Read our new manifesto

Why creatives should approach data like Sherlock Holmes

The Drum has assembled an enviable panel of magnificent minds from the industry and beyond to identify the latest trends and brilliant ideas shaping our space. Here’s what’s been exciting them lately…

Data is going to play an ever more important role in creativity, and agencies could do well to approach it like Sherlock Holmes, argues Dare creative partner Brian Cooper.

“It is a capital mistake to theorise before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” So says Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia.

A lot is said about data, but very little is done with it, unless you work at the NSA or GCHQ. Most ad agencies are certainly not set up to use data properly. Most of them instead use a form of deductive reasoning. This postulates a theory, usually the big idea, and then twists the facts to suit their case, often with the help of spurious research.

This kind of top-down thinking has remained unchallenged for decades, often with the final arbiter being the creative director’s ego. The problem with ego, however, is that it relies on the confirmation bias of the creative director’s experience and knowledge of this world. That is fine if you have a vast well to draw from, but most creative people don’t. So, what is thought of as intuitively right is often empirically wrong.

The police and politicians have learned this lesson the hard way – many catastrophic miscarriages of justice have been the result of facts twisted to suit a theory, and entire elections have been lost as a result of misjudging the electorate. Conversely, Barack Obama famously used data in California to find the most attractive face of the democrats for 45-year-old women. The answer, George Clooney, helped him into a second term.

The way forward for agencies is to learn inductive thinking. Like Sherlock Holmes, they need to be empirical and look at the data first for insights. Creative departments in turn need people who aren’t frightened of data, and can use it to their advantage to both generate ideas based on data driven insights, and to optimise their campaigns.

Yet most creative people are scared of data, and there is a real danger that a whole generation of creative people will become an anachronism. This would be a real shame. If anything these creative people are more important than ever. This is because data does not come without its own problems. Two of which creativity can do much to solve.

One problem with data is a propensity for commoditisation. If data gives such accurate insights, surely the answers just present themselves. This is a mistake, and one media agencies often make in a quest for efficiencies. Data can give very good insights, but it doesn’t provide imaginative execution. Only creative people can do that. Remember, data never solved a crime for Sherlock Holmes, it was his imagination, inspired by the data, that solved the crime.

The other problem with data is the confusion between what is correlation and what is causation. The best way to explain the difference is to use the example of the rooster. The fact a rooster always crows when the sun rises is correlation. If it were causation then when the rooster didn’t crow the sun wouldn’t rise. This is common sense. Something creative people are loaded with. If you ever want to know if a brief makes sense ask a creative. They can puncture a grandiose theory in seconds.

Data is going to play an ever more important role in creativity. Agencies should embrace it and use it to their advantage, much as Sherlock Holmes did. Like Sherlock, creative people are imaginative problem solvers. It’s that elementary.

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis