling polished-looking comps that they didnŠ—'t want to change anything after those comps were approved.

Before coming to Jellyfish, I worked at the San Francisco office of a large global agency known for innovative, beautiful work for huge brands. Company meetings could universally be summed up in one line Š—“LetŠ—'s win more awards!Š—. We did fantastic work that IŠ—Èm still proud of, and yes, it won awards. But how effective was it? And how was it effective? I have no doubt itŠ—'s still bringing in business, but I donŠ—'t know the reasonsand the part of my brain that needed to understand, not just create, was deeply troubled.

ItŠ—'s not just frustrating for us sciencey types - itŠ—'s a dangerous trap for the agencies that act this way. Without repeatable experimental data, they depend entirely on charisma and hand-waving to bring in business. Those are the things they excel at, but itŠ—'s not what I feel good about selling to clients, and itŠ—'s not the kind of sounding board that people who work in constantly-evolving disciplines like user experience, content strategy and development need in order to grow professionally and create things that have to work, not merely look beautiful or grab attention.

ThereŠ—'s no surprise, then, that those big creative ad agencies like the one I worked at have enormous turnover in fields like mine. Creative runs everything, and creative is run by opinions. When youŠ—'re building machines, opinions arenŠ—Èt good enough and they never will be. Just as you would never trust a painter - no matter how skilled the artist is with paint - to build a car, you shouldnŠ—'t leave something with as many moving parts as a modern website up to a creative department. To build things in projects I work on at Jellyfish, you need objectivity, an appreciation for numbers, and a deeply ingrained philosophy of constant experimentation.

At Jellyfish, my favorite thing to hear is Š—“LetŠ—'s try it and see!Š— I hear it almost every day, and it sums up, in five simple words, why IŠ—'m here. When your curiosity overcomes your ego, the need for industry awards and outside praise just falls away. You win every time you get new data - and you win even when your hypothesis is wrong, because success is measured in information gained, not opinions.

ItŠ—'s a breath of fresh air for people like me, but the ones who benefit the most from this way of thinking are actually the clients. We work fast, on flexible platforms, and we get results immediately. Every morning the numbers come in, and every afternoon, updates are shared. Because weŠ—'re built this way from the core out, changes post-launch arenŠ—'t the emergencies they were at previous jobs I had - theyŠ—'re a fundamental offering, and our primary tool for growing as a team and improving our own methods constantly.

Coming from the self-proclaimed center of the digital universe - San Francisco - I never expected to find what I was looking for in Baltimore. After talking to Jellyfish, though, I had one thought on my mind Š—“LetŠ—s try it and see.Š—

Science wins again.

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