Big Data and Creativity: Kill or Cure?

What effect will the huge amount of data on consumer behaviour available to brands have on the ability of creatives to do great work?

Big Data, that catch-all term for the unfathomable amount of information on human activity churned out around the clock, is everywhere. Originally coined to denote datasets growing so unwieldy they become awkward to work with, it is now a more fluid term, used to refer to all sorts of constantly generated data that is ripe for mining and analysis. This includes social media, mobile phone usage and user data generated via services such as Nike+ – all information that can reveal consumers’ habits and preferences. As Hils Jakison, creative technology director at The Marketing Store says, “its definition has yet to be finalised”, yet many industries are keen to tap into its potential.

In the entertainment business, for example, data is informing many content decisions in new ways. In researching its US remake of the House of Cards political thriller, Netflix found that its users who loved the original BBC production also enjoyed movies with Kevin Spacey or directed by David Fincher. So compelling were the figures that both were signed up to the multi-million dollar production. UK-based company Epagogix, meanwhile, has for a number of years been helping film studios predict which movie scripts or plots will be successful by using computer-enabled algorithms, or neural networks, and analytical software.

Within advertising, Big Data is an equally ubiquitous buzz-term. But the emphasis on it, and its potential usefulness in shaping creative ideas, has its detractors. Sir John Hegarty, for example, likes to ring a note of caution – or dismay – about the rise of data. “Data is all about what happened yesterday, and business is all about what happens tomorrow,” he says. “The trouble is a belief among certain quarters that this is the answer to all your problems. Data is a source of knowledge but will not predict what will happen tomorrow.”

Data has always been important, he adds, but “it’s about taking this knowledge, drawing some assumptions and making a leap. The day that you can predict what people will buy is the day we all pack up and go home.”

Depending on who you listen to within the advertising industry, Big Data is either an impending crisis or an impending opportunity, says Martin Weigel, head of planning at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam. “It’s either going to kill creativity, or it’s going to usher in a new golden age of opportunities and efficiencies. I suspect that the truth is somewhere in between. We need to take it seriously. But I think we should be critical at the same time.”

One proponent of the ‘golden age of opportunities’ approach is Dave Buonaguidi, founder and chief creative officer of Karma Group. “I have waited almost 30 years for this moment: when data can really influence creativity,” he admits, remembering a bygone era where “everyone pandered to the creative director”, creativity was subjective, creative fame was all-important and effectiveness was secondary. “Fortunately, technology has changed all that,” he adds. “Those mental days are almost over. It’s a bit like someone turning on the lights at an orgy.”

For Buonaguidi, technology and data can help create the right work, to track, change, adapt and learn. It’s “something the ad industry struggles with,” he says, “but needs to understand fast. I’m not going to bullshit anyone, the advertising business is really not that creative any more. It needs to lose some of its preciousness, move faster and constantly create.”

Not all creatives within adland are as vociferous in their defence of data, but most see it as an integral part of today’s creative process. As Hegarty pointed out, the use of data and insight is not new. Tesco’s Clubcard, for example, which launched in the mid-90s, was arguably the first opportunity for a brand to have such detailed access to its customers’ habits. But Jo Coombs, managing director of OgilvyOne UK believes that over the past few years, its power and usefulness has shifted. For OgilvyOne, Big Data means two things, she adds: real-time data (being able to do and respond to things in real time) and new types of data, “which means there’s masses of information which I don’t think anybody has figured out yet”.

Data has always been expanding, so talking of Big Data can be misleading, adds Weigel. “Data is always, relatively speaking, ‘big’…. It’s the variety and interconnectedness of data – bringing together a whole spectrum of data sources – that gives us new, predictive powers. It lets us predict behaviours, it allows us to predict interest. And it allows us to predict demand.”

The germ of W+K’s recent Heineken campaign, for example, was identified by examining the brand’s strengths and weaknesses in its tracking data, which revealed that the brand’s biggest point of difference was that it was seen as global. “If we could make that rich and meaningful, we suspected that we’d have the beginnings of a strategy,” says Weigel. In addition, the agency’s multi-award-winning Old Spice campaign was rooted in purchase data that highlighted how men’s body wash is predominantly bought by women.

