‘We don't win awards’: Sparks & Honey’s data science lead on shaping culture

Kendra Clarke is the Ad Club of New York's Young Professional of the Year

In the fourth of our interview series with the Advertising Club of New York’s 2019 Honorees, The Drum speaks to Young Professional of the Year, Kendra Clarke, vice-president of data science and product development at Sparks & Honey, about how data can help shape culture and how storytelling can help communicate data issues.

Data scientists aren’t usually recognized for their role in helping to shape the future, but Kendra Clarke is using her platform to show how data science is about so much more than number crunching and fact-finding.

The vice-president of data science and product development at Omnicom-owned cultural consultancy Sparks & Honey absorbs tons of data daily from social media sources, online articles, census data and academic papers for a wide range of clients, including Fortune 500 companies, the Defense Department and High Times. But she seeks to use that data proactively, as a way to look back at the past while helping shape the culture of the future.

“Part of what we’re beginning to understand is that data and data science are not just giving us the end results of a campaign, but [they] can increasingly be used to help us what is happening in the world and what culture is, and then what that potentially means to brands and for brands and also for the kinds of change that can be made in the world,” Clarke tells The Drum.

Her outlook is what led the Ad Club of New York to name her the Young Professional of the Year as part of its People of the Year award scheme. It was an accolade she didn’t expect, however.

“I’m a data scientist. Data scientists don’t win awards,” she says. “We are in the work and have been in the work for a long time, but are rarely in front of things. It’s an incredible honor but a bit of a shock.”

While she spends her days analyzing data, Clarke has a background that is extends beyond pure science. She spent her mid-teens completing her undergraduate studies in political science and theater. As a 17-year-old with a Bachelor's degree, she spent a year studying art and playing rugby. At 18 she started a Political Science Ph.D. program, only to decide two years later that she wanted to leave academia and change the way people think about data and information.

“I started playing around with statistical models when I was really young. Being able to apply math, which I find weirdly comforting, has always been my way to understand how the world works. So, I was a quantitative political scientist. I was trying to figure out why wars happen,” she states.

She was then tapped to do statistics in the marketing world, and though she had never thought about marketing, she took the plunge.

She calls Sparks & Honey a “cultural consultancy” and what she does is measure culture and figures out quantitative ways to understand it. “I collect a ton of data from all over the world about all sorts of things and try to understand what all of this information means about where we are right now, and then translate that into something that can be used to understand how to make better decisions and the right decisions and how to identify areas of opportunity to grow.”

She said that the approach to data is “wildly different” than how data was treated in the past. “We’re moving away from optimization-only and optimization-heavy to being at different points of these conversations and being able to understand the world and various places within it.”

Theater influences data

The way she tackles data when it is put in front of her has been shaped by not just what comes across her desk, but her background and her various other interests, from art and rugby to diversity issues and theater.

Clarke said her love of theater – even though she is “wildly introverted” – has heightened her interest in the importance of storytelling.

“That is so important as a data scientist, because if you can’t explain what you’re doing, what this means and what the ramifications of what you’re saying are, it doesn’t matter. I think the theater, and art in general, has given me a really important toolkit to use in terms of translating this information that a lot of people find off-putting and hard to digest and terrifying because they just don’t understand it, into something they can add to their own understanding of how they see the world,” she says.

Clarke also serves on the Open Pride board for the city of New York for Omnicom. She says that gives her an opportunity to bring up discussions about gender and culture.

“As we start to have conversations about gender identity and expression within all of Omnicom, where do we need to be pointing ourselves, not so we’re being reactive in this moment but so we’re building better culture in all of our organization in general? Because a lot of time what’s driving culture is not what’s mainstream right now, what’s driving culture is what’s coming out of the various generative and creative people and communities, and these things are not mainstream now but they will be,” says Clarke.

She uses an example of the rise of eSports, where it was fringe just a few years ago and now boasts wider acceptance, and even scholarships for it in universities.

She also thinks the conversations society is having about gender are “super interesting”.

“I have the great ability to look back in time to see how we were talking about things 15 to 20 years ago, longer even, just because of the data we have. But you can see those conversations shift and change over time, you can see the nomenclature to it change. You now see people talking more about non-binary issues, where the conversation about gender has been very binary for a very long time,” Clarke states.

While data is moving the needle on cultural issues, Clarke says that it could be taking a more proactive role in marketing.

“Data is history – it’s flawed, it’s biased. It is the reflection of culture in a lot of ways. Data gives us an idea about where we’re going. Then it’s up to strategy teams, it’s up to creative communities, it’s up to those of us taking this information in to decide where to go with it and what to do with it.”

For Clarke, she loves being on the front lines of the cultural shifts happening and thinks that data can help brands and marketers understand where culture is going and how to shape its future.

“Brands, and people in general, can be forces of change,” Clarke says. “So, if you believe in something, you put your weight behind it in various ways...whether it’s brands beginning to use non-binary pronouns in their ads or it’s figuring out ways to have more nuanced conversations with multicultural communities.

Clarke concluded that the marketing community has "some tremendous tools" at its fingertips to shape the future of culture.

The Ad Club will will honor its Advertising People of the Year on 5 September at the Tribeca Rooftop.

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