Creatives and big data: friends or foes?

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“Raw data is like raw sewage: probably there’s something valuable in it, but you don’t want to be around where it comes out.” So says Laurie Pollock – who has been both an advertising creative director and a planner/market researcher. “Some creative people are masters of insight themselves. And some are brilliant at pulling those insights out of the data. But really, it’s not their job. Nor is it the job of marketing managers or sales people. It’s a full-time job in itself.”

Back in the days of small data when I was in an ad agency creative group making ads for Burger King, our (rogue) creative director covered the walls with huge pieces of paper charting the weekly sales figures for BK sandwiches. We saw the line go up when promotions or ads kicked in and we could see in this non-realtime feedback loop which execution was effective and which was not so much. But that CD got himself kicked out – as they do – and the first thing the new one did was ceremoniously tear down those charts. “What are these doing here? This is the creative department,” he said and would have none of it.

“Creatives are suspicious of data for all the reasons non-creatives love it.” Laurie Pollock told me. “Creative people rightly believe that what they do is create something. They don’t want to be told there is an Answer. They particularly don’t want to be told the Answer is a number. Many of them went to art school just get out of taking math, because it made them angry. The smug certainty of numbers is infuriating to them. Flooding these people with numbers will not make them do better work.”

I spoke about this with Ellen Oppenheim, Founder of Oppenheim Media Consulting, which works with ad and media firms to increase revenue as technology changes the landscape. “To many creatives, data is an enemy.” she told me. “Remember the expression, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”  Data will only grow in importance. Being left out of discussions about the impact of advertising cannot be good for creative agencies. …clients increasingly rely on data to make marketing decisions. They may involve their media agencies or internal partners, leaving the creative agency to “fill in the blanks” once the program is set. The danger to the creative community is that if media agencies and even media companies participate in discussions with the clients about what’s working without a representative from the creative agency, creatives will be working with less information than the others. This makes it harder to question and influence decisions.”

“So to be an effective creative …you have to ask what the metrics are, suggest what they should be, and understand how to use them to get your work made. Data can inform the creative process,” says Oppenheim, “but it does not substitute for creativity.  Crafting great advertising remains an art, albeit art with a business purpose. The danger is that clients will take data as an answer, not information.”

Laurie Pollock agrees: “Good creative work thrives on good data. The more useful information we have about our consumers, our competitors, our retailers, and their world, the better. The key word is useful.”

So if creatives and their creative shops keep their head in the sand they will be less likely to be at the table when decisions are made that will directly affect their work. They will find it harder to seek out the useful data and much harder to sell their ideas. The data is there – they need to know what it is and how to use it wisely, or they will be writing themselves out of the process.


Photo by Kirstin Prisk for Surfers Against Sewage