Data vs creativity

The growing importance of data is being accused of stifling creativity, as more decisions are made on the basis of numbers and insight rather than allowing original ideas to flow freely.

Krispy Kreme: Office hero ad campaign used data to identify its target market

Marketers have a new fight on their hands this year. Data is rising up the agenda, and not before time according to those who have previously struggled to prove the value their discipline delivers to the bottom line.

But recent months have also seen a stinging backlash from advertising agency heads who say that the fixation on data has become all-encompassing, at the expense of creativity.

At Advertising Week Europe in March, Bartle Bogle Hegarty founder Sir John Hegarty complained of a “creative deficit” in marketing caused by an over-reliance on new technology, while also warning that consumers are growing suspicious of “Orwellian” data collection practices. A few weeks earlier, Now creative partner John Townshend had argued at an event run by TV marketing body Thinkbox that marketers are not giving agencies the freedom necessary to generate ideas.

“With the pressure on clients to hit numbers, it is very hard to play when you’ve got nanny over your shoulder telling you not to muck around,” said Townshend.

The core of the argument for creative freedom in marketing has always been that it is impossible to predict the effect of a truly game-changing idea. Innovators such as pioneering car maker Henry Ford and Apple chief executive Steve Jobs flourished in spite of, not because of, market research. Without the creative spark that sees beyond the data, humankind might still be trying to eke more speed out of its horses instead of driving cars; or carrying around cases of compact discs instead of iPods and iPhones holding entire musical libraries.

Pushing the boundaries

However, Honda head of European marketing Martin Moll says: “Where creative agencies have a challenge today is in convincing a business that it’s worth taking a punt. Equally, there is an ongoing challenge where the creative agency wants to stretch the boundaries, but the client might say it’s a bit too creative. The nature of creatives is always to question convention and use that experience to help develop themselves, but sometimes that can be at the cost of what the brand needs there and then.”

Three: Dancing Shetland Pony TV ad was devised as extensive research

Since the global financial crash and subsequent recessions, many brands have become more conservative in their thinking, Moll argues, preferring to prioritise their smaller budgets on making safer bets. The exceptions tend to be in high-growth product categories such as consumer electronics, where he says companies can afford to spend lavishly on prototyping and testing many new ideas before settling on the most successful (see Q&A below).

Krispy Kreme Doughnuts UK chief marketing officer Judith Denby suggests that it is not usually enough now to make a case for running a campaign on the basis of creativity alone.

“Creativity, by virtue that it is largely intangible or difficult to measure, does tend to be at risk in many scenarios, whether that’s from budgets being cut or data being given a higher profile,” she says. “Good judgement will be based on data one way or another – it might not be numbers on a spreadsheet, but it will be data and insight gleaned from previous experience and results.”

Denby gives the example of Krispy Kreme’s ‘Office hero’ campaign, where the creative was designed to target an important customer type – people who buy doughnuts by the dozen to share at work. She says the company used data to identify the geographic market – primarily central London – and the common purchase triggers for this behaviour, which include status among colleagues, paying back favours and motivating teams.

“Data sources used included EPOS [electronic point-of-sale] sales data, regional awareness and penetration data, and focus group insights,” Denby adds. All of this came ahead of the brand’s creative brief.

Even in campaigns where creative comes to the fore, data is now playing a more prominent role than ever – as in the case of mobile phone network Three’s recently launched TV ad featuring a dancing Shetland pony (see Case Study below). Significant research went into devising the creative brief and, according to director of brand Margaret Burke, Three chose Wieden + Kennedy as its agency not just because of its creative strength, but also because of its media planning capabilities.

Yet, from the copious media attention and YouTube views received by Three’s ad, the obvious inference is that data and creative ought to be able to work together. Indeed, Marta Datkiewicz, head of product at flash sales website Secret Sales, argues that data should enhance rather than inhibit creativity and that using it can itself be considered creative.

“I don’t see them as competing. I think market and user data offer us a brilliant raw material, which can be fused together to inform and empower the creative process. But in order for data to feed into that, you have to know how to use it and what information to pull out.”

Honda: Marketing is rarely driven by just data, says marketing head Martin Moll

Data is not new to marketing, she notes; market research, focus groups and conversations with customers are all long-established data sources. The difference today is that technology has evolved, particularly as a result of increased internet and mobile use by consumers, enabling much more data to be collected and mined. But that is also the problem – ensuring that you’re not just describing how the world is, but also explaining why it matters.

Three’s Burke says: “If you use data to get an insight and that insight leads you to a great creative brief, that’s brilliant. If you’re using data in the way that a lot of clients and companies do, which is talking only about facts, I think that leads to pretty mediocre, undifferentiated briefs.”

Similarly, Honda’s Moll warns that brands need to avoid the “paralysis by analysis” that results from endlessly studying figures rather than making decisions.

Even allowing for this, however, there will always be some who believe that any attempt to impose scientific rigour is an unwelcome and unnecessary encumbrance on the creative process. According to Sky online marketing controller Joel Christie, who manages the broadcaster’s online display advertising, it’s important not to patronise those who take this view, whether they are brand or agency colleagues.

