Big idea v small data - who wins?

Charlie McKelvey, contributing editor, DataIQ

The argument over what is more important, the data or the creative, has been raging virtually since Lester Wunderman and Stan Rapp were in short trousers; even Sir John Hegarty and Professor Brian Cox have clashed over the issue, with the adman once being admonished for claiming “data creates nothing; but creativity has all the time”.

However, the debate has taken a new twist with the publication of an Episerver study which highlights that, despite a growing focus on analytics and big data within marketing, nearly three-fifths (59%) of marketers believe that creativity is more important than data when it comes to marketing campaigns.

The Episerver research, carried out at this year's Technology for Marketing show, canvassed opinion on data collection and whether marketing should still be considered a creative art-form or a statistics-led science. While over two-fifths (41%) of those surveyed agreed that data is now more important than creativity, the majority believe that creative ideas still lie at the heart of a successful marketing campaign.

Even the DMA has thrown its hat in the ring, with its own research showing how a balance between creativity and data must be struck, with the vast majority (84%) of marketers it quizzed stating that data should be used to inform, rather than supplant creativity. In addition, almost three quarters (74%) believe that a machine can never replicate the creativity of a person, while over half (57%) also agreed that, in an increasingly data-driven world, marketing without data should not be considered marketing.

But given how saturated with marketing messages consumers have become, something has to create standout - is it the big idea or the small piece of data?

Neil Carden, Merkle AquilaFor Merkle Aquila commercial director Neil Carden the only way to create standout is by demonstrating "relevance" - that you understand customers' explicit and implicit need and desire and that you have got something that will meet it.

"The either/or debate of creative versus data is facile."

However, he adds: "The assessment of relevance by customers is almost entirely a sub-conscious process and as a result you've got to get all the elements right to trigger action. For what it's worth, I believe the role of creative is to articulate the need in a way that triggers the sub-conscious recognition and the role of data is to get that in front of the right customers at the right time in the right way.  The either/or debate of creative versus data is facile."

It is a point which strikes a chord with Merkle EMEA vice president of customer experience Azlan Raj. He explains: "Creative is about the aesthetic impact to demonstrate relevance. Whether we find the right audiences through data or not, the message is important and this needs to resonate quickly; love at first sight if you will. Data in this case allows us to find the right people but the messages still need to be on point."

But what do creatives reckon? Jacob Bailey Group executive creative director Roj Whitelock insists that the "big idea" rarely appears out of thin air. And the big idea that really connects with people is often driven by insight.

He adds: "It is a single golden thread pulled from the audience that ties everything together. This insight can be achieved in many ways and data is just one of them. But here’s the thing – understanding data and drawing those golden threads out from it is in itself a creative process. It’s not about looking for the big answers, it’s about understanding what the big questions are. It’s about seeing the gaps. It requires an inquisitive mind, intuition and the ability to make new connections. Data can’t be taken at face value – you have to cut through the noise and find the impact in the figures. So, it’s a mistake to see data and creativity as two separate disciplines. The relationship should be symbiotic."

Perhaps surprisingly, given agency creatives' penchant for an argument, Big Dog creative managing partner Cordell Burke agrees, saying it makes no sense to talk about creative and data so separately.

Cordell Burke"If you think of them as being two overlapping circles, that central section is the insight. In order for creative to be the best it can be it must have data underpinning it, but unactionable data isn’t any good to anyone. It’s the fantastic insight that leads to the magical creative, and that’s where the stand out activity comes from."

However, Burke is adamant that it will always be down to creative execution to create stand-out. "Data is wonderful," he explains, "but it’s the creative that brings the resulting insight to life. Otherwise it’s all just bland and boring. Data will get you to a certain place, allowing you to understand a moment time, but the creative is where the spark comes in."

So has creativity been unfairly treated because it is hard to draw direct metrics for its impact?

Azlan thinks not, although he does counter that by pointing out marketers may not be measuring all the right metrics. "Data is great for incremental improvements, and creative is great for transformational change. However, these can still be measured using other methods including customer happiness or success," Azlan explains. "Creative ideation is difficult to measure but the performance from the idea is something that we can look at. To not have any measurement means that we aren't placing accountability on ideas, and the decision-making process to prioritise these."

As a creative director, Whitelock is more vocal: "The short answer here is yes," he says, "however, in recent times you could flip this around and aim the same question at digital, particularly in the social arena."

Whitelock points out that some targets are softer than others but what is key is the importance of planning. This needs to be considered early in the process, and, where necessary, added to the creative brief. "A successful execution really does depend on the perfect marriage of strategy and creativity – the right message communicated with impact. But without impact and without the role of the creative, your communication will fall at the first hurdle. So, in a sense all of your metrics relate back to the creative."

Burke also highlights the crucial role of planners: "Perhaps the data world is trying to make a bit of a land grab in this digital era, but it still must rely on creative interpretation to be of any use. None of these elements works in isolation, one sparks the other. That’s what planning is all about, sifting through the data and finding that one nugget the creative can be build around. You look at the information; find an interesting way to tap into your audiences, then create something that has meaning to them."

Meanwhile Carden reckons that creativity can be measured but many marketers shy away from it because it is not an easy process. "We spend a great deal of time working with our clients to measure how customer conversations drive emotional engagement and how emotional engagement drives market share and long term customer value. It's extremely difficult to do, but vital to drive those transformational leaps in performance."

However, one factor which divides opinion is whether the insights from data do most of the leg work in getting to know the target market,

Carden believes the insight just "systematises" the process so that creatives are not restricted by their own observational biases. He adds: "I resent the implication that data is not creative or that creatives are not evidence-led.  Analysts are detective scientists – I can't think of much more creative exercises than investigative analysis, hypothesis forming, testing and learning and data mining. Good creatives use all of the evidence available to them to understand how customers' minds operate and how to trigger responses."

"The iPod would not have happened if solely reliant on data."

He says that the only thing that has changed "is that we now have the ability to learn about customers in a more scientific way – observational and anecdotal evidence aren't intrinsically less valuable than insight derived from machine learning on vast datasets".

Azlan is not so sure, maintaining the insights driven from data should be used as an enabler or springboard for creative ideas. Yet he points out that the breakthrough of the iPod would not have happened if solely reliant on data.

"Data can inspire and feed into designs, but at the same time, creatives don't need to use the data. They can cast it aside and work on creative ideation. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't still test these ideas though.

"Data can also help to enrich creative experiences themselves. Now data allows for creativity around connected experiences (such as Uber, Netflix, etc) and how the use of data starts to enrich their offerings where creative alone couldn't do this before..."

Roj WhitlockFor Whitelock, the key is to keep it simple. He explains: "People are people, as a species we haven’t fundamentally changed in thousands of years. So, this is where you must start. From JK Rowling to Sebastiao Salgado, great creative thinkers have an instinct for people – what motivates them, what moves them, and the timeless, global themes that connect us all.

"Without that how can you possibly draw insight from data? How can you see the patterns of behaviour, question them or spot what’s missing? We are all connected in a fundamental way, sharing the same hopes, fears and dreams and instinctive behaviours. If you don’t understand that, there’s no point looking at the data. You won’t find any insights. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the consumer."

And there's the rub. Unless brands engage the consumer, even the most sophisticated data strategy or fancy creative treatment will fall on barren ground. A sentiment which even Sir John Hegarty might struggle to disagree with...