Data can open up two distinctive avenues for creatives, Coombs adds. It can inform how you deliver the creative content to people in different ways, through timeliness or geography, for example, and thus help to increase relevance of content. “The other area that we look at when we talk about data and creative [content] is how data can create new creative opportunities,” Coombs says. “For example, if you combined someone’s social data with Oyster travel usage, could this open up a new way of talking to them?”

During last year’s Olympic Games, OgilvyOne created a campaign for British Airways which used real-time social data aggregating it into a ‘social symphony’ to encourage people to get behind Team GB. It featured a piece of music playing on a dedicated website which was amplified and affected by social media chatter, giving the ‘social games’ a voice, explains Coombs.

Being able to collate data, often in real time, and to use this to influence and inform creative decision-making has also become “a vital component” of his agency’s output, says James Kirkham, co-founder of agency Holler. “The age of the ad hoc campaign is most definitely upon us, and the use of data is the reason it is all possible.” A recent Holler campaign for Jura whisky, for example, was sparked because the agency’s analysts spotted that the Scottish Island of Jura had been missed off Google Maps. This spot was fed into the creative team within two hours, who then devised a campaign asking users to mark the island’s location on a map.

However, in many cases, the role of data is not to provide the idea itself, but rather to inform its direction – to spark brilliant ideas that are more likely to be successful because they stem from a consumer truth, according to Adam Kerj, chief creative officer of US agency 360i. “Of course, data can also be used mid-flight to optimise the campaign while it’s in progress, and after a campaign to provide insights that can be applied to future work.”

But despite the opportunities offered by the wealth of data, using it in the right way is not without its pitfalls. Just because the data exists doesn’t mean you should collect it or analyse it, and figuring out what’s relevant and what’s just noise is hard, says Coombs.

In fact, it can be quite dangerous when media agencies, and clients to a degree, feel they know their audience too well, reckons David Gamble, founder and creative director of Hometown: “Sometimes you don’t know what is going to work, what is going to catch the imagination. For example, when we’re writing a short comedy for a client, what might be funny on paper might not be funny when you shoot it. You can’t make something funnier by data.”

There is also a marked risk of homogeneity, of marketeers blindly following the data, all coming to exactly the same conclusions and responses, ending up doing what everybody else is doing, says Weigel.

So human analysis and, perhaps even more importantly, instinct remain key. The use of data works best, says Buonaguidi “when you listen to what the data is telling you and then still remain instinctive … Add in ambition, and use the data to steer you,” he continues. “Add in noise and mischief and use the data to guide you. Add in whatever you want to achieve on top of just doing some work that is effective and get the data to help you.”

The creative team is certainly not obsolete, and talk of formulas and data-crunching algorithms divining the next award-winning or ROI-boosting über-campaign are premature. For today’s creatives, statistics shouldn’t be a threat to creativity, believes Jakison: “It’s 2013 and this isn’t Mad Men. Human behaviour and emotion are still key in creating ideas for brands.”
“Big Data isn’t some God-like, omniscient, non-human AI-like entity that has both all the questions and all the answers,” stresses Weigel.

“It doesn’t render the need for human involvement obsolete.” In fact, Big Data can throw up all manner of irrelevant or unhelpful correlations, and as such, it will require intelligent human judgement to be applied to it. “Our task after all, is not just to be relevant,” says Weigel. “Building great brands demands being interesting, different, and surprising too. Data can help provide vital context and direction. It can highlight opportunities. But it doesn’t kill the need for imagination.”

Data should act as a fuel, not a deterrent, agrees Kerj. “Research that’s overly prescriptive can become a hindrance to the creative process, thus we recommend that data be used to spark or gut-check ideas. It’s the inspiration – not the answer.”

What is changing significantly, however, is the make-up of the creative agency, and the role of the number crunchers needs to be more appropriately balanced within the set-up, reckons Kirkham. “Frankly, the more creatives get to spend time with people who are crunching numbers, the better. A campaign at its total on-the-fly best will be one where a creative output is informed and considered by brilliant analysis, leading to outstanding strategy where a creative can build something magical in the moment.”

Data can help to find a great starting point, he adds, or be brilliant at showing a gap or a moment where creativity can really flourish, “but we’re a long way from relying on the algorithm to be the author of creative perfection. Thank goodness.”

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