Why adland’s data versus creativity argument is a waste of time…

The battle lines have been drawn, sides are being chosen and the world is polarising. On one side, you have the ‘data is the future’ proponents. To them, robots will run marketing, artificial intelligence will replace everyone and programatic, targeted advertising based on consumer’s internet history is the holy grail.

Meanwhile, those who rely on the opposite of big data, the big idea, take up arms to defend their craft. They say that really great ideas aren’t clinical. They’re imperfect, they come from messy processes and often rely on random connections, lateral and linear thinking.

Commercial Creativity

OK, so that’s a slightly magnified representation of the data/creativity discussion, but as we enter a new year, the age old question of whether marketing is science, art or part both it rearing its head again. Recently, John Hegarty wrote a scathing piece outlining his view that ‘daring rather than data will save creativity’ and preaching the virtues of ‘commercial creativity’.

As with many of these debates, there’s merit to both arguments. But, as reflected in wider society society these days, (see Brexit and Trump), both sides are at once conceited, partly right, partly wrong and very biased. I guess it’s sometimes true that our industry reflects the world.

In adland, what’s new is over-prioritised, spoken about in revered tones and seen as better than everything that went before by some, and completely trashed by others. We’ve seen it with social media too.

‘Big Data’

Without wanting to sound like a luddite (or a fool!), adland has definitely become overtly focused on using data for measurement, targeting, programatic advertising and the lure of ‘big data’.

Data helps to unlock insights. But alone it’s worthless. It’s benign. It’s a fire lighter without any spark. It needs to be interpreted and probed in order to sort the signal from the noise. And while it can lead to insights, it doesn’t create great ideas on its own. You may know who you need to reach, when you need to reach them and how to measure success. But you can’t engage customers with data. Forget the thinking that artificial intelligence will take our jobs and render us useless (in adland anyway). The heavy lifting of creativity has to come from a human. What algorithm could come up with Jean Claude Van Damme doing the splits between two trucks?

If you’re pumping resource into data at the behest of creative thinking time, you run the risk of being too concerned with optimisation rather than innovation. You risk giving the world a ‘faster horse’. Plus, there’s the danger of media over targeting and not generating broad reach for your communications.  By only talking to the people the data tells us to, we risk over targeting and falling prey to reductionism that sometimes goes along with data driven marketing.We know from Sharp and Binet & Field’s research that wastage isn’t always to a brand’s detriment. We risk forgetting what makes a big brand – broad salient reach. We risk becoming mechanics tweaking an over optimised engine instead of creators with scope for imagination and experimentation.

Latent Bias

And then there’s the other side of the argument. There certainly is a latent bias within some parts of advertising to ‘the way it’s always been done’. Some fail to see that technology has liberated the communications industry, allowing businesses to grow from nothing to enormous without enormous investment. The perception from this cohort is that data equals boring analytics. That’s a dated view. Tasked with building a brilliant brand campaign, what modern creative wouldn’t want to know the deep, unspoken traits of their audience.

So what’s the answer? It’s simple. Data and creativity should be comfortable bedfellows. They should overlap and combine to make our industry better, not quarrel and backbite to make it worse. We’re at a stage of Darwinian change in marketing, and we can’t afford to be divided in the face of waning influence.

Marketers should heed Jack Welch’s words: “find ways to get – and use – data more quickly”, but use it to spur creative conversations and inspire innovation rather than taking the numbers as gospel.

So who is getting this balance right? Who’s striking the ‘golden mean’ by using data to infuse and invigorate creativity? In a similarly creative industry, Netflix is a great example. Their algorithm is extremely powerful because it’s constantly being fuelled by millions of hours of viewing. Every minute of every show that you watch on Netflix is logged. They know how many episodes of Gilmore Girls you binge watched last Saturday, and at what minute you switched off that horror flick.

The smash hits ‘House of Cards’ and ‘Stranger Things’ were created based upon insights from data mining. The Netflix bot drove everything from genre to character demographics to the excellent social media marketing that surrounded these shows. That’s the science bit. But these insights are only the start point. No algorithm could replicate the menacing mannerisms of Frank Underwood, create a beautifully shot 80s sci-fi drama or understand how to bring the characters to life in a social feed.

Spotify is another great example. Their recent global outdoor campaign won huge plaudits for its creative use of data (and no, that’s not a paradox), playfully highlighting the more bizarre user habits it noticed throughout 2016. Give it a Google, you’ll see what I mean.
Creativity creates value. It creates emotion, fame, salience and difference. Ironically, creativity is also a force multiplier of effectiveness and is vital for giving a brand a competitive edge. Yet the growing belief in “data-only solutions” means we tacitly lessen its importance.

Aristotle once spoke about the ‘golden mean’, or society’s almost biological need to find a desirable middle between two extremes of excess and deficiency. In my opinion, us marketers would do well to remember that. Let’s end the discussion, let’s find the balance.


This piece was originally written for the February edition of Marketing magazine in Ireland. 



  • Shane Breslin

    Excellent piece Shane. I’m not exposed day to day to adland but as a freelance digital strategist I’m crunching numbers and getting creative with content at the same time. It’s always a delicate balancing act, but I see both sides as vital.

    Data without interpretation and/or emotion is worthless.

    And why would you attempt creativity without metrics in this era?

    Love the Spotify stuff.

    Keep up the great work.