Embracing the unknown in our data-centric world

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We constantly strive for certainty. Various studies have shown that we loathe not knowing an outcome even more than the certainty of a negative result. As Rory Sutherland so perceptively explained, much of the appeal of Uber, even if we don’t consciously recognise it, is the perceived control of being able to track our lift as it approaches.

It is unsurprising that our industry, among many others, has been seduced by data’s abundance and the apparent certainty that it offers. In a world of dizzying unpredictability and rapid change, hard facts are comforting - and if it all goes wrong, then we can’t be blamed for it, because we were just doing what the data told us.

At this moment our lives have never felt more uncertain. Everything we had previously taken for granted - time with friends, family contact, liberty of movement, even the reassuring familiarity of the commute - is now off-limits indefinitely. That’s why it has never been more crucial for us to apply data in the appropriate manner; not as the answer itself, however tempting that shortcut might seem, but as an aid to the thought process.

Regrettably over-reliance on data is a problem of our own making. In our desire to elicit greater marketing spend from our clients, as an industry, we’ve held up data as a risk-remover; a way of bringing certitude and a grown-up quality to a discipline that has been susceptible to being regarded by C-suite executives as fluff-peddling. But this has created an environment where we shy away from trying anything that’s not been proven to work in the past. A requirement to prove prior success of an idea will never allow unconventional thinking to flourish.

Alternatively, we use data selectively to support preconceived ambitions (like the drunk in the famous quotation, who uses the lamppost ‘for support rather than illumination’). When we only enlist data as a sales technique in a pitch, rather than as fuel for creativity, we’re missing the opportunity to uncover fresh insight.

Singular examples of brands adopting these approaches don’t immediately spring to mind - and that’s a feature of the process. The outputs are very rarely egregious; more often, they’re generic and forgettable, mere background noise. But in our current climate of heightened emotion, and with brands scrambling to adjust budgets and to make their investments work harder, mediocrity is even less acceptable than before.

Embracing the unknown

To be clear, this is not a Luddite rejection of technologically enabled measurement and testing, more of an alternative to a devotion to data doesn’t need to be scattergun whimsy. We should be looking at all of the data and the research and always asking ‘why?’ - why the results are what they are, and why it matters - as well as trying to predict how our interpretations will land in the real world, both today and tomorrow.

The emphasis should lie on the delicate balance that draws upon insight and instinct at the most significant moments in the process, without ever putting both feet into either camp. The results ultimately should lead into uncharted territory, but with a sense of confidence in what we’ll find there. Accepting that uncertainty is a fundamental ingredient to breaking new ground. Recognise that if we’re feeling entirely comfortable, we haven’t pushed the thought far enough.

Why should the unknown be trusted?

Crucially, this approach does not absolve agencies from accountability. We all need to work harder to earn the trust of clients, not by presenting stats and facts as the holy grail, but by taking the time to work out the story behind the data points. Earning that faith will result in better creative, more effective work, fewer faux pas, and relationships that will outlast this current crisis.

Moreover, we need to hone our judgement of when and where to take the creative leap more than ever. The world today is in flux, people are feeling destabilised and anxious, and even tomorrow is hard to predict. In trying to make sense of this new and state of affairs, we’re racing to obtain new data, poring over the numbers to help us explain, rationalise and manage. Against this new backdrop we must quickly evolve and sharpen our intuition, so we can, more often than not, correctly judge when and how to question what the research seems to be telling us to do.

Yes, embracing the unknown is not for the faint-hearted brand. But doing so, in a way that treats data and research with respect, but not reverence, will deliver the differentiation that will help agencies succeed.

Alex Manning, senior new business strategist, Cult

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