Tracking the New Normal: Data-Led Creativity in a Covid World

Insights from our pandemic study on changing attitudes and behaviors

This essay is part of Data + Creativity 2020, a Muse by Clio insight report exploring that critical intersection in marketing—and how to leverage it to create more impactful work. Click here to download the full PDF report of 12 essays, or here to read them on the Muse site.

The advertising agency relationship between data and creativity is complicated. In most agencies, data has been used to kill creative ideas or it's been used to justify creative decisions that have already been made. The analysts and strategists sit far away from the creative department and they're paid less than creatives. The two disciplines have never been on equal footing. As a result, data has never been properly integrated.

While we know the relationship between the two has never been more important than it is today, to be functional it has to be fixed. I honestly didn't think it was possible to fix it within the traditional agency model. So, I did two things:

1. I started a new agency, Lightning Orchard. Alongside my business partners, we bolted data into the agency DNA. Our founding mission statement specifies that "we proceed from strategy rather than retrofit it." In other words, it's fundamental to everything we do and finally has an equal seat at the table. Side note: Let's hover here for a second. It's really hard and scary to start a new agency. It sucks that the solution to the problem had to be this extreme.

2. I pulled creativity all the way upfront into data and strategy. Why wouldn't we deploy our most powerful tool in how we understand the business problem, in how we develop the research methodology and stimulus, in how we ask the questions and report the findings? Creativity is a part of everything we do at LO, not just reserved for creatives.

Since founding Lightning Orchard, I've been able to launch research studies for Runa, StreetEasy, Danone and Hims|Hers. It's been great working with our clients who have really enjoyed the creative approach to developing the methodology, stimulus and questions.

In early March, as the nation prepared to shelter at home, Lightning Orchard launched a Covid tracking study and website, "Tracking the New Normal." We asked a variety of questions, both quantitative and qualitative, to track attitudes and behavior during this volatile time of change. One of the most creative questions we asked has yielded some of the most powerful insights. We've been asking Americans, "What's the craziest secret thought you've had this week?" Here's a sample of what people wrote...

• "That a vaccine would include a chip and they would be able to control us."
• "That I need to bear arms, which I'm not a big believer in but feel it is necessary to look into now."
• "That I won't be able to have children because I cannot afford them."
• "That I no longer love my husband. That I feel like being married to him was the worst mistake I ever made."
• "That I'm scared I'm going to come out of this an alcoholic."
• "That I want to run away to have an affair with a former lover.
• "That I'd like to fly so I can get away from everything and just be myself. No responsibilities, no problems, just me."
• "That I should go outside and run naked around the neighborhood and see if anyone notices."

This glimpse at America's secret urges is just the beginning. Their weekly responses tell a sad, evolving story. It's the story of the bifurcation of America. The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening, the middle is disappearing, and it's never been clearer than it is today. Those who are at risk of losing their jobs, homes and savings are more worried about their financial wellbeing than their physical wellbeing during a pandemic. They're not eating great, and they're not exercising as often. They're feeling less curious about learning something new. They report wanting to change their identity, to start all over, to streak naked down the streets of their neighborhood. 

They're resentful of having so many responsibilities. Some are questioning their choice to get married and have children. Many are latching onto conspiracy theories to explain the chaos and disorder. As the weeks pass by, there's a decline in feelings of hope and a rise in anger, confusion and anxiety. The data isn't fun or exciting. It's overwhelmingly sad and sobering. It's the first time in my entire career I haven't looked forward to sifting through the results of a tracking study. Yes, this is something I typically enjoy. 

And yet, the data we're seeing is nothing new. The bifurcation of America has been under way for quite some time, but Covid has become an accelerant. What's striking is that the design of our research, the inclusion of creative questions among the quantitative rankings and numbers, humanizes the themes, trends and numbers. You read it in people's own words and you end up feeling it. It's hard to ignore data when it makes you feel something.

Ignoring the data is the temptation, of course. We can run and hide from it, bury it, dump it. We can convince ourselves, our peers and our partners that it's business as usual, and go on selling campaigns that were created before everything changed, or sell in new campaigns that ignore what is happening in culture. Or we can confront it, and take this data and use it as the valuable tool it is, to lead some really important conversations with our teams and our partners.

These are choices we have to make. We have important questions to answer as well. How do we protect and even build brand equity throughout a recession? How do we show empathy for people? Does America really need a mirror reflecting back the reality of their lives? Are hope and humor more useful and necessary? I believe data can lead us down a path where these answers are accessible to us.

That's what we are doing at Lightning Orchard. The Covid data has given our team the tools we need to work together quickly to reevaluate every single brand strategy and creative campaign we had on the table. It's also given us the opportunity to get out ahead, developing new strategies and campaigns that protect our brands in relevant, meaningful ways. It's a moment that calls for us to assess and act in accordance with our values, to ask the right questions, and be prepared to listen to the answers.

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