“Most senior people in organisations have come from TV, radio or press backgrounds, so if you say these new online kids are going to educate you it gets their back up. It’s more about getting them excited. Most marketers just want to hear exciting stories about what we can do, so I think presenting data in a way that can do that is very important.”

At the same time, marketers perhaps need to acknowledge that there are certain intangibles that are impossible to predict and which can only be brought about by creative minds.

Data will increase in importance as technology continues to improve and as economic conditions continue to necessitate a strong case for marketing investment. The trick is to ensure your data is the fuel that ignites the creative spark, not the flood that extinguishes it.

Case study: Three’s dancing pony

Cadbury’s 2007 ‘Gorilla’ TV ad is often cited as the epitome of pure creativity successfully freed from the shackles of data. In March this year, mobile phone network Three seemed to achieve a similar feat with an ad for its 4G internet service, featuring a Shetland pony dancing to a song by Fleetwood Mac. But although Three, like Cadbury, set out to surprise, director of brand Margaret Burke says that data was at the heart of its campaign.

Internet usage data and subsequent market research provided the insight behind the creative brief to agency Wieden + Kennedy, which ultimately delivered the dancing pony concept and the campaign strapline: “Silly stuff. It matters.” This “silly” viral content, far from being of trivial importance, was revealed by Three’s research to be highly emotionally rewarding for mobile internet users.

Burke says that making the leap from this to the Shetland pony idea did require the “creative spark” of the agency, but she also adds: “I don’t believe that you get that unless you’re really clear about what you’re trying to do. You only get the work that you set out to get.”

The most important data point of all, she says, came from pre-launch testing of the finished ad. Three shunned any measurement of consumers’ rational responses, but instead focused on getting a five-star rating for enjoyment, which the ad achieved. Even though Three couldn’t predict that the ad would go viral, Burke believes the brand created all possible conditions to enable it to happen.

In particular she cites one guiding principle: “We didn’t want to talk about the internet, we wanted to be ‘of the internet’.”

That seems to have worked. The official YouTube dancing pony ad has now accrued over 6 million views, and countless other users have adapted it to post their own pony ‘mashups’ online. The simplest explanation for that, Burke says, is that the ad “is not really an ad, it’s a piece of content”.

Q&A: Honda


Martin Moll
Head of European marketing

Marketing Week (MW): Why has data become so important to marketers recently?

Martin Moll (MM): The game has changed because of the impact of recession. Creativity is being put under a microscope. Budgets have been reduced, and internally businesses have started to be a lot more conservative in their thinking and to play safer.

Different things are at play in different sectors. Electronics is throwing a lot of money at it so some ideas are fantastic and work really well, but there will be a myriad of others that won’t. They’re experimenting and that’s great when your budgets are booming. In automotive, people want to rely on a safer bet with a smaller budget.

MW: Is creativity losing out to data and insight as a result?

MM: It is rare you see marketing that is purely data-driven. If it’s too rational, people might get the message but they won’t buy into it. Whether you’re buying food, a house or a car, there is a mentality that says ‘does it appeal to me on a sensory level?’, then you post-rationalise. A prime example in the automotive sector is that people will focus heavily on reliability as the primary reason for purchase, but actually they won’t go out looking for messages about reliability. That doesn’t sell and doesn’t create desire.

MW: How can marketers benefit from making data and creativity work together?

MM: Everybody knows that if a dealer says we’ll give you £1,000 off a car, you can directly correlate that with the number of cars registered and, therefore, get a return on investment. It’s trickier in pure marketing terms, but if you can make the links between what you’re doing and helping the sales pipeline – if you can make that correlation internally and, through data, explain it – then the business is far more likely to support you. It’s far more tangible than the loose stuff that goes on out there, where no-one knows what happens when someone sees a TV commercial.



Joel Christie
Online marketing controller

We always try to remind ourselves that data is not the answer. It’s part of it. We look at [online advertising] very much as art and science. The data gives us the platform to speak to the right people, but creativity is central to what we do.

If we don’t get that creative right, it all falls down. We try to be as creative as possible both in terms of the ad format and the messaging. It’s important to understand how creativity fits into this in order to trigger responses.

We start with the opportunity, which is led by the data. If there’s no opportunity there, because the volumes are too small, then we don’t progress. If there is an opportunity there, we look at how big it is and how much creative we need to put into play. There are so many levers you can pull and they just work hand in hand.

Data has got a bit of bad press because it can be seen as a dull subject. People’s eyes do sometimes glaze over when you mention data, but it can be a really exciting opportunity. When I talk to someone who looks after Sky Sports or Sky Movies about the insights we can give them, they get very excited.

We can say we’ve targeted this group, we put these messages in front of them and this is the message people reacted to the best.

We need to be more human about things. I completely get that the technology is making it easier for us to [use data] but we need to make it easier for people to get excited. Ultimately, this budget gets signed off by a head of marketing or a head of finance somewhere that wants to see the sales uplift and wants to see what it can do. If you just talk about computer stats then it gets lost.

If you think about any marketing it is just trying to put the right message in front of the right person. With the media you buy, whether that’s a rectangular ad on The Guardian or a homepage takeover on YouTube, as long as you get the right message to the right person then the format enables you the creativity.