Brand Strategy Creativity Data & Privacy

Top experts on how the relationship between data and creative is evolving at speed


By Kendra Barnett, Associate Editor

June 14, 2022 | 12 min read

Last week, The Drum hosted a roundtable with six select members of The Drum Network in New York to dissect the ways in which data informs creativity — and how that relationship is transforming in light of market movements and industry sea changes. Here are the five biggest takeaways.

Geometry with blocks and lines

Creativity and data have a more intricate relationship than ever / Adobe Stock

1. Data is a building block for strong creative

Consumer privacy and ad targeting are reaching a tipping point as lawmakers and tech companies change the rules of play for businesses everywhere. At the same time, agency-brand relationships are being reimagined. The workforce is seeing major disruption in light of the ‘Great Reshuffle,’ and the industry is grappling with rising inflation.

In spite of the various market movements changing the landscape of advertising, this remains a moment when, in many ways, data and creativity are coming together, according to panel of top experts spanning creativity, strategy and adtech.

For one, data provides utility as a source of creative inspiration. “It isn’t data itself that’s powerful. It's the selective application of that data in such a way that it can actually inform and inspire great creative that’s powerful,” says Martyn Clarkson, executive vice-president and global head of strategy at Jack Morton. “One of the biggest challenges that we have in strategy is being able to selectively choose the right information to create knowledge. [And by ‘strategy’ I mean] an informed opinion on how to win.”

To get to the win, he says, requires translating data to an argument that “fills people with inspiration — not only creative folks, but also the clients who have to go out on that limb.”

Stevie Archer, executive creative director at SS+K, M&C Saatchi, agrees that creating and pitching a data-driven creative concept requires buy-in from all parties — many of whom may be skeptical. “There's clients, there's creatives, they're strategists, there's everyone involved in the situation — and everyone has to have an appreciation for what information can do,” she says.

“[We all have] to come from a place of knowledge about who you're talking to and what those people need. That's information, whether it's something that comes from a number on a spreadsheet or observation of behavior. For me, as a creative, that’s the thing that I'm always looking for: how do I get as much information as possible to inform what I'm going to do and defend what I'm going to do?”

2. Tapping into most valuable data insights

Of course, not all information is equally valuable when it comes to marrying strategy with creative.

“Creatives love data when it's pure stuff about the audience. That's heaven,” says Stefano Marrone, founder and chief executive officer at Nucco. “If you tell me how people that are actually going to buy this thing or act on this campaign are thinking and what they are clicking… things like heat maps… I love that.”

Archer agrees that audience behavioral data is among the most valuable information in informing creative strategy. “[We want] real behavioral understanding, not just for a single person, but for a significant group of people that [enables] you to understand, ‘Who is this person, this archetype of a person? What is really motivating them? What does their world look like? What are the other things they're encountering every day in their actual real life existence, and what's going to speak to them within that context?’”

Getting that information, however, is often easier said than done. “The toughest part is to get that real human understanding of behavior,” says Archer.

Another common problem arises in chasing short-term impact rather than long-term results, explains Kevin Kwan, group director of innovation and data at VMLY&R. “The trap that we all fall into because the data is so instantly available… we react in the short term and don't let time go by for it to breathe. We're always reacting to clicks and engagement or [pointing out what] doesn't work.”

Instead, he suggests that patience and consistency will help teams tap into the right insights. “[You need to be] disciplined and repetitive enough to keep [following the] strategy that you are committed to in order to ultimately see that lagging perception change that you're ultimately trying to affect.”

3. Using data to construct meaningful narratives

Panelists agreed that it’s important to be selective about what data is used and how it’s applied. Jellyfish’s vice-president of brand strategy Amy Crowther notes that there is often a problem of “trying to imbue data in everything and every part of the process.”

An effective application, rather, adds to the broader construction of a narrative. “At the crux of strategy — especially when working with creatives — is developing a story… it's about having all of that data and thinking of them as building blocks,” says Elizabeth Finch, director of creative strategy at Merkle. Once a cohesive narrative is developed, she says, creatives can communicate that message across channels to deliver on campaign objectives. “That's the unification of data and creative.”

