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Illogically logical: why data must not stifle the creative process

By Al Mills, Executive creative director



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June 30, 2023 | 8 min read

In a world of ubiquitous data and sensible decision-making, Al Mills of creative agency Impero makes an impassioned defense of true creativity’s often illogical elements.

Two men on a makeshift motorcycle-and-sidecar, riding around a fire

True creativity can't be hamstrung by data, says Impero's Al Mills / Domino via Unsplash

Data-driven creativity is kind of a big deal. In fact, it’s now rare to approach any kind of thinking without it. It’s held in high regard, even fetishized. Sometimes, it feels like if you don’t worship the almighty data, you’ll be banished to a damp cave with one or two other like-minded Luddites, wallowing in their own filthy irrelevance.

Data can and does reveal extraordinary consumer insights. But it’s also true that data is increasingly followed too blindly, resulting in stunted creativity.

We should never forget that most feats of creativity are based on counterintuitive thinking. The weird leaps. Opposite-mindedness, like calling your new mineral water ‘Liquid Death’ (and thereby smashing your way into a crowded market to be valued at $700m a few years later). Or sometimes it’s a glorious kind of idiocy, like storing your stale bread in a flagon of old milk in a cave and coming back a week later to realize you’ve invented Roquefort.

These things don’t come from logic and data, so maybe it’s time we stopped begging for data’s approval.

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The perils and pitfalls of data

There’s no doubt that data has cemented a place in marketing thanks to the brilliant insights it provides. But the fact is, data is logical. And too much logic can be boring and forgettable. How many people can recall data?

Here in the UK, a few weeks ago, 53% thought that prime minister Rishi Sunak was doing a good job; 48% didn’t. Maybe they did anyway; I think it was something like that. But how many people remember a drumming gorilla from 16 years ago? It’s memorable because it’s seemingly illogical. Chocolate, gorilla, Phil Collins, drum solo.

Being burdened by streams of data can create overly rigid thinking. Too many barriers to intuitive and surprising ideas mean creatives end up bogged down in figures which should be hidden from sight when speaking to consumers anyway.

We’re just humans. Weird-looking fleshy things, sharing messages with each other, reacting to common emotions and motivations. We can know too much, try to be too clever. Perhaps we should allow ourselves to be more instinctive in marketing. Trust ourselves and our colleagues.

Data not only restricts the initial creative thinking; it can also reduce the amount of work being created overall. Often a campaign can resonate strongly with both client and agency, and yet when it’s scrutinized, poked and prodded – as soon as the data says no – the idea that got everyone so excited gets unceremoniously dismantled and thrown in a skip. It’s a certain kind of sadness you feel, looking at reams of negative charts and graphs relating to a ridiculous version of your ad.

Agencies and clients too often use data as a crutch, or shield to protect them from making the ‘wrong decision’. It breeds a kind of cowardice. You can end up following what data says you should feel, instead of following how the creative makes you feel. If that’s how you want to play it, to quote Succession: buckle up, fucklehead.

How data can aid creativity

One of the benefits of data is its ability to unearth the unexpected (did you know that Pop-Tarts sales go up sevenfold before a hurricane?). Data can pinpoint consumer sentiment which can be used to influence creative. This can give you the edge if it’s genuinely surprising. But if it’s not that interesting, you should decide whether the creative should fit the logic or go against the grain.

When we first worked with plant-based brand Future Farm, instead of talking about taste and flavor (which competitor campaigns and supporting data were telling us to do), we talked about an alternative future, using the campaign to inspire people to choose Future Farm over industrial farming and fishing.

Seemingly illogical creative appeals because it’s challenging. Absent-mindedly glancing at the cross-track 48 sheet at Nebulous Station, making a tiny effort to decode the link between the brand and messaging, heightens your engagement and delivers a little dopamine hit. Bingo.

There will always be logic lurking at the heart of creative, but it’s ok for this to take a backseat. A piece of creative that can be interpreted differently by different people only adds to engagement levels. You tend to discuss films more when they’re like this: intimate films like Aftersun, or Force Majeure – everyone will see something different in the message. Or, at the big-budget end, the likes of Inception: designed to get people thrashing it out endlessly in the pub afterwards.

What’s next for the future of data and creativity?

To ensure there’s a more balanced approach to creativity, where data doesn’t dictate every decision, there needs to be more trust from stakeholders. Currently, data is being used as justification for too many decisions. Its value is undeniable, but how it’s used is up for debate.

On the first day of art college, we were forced to draw with charcoal on the end of a meter-long stick. It was an excellent way to remove our reliance on the tight control of the hand, of muscle memory and old habits. It loosened up the creative process and meant that we all created much more expressive drawings.

Data is interesting, enlightening, and helpful, but don’t let it dominate the process. If we want to create work that stands out or stands the test of time, it needs to be both logical and illogical.

So, when we work with data, let’s keep it on the end of a long stick.

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