Data vs creativity? Data should be a huge tool in the ongoing fight against mediocrity

"Is creativity under threat from marketing’s increasing obsession with data?"

Ash Bendelow

I just don’t get the basis of this argument.

The most successful businesses (and ones I would deem as progressive and creative) of recent years have been those that have built their strategy based upon ‘data for good – divine data’.

Data that has driven actionable insight and fuelled creativity rather than overwhelmed and brought it to the lowest common dominator. Data that has in turn led to greater empathy, personalisation, removal of the unnecessary and ultimately value. Data in digital is optimising user experience and information architecture and fuelling individual enhanced experiences. It shouldn’t be about marketing’s obsession with data, but businesses’ obsession with data.

Data by any other name is insight. Without knowing or seeing each and every agency’s creative brief, I could make a fairly well informed judgment that there is a section on said brief that asks the question ‘what is the key insight?’ in one way or another. This insight then fuels the proposition from which every creative idea – every on-brief idea, that is – is spawned.

Who is so anti-data in the context of creativity? Data should be a huge tool in the ongoing fight against mediocrity. Data should be the way in which agencies can remove subjectivity from decision making. Data should be embraced to help clients de-risk bravery when it comes to creativity. Data should enable greater creativity by giving clients confidence when buying braver ideas.

Data and creativity should have a symbiotic relationship without tension. We don’t expect clients to make decisions on where to place their advertising and messages based upon which billboard or poster site looks nice or instinctively feels right, or what TV programmes they think might be right based upon ‘informed’ opinion. Programmatic is yet more evidence of the evolution of how data is shaping decision making in real-time.

Clients make these significant seven and sometimes eight-figure investments because media agencies have the tools that help them make the better decisions, likely to have the greatest impact with the lowest wastage – based upon statistically sound empirical evidence.

It seems quite counterintuitive to then put a greater risk on the future commercial success of the brand down to, at worst, being seduced by a fantastic agency planner and creative storyteller at presentation of the idea; or at best, the storyteller backed up with a bit of ‘home grown’ qual. The vast majority of campaign budgets (80/90 per cent for argument's sake) are in media yet it is the creative (10/20 per cent) that has the power to disproportionately pay back to a significant extent even outside of the campaign period. Yet for the most part the data rigour is seldom exercised to the same extent.

The right type of data availability forces discipline and robustness in thinking; it should unlock greater transformational potential because when understood and interrogated fully it should make arguments bulletproof without suffocating the creative piece of magic that underpins it. Without it you are effectively making informed guesses with seriously high stakes.

However there is a key watchout. I’m sure each and every creative or frustrated account man reading this may highlight how their most creative ideas never seem to make it through the ‘creative killer’ of a focus group. Creativity, as previously stated, should have an equal, symbiotic relationship with useful and actionable data – not one rule the other.

That also highlights what I consider to be an extremely damaging force on creativity: the ‘focus group’, or bad data as I fondly refer to it. Yes it is a form of data evaluation and validation – yet for me it more often generates futile results. We are replacing one small decision making committee with another – the client with the ‘consumer’ (or the professional qual-grouper who very loosely fits the demographic profile). They are equally incredibly important in the process; however true creativity that captures hearts and minds and at best transcends audience to create further affinity or reappraisal will always win through if the idea is strong enough. It is scale of the data that would prove this.

The big misconception is that if data begins to ‘win’ more in the tension against creativity it will lead to formulaic science-based outputs and a creative industry devolving into an automated numbers industry. If this is so, why are creative agencies so keen to share and celebrate KPIs and metrics as part of the mainstay of the award entry video? Data at this point is the validation of excellence in creativity and effectiveness that we all can learn from and be inspired by. But this has then led to other clients and agencies feeling empowered enough to want to emulate these successes by being creatively liberated through these commercial case studies.

Great creativity, creativity that can impact culture as well as the bottom-line, will be more commonplace with the progressive client and agency minds that open themselves up to take those leaps of faith, de-risked through the value of data.

There are always going to be anomalies, however this is the point – is a piece of work creative if it is ineffective?

Ash Bendelow is managing director at Brave. You can follow him on Twitter @ashleybbrave

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