Kwan adds: "When you get to the cultural context, you get to the understanding of humans and what the data is actually saying — versus a misinterpretation of it.”

Of course, tension may always exist between creatives and strategists who are seeking to achieve the appropriate balance. Sometimes, it boils down to trusting each side to do its job well. “The conflict usually comes with trying to prove that what you want to do as an idea is going to work with the level of certainty that sometimes people require in order to say yes,” says Archer. “There's always a little bit of a leap [required], particularly when we're trying to do the kind of work that's unexpected and has never been done before. There isn't [always] going to be a past example or an observable behavior that you can say, ‘This is exactly what we're doing; therefore, this is going to work.’ That's usually where the creativity in the data itself has to come to life and help support that thinking. Success comes from everybody understanding how to get the right information and how to apply it in a way that supports the larger goal.”

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4. Consumer privacy changes erect new hurdles and new opportunities

As the industry readies for third-party cookie deprecation, tech giants like Apple roll out new policies that give users greater say over how and when their personal information is used and lawmakers around the world introduce new data protection-focused legislation, it’s clear that marketing and advertising will be greatly disrupted.

Panelists agreed that the fundamental structure of how advertising works is going to change. “We always previously told this story of connecting to an individual… like a ‘segment of one,’” says Crowther. “The way that we use data and activate, in media especially, is to acknowledge that that can't happen anymore and doesn't work — and be okay with that and work around it. We need to]use the platforms for the for the strength that they have but not try and build this picture of connectivity and individual IDs, but use [the tools at hand] in a way to guide insight. It doesn't have to be one-on-one, communication — it's more important for creativity to be a little bit broader than that.”

She suggests that if marketing teams use tools and build an ethos rooted in transparency and user control from the get-go, they’ll be better poised to succeed rather than scramble when the next privacy change comes down the pipeline.

Of course, value exchange opportunities will always exist. Organizations that can incentivize their audiences to share some of their personal information in exchange for some value will be equipped to build out their own sets of valuable first-party data. Marrone, for his part, believes that most audiences welcome a good value exchange with open arms. “There is this silent minority of people that advocate for crazy privacy elements, but most of us like to be conveniently sold to — the operative word is convenient. [In cases of convenience] the trade-off is more than acceptable.”

And even as the open web shifts toward a more consent-focused model of data collection, most consumers still opt into data sharing, notes Finch— because they operate on the presumption that they’re fairly trading their data for value in return.

Still, the shifting landscape of data privacy and ad targeting is sure to have major, long-lasting impacts not only on how advertising works, but on the internet at large, posited the panelists.

“If you look at what [the tech giants] do and cookie deprecation, [it’s clear] we are moving towards a model where someone like Apple is going to be participatory white pages, where people can own their data,” says Clarkson. “When we get to that point, there will be real value inherent in data for consumers, for agencies and for brands — because it will be a lot more rich data that's willingly given and the reward will be there. That's the model we'll see in a few years.”

5. Data and creativity should remain intertwined

Despite the disruptions sure to come, panelists agreed that creativity and data will remain intricately linked.

“Creativity and data and strategy are not mutually exclusive. It's [about] coming to a common language or common ground where we can have synergies between them,” said Finch.

Marrone offered another angle of the tie between information and creativity: “There is a logical fallacy when people say ‘work-life balance’ — that's bullshit, because work is part of life. Ultimately, creativity and invention is [exactly like] this,” he says. “Even finding information and [building] all the clever algorithms are a creative activity of the human mind. There might not be the sense of classic creativity of storytelling, but some very inventive people have decided to create all these datasets. For me, that divide [between data and creativity] doesn't exist.”

Martyn Clarkson, Elizabeth Smith, Stevie Archer, Kendra Clark, Stephano Marrone, Kevin Kwan, Amy Crowther, Ken Hein

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Brand Strategy Creativity Data & Privacy

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Jack Morton

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