Data and Creativity: Why We've Got It Backwards

The numbers aren't wrong, but how we use them is

After resetting our creative outlook with the new year, we should all take a beat to stop and consider which practices are better off left in the last decade. When I asked myself this question, more than a few thoughts came to mind. But from a creative perspective, I couldn't ignore one glaring trend from recent years: our largely misguided use of data in relation to our creativity.

Market research and A/B testing have been around for decades, but the ability to hypertarget audiences and measure performance instantaneously is new. Somewhere along the way in harnessing these new tools, we effectively gave up our creative intuition and allowed data to dictate the stories we do—and do not—tell. Reliance on these data-driven narratives is why so many brands today are failing to differentiate. Not because the data is necessarily off, but because the approach to data is all wrong.

Too often, creative has been used to reinforce a set of data points that theoretically "check off all the boxes." Even more often, that creative ends up missing the mark with today's consumers. Why? Because data is generally used to justify safe, cost-efficient storytelling, or what is assumed to be the least risky route. Rarely has it been used to justify the inverse—bold, forward-thinking storytelling that builds brand loyalty and makes a lasting cultural impact.

Think about it. When was the last time you've seen a recurring campaign with the cultural gravitas of Nike's "Just Do It" or Apple's "Think Different?" More often than not, 20 years into the new millennium, the brands that are most admired among my colleagues tend to be from the previous century.

Of course, today's media landscape is crowded. How consumers interact with content changes from platform to platform. Further complicating matters is that platform preferences differ among consumer demographics. Younger consumers are heavy purveyors of digital, whereas print and television still hold sway with older consumers. The best experiences with creative are those built to the strengths of any specific platform. So, data can help diagnose how to be more effective with our advertising and where we are being most productive.

But this also misses the point. We live in an age where branding alone can differentiate a company. Two generations have been raised with the internet; one has never known the world without it. Today's largest global workforce expects the convenience of being able to access information, compare products and services, buy and communicate from anywhere at any time. Simply put, all we know is data. Digital relationships—with both people and brands—need to intertwine with consumers' offline lives. Rather than passively tapping and scrolling, consumers are seeking real-life experiences and interactions with the brands and personalities they follow. Consumers want to buy in, to believe that the brands they purchase from understand who they are. Cutting through the noise requires a unique voice—one that can't be built on lukewarm, run-of-the-mill, disposable content. Brand storytelling needs to be inherently human, fueled by personality before platitudes, character driven with an intrinsic understanding of contemporary social values and political culture—all things that can't be gleaned from a spreadsheet.

I'm not arguing for the abolishment of data. I'm arguing that we flip data on its head. Let's use it to reinforce creative and risk-taking, not the other way around.

At the start of any project, we should lead with internal observations rather than external research: Would we use this product, and in what scenario? Be honest about the service or product, and how consumers are going to interact with it. If we kick off the creative process with this mentality toward strategy, we're more likely to develop storylines that feel authentic to the consumer.  

From there, take into consideration what the consumer cares about in the moment. This doesn't require fancy metrics, just an understanding of what's happening in the world. Consumers appreciate brands that respond to and actively take part in culture. Even if it seems like a risk, the long-term gains will far outweigh any potential short-term consequences.

Once an idea has taken shape, data can then be used as a tool to push the creative forward, instead of serving as the trailer creative is hitched to. Pay attention to the platforms your target consumers engage with. How adaptable is the creative idea? How can it be deconstructed and rebuilt to appear native to any specific channel? This requires pre-thought. It requires us to understand the storytelling limitations of any specific platform and to imagine the different ways content may scale before producing it. When done correctly, we can develop multimedia-rich campaigns with creative assets and storylines with legs to be redeployed as new data comes in.

Brands should feel empowered to tell stories with voice—stories driven by culture, not data. Look up from the spreadsheet and take a look outside. That view will tell you more than the numbers will.

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