OPINION: Data vs. Creativity. Who's got the sex appeal?

Andy Stern
By Andy Stern | 3 July 2013

Sometimes you get that feeling that you’re in the right place at the right time. Seeing the words 'data strategist' on your business card in today’s marketing world is certainly one of those times.

The rise in stature of data-driven marketeers is well documented. You know times are changing when The Harvard Business Review named data scientist as the 'Sexiest Job of the 21st Century'. Such news stokes the fires of the data versus creativity debate. The creatives may concede that they’re second best to the data geeks in some attributes, but sexy? Surely they had that one in the bag?

Creatives have always been the sexy ones. They swing into meetings (… late, as Macs don’t sync their Outlook calendar), throw down an out-of-left-field idea, ask us to trust their instinct then rightly take the plaudits when the campaign goes viral. Meanwhile we data guys sit in the corner quietly worrying how we’re going to measure the ROI of a drumming gorilla ad.

Cadbury’s gorilla is indeed a case-in-point for those who believe that the increased prevalence of analytics and measurement could stifle creativity. If we relied on data, they say, that ad would never have been made. But does data really stifle creativity?

Firstly, we need to realise that if anything is stifling creativity it’s not data, it’s risk-aversion. The pressure to ensure you hit the numbers, get bang for your buck and forecast a decent return directly impacts the likelihood of a marketing head signing off the left-field idea.

Rather than being the culprit, data-driven marketing is the beneficiary of a perfect storm of technological, behavioural and economic factors. At exactly the moment marketers began to look for more cost-effective channels, technology brought us new opportunities for direct communication and consumers wilfully offered up a whole raft of new quantifiable information as a result.

But this raft of data alone, “big” or otherwise, is not useful. It’s what you do with it that counts. Too often we fall into the trap of having too much data and not enough insight. Smart marketing is about knowing what to capture and how to interpret it to drive those insights.

And it’s here that the data and creative worlds need each other. Data doesn’t suppress creativity; it is the scratchpad on which the creatives sketch and the safety net to allow them the freedom to go out on a limb. Data delivers the live feed of consumer attitudes, affinities and intentions that gives the solid grounding that leads to great ideas.

Equally, data is nothing without creativity. The more consumer data we have, the more content is needed to maintain a relationship. As our consumer insight becomes increasingly sophisticated, the creatives are the key to leveraging that information in ways that suggest “we know you, we know what you need”. The straight talking of data alone is just creepy. As such, data doesn’t stifle creativity, it demands it.

Andy Stern
Data strategist
The White Agency

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