Dawn of the Data

Posted 2 August 2017.

​By Stevie Weber, Head of Strategy at Zenith.

​There’s no denying data is having a moment. Perhaps more than that, given it’s next to impossible to read any industry article or award-entry, or to sit through a meeting devoid of a data mention. It’s little wonder some, namely creatives, are starting to feel displaced and that this whole “data thing” is some extravagant wizardry. Yet it’s hard to argue when agency titles like “Data Scientist”, “Data Forensic Specialist”, and “Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence” are becoming the norm. Whilst intriguing to some (and debatable to others), the real problem is that these titles reinforce the notion that data is used predominantly in hindsight – just as scientists and forensic specialists are typically brought in after an incident to establish what happened. Similarly, we tend to look back on campaigns to determine where they’ve been effective or ineffective. The problem with this is that the damage has been done. Equally, our efforts to temporarily boost success regularly sees focus shift to mid-campaign, when we’re tasked with exploring how best to optimize creative performance. Again, most of the damage has been done because if a campaign is mediocre to begin with, optimization is probably limited. Instead, we need our data to help predict and inform what can go right from the beginning. Data has the capacity to influence and recalibrate creativity, versus allowing us to purely monitor it. Data has the proficiency to constantly collect information to benefit the ‘always-on’ mentality versus sporadic tactical campaigns that lose sight of building brand meaning and true purpose.

However, it doesn’t take a “data scientist” to figure out that the general sentiment is that data stifles creativity. It’s a perceived roadblock to bold, imaginative, instinctual ideas and has the tendency to repel creatives. Data looks pretty sterile and mundane at first glance – the polar opposite of creatives’ very existence. Scanning statistics and data bits squeezed into dozens of Excel sheets and then engineering a system to interpret it does not excite many. Although visualization software is helpful, there’s only so much an infographic can tell us – and it’s unlikely to be a deep, mind-altering human insight. It is here that this alleged disconnect between science and creativity occurs: that data cannot produce an emotional connection with the consumer. We want to develop work and messages that are ingrained in the social fabric of our consumers; that penetrate public consciousness and that infiltrate or create cultural phenomenon. I would like to add my voice to the increasing view that this is our “Mecca” and reaching it requires data from the get-go. So no, data is not stifling creativity – it has the power to make it better. Putting the most obvious benefits aside (smarter targeting, stronger resonating messages, product innovation, media mix modelling, and the uncovering of profound consumer insights), data puts us in the driver’s seat. It allows us to guide consumers through trends that WE are forecasting or anticipating, ones that our consumers have not yet consciously identified.

Data is a supreme being, trapped in a stale looking body. To use it effectively there is a need to “creatify” it, to dramatise it, to breathe life into it. We need to know what to measure or observe, how to extract insights and humanise it and finally, how to unearth the most motivating, captivating storyline within that information.

As the gap between creative approach and actual campaign objectives becomes more evident, data’s role must be reconsidered. It needs to inform creativity, not just help creativity perform. As data remains centre stage it should foster a greater collaboration between media and creative agencies. Ideally, it should push past collaboration to partnership. For too long now media agencies are brought in at the back end of the creative process as executors or implementers. This is a missed opportunity, when it is often the media and digital teams rich with data who can add value much earlier in the process. But they need to get better at showcasing their value and engaging creative agencies. To ensure this works well, we need people in place who know how to identify and tell a damn good story from the data. So, instead of eradicating the ridiculous “data” related titles, I propose we continue to recruit, because what we really need next in this industry are “data journalists”, “data artists”, “data dramatists” or “data provocateurs” …take your pick!