Edwina Dunn: Data science is not accounting, it’s an art form requiring empathy and creativity

Data and creativity are not opposed but must be used together to understand that people are different and must be treated differently by brands.

In one corner stands art, in the other science. For too long, a perceived tension has been allowed to exist between these two disciplines, as if students, marketers and brand executives have to pick between the two. It’s an absolutely false dichotomy. In fact, some of the most inspiring art is grounded in science – take Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man for example – while science has always been influenced by the infinite possibilities inherent in artistic expression. Put simply, potentially brilliant partnerships exist between the two fields, and anyone interested in taking full advantage of the data at our fingertips must take note.

Not long ago, big data was an amazing reservoir of untapped currency for companies. Now, however, many companies feel swamped by it. Awareness is outweighing capability, as businesses have an abundance of data but limited resources for harnessing its potential. People know that data has the potential to be enormously powerful in shaping competitive advantage, but are too often wary of the volume and fearful of the privacy issues that data exploitation can throw up.

What’s missing is a real appreciation for the skill of data analysis and an understanding of what it takes to do it properly.

Though they seem juxtaposed, data science is an art form. It’s not black and white or linearly explored. It’s not like accounting, for example, where there is a clear right and wrong. Instead, data science requires creativity to understand nuanced relationships between people and brands.

Chairman and executive creative director of agency RKCR/Y&R, Mark Roalfe, wisely said that “the world’s greatest ideas and innovations did not come about as a result of a collection of pure statistics…Intuition and instinct can be our most powerful tools”. The sooner that marketers and data analysts take this on board, the sooner data science will start paying new-age dividends.

In the marketing industry, it is often said that ad tech, algorithms, automation and data are taking over the creativity of this supposedly artistic sector. What needs to be appreciated is the need for both ends of the spectrum; it’s not an either/or approach.

Understanding customer behaviour of course requires knowledge of behavioural patterns. But that’s only half the story. Noah Mallin, head of social, North America, at media agency MEC, has said that “data gives us that reality and sets the canvas that allows us to be creative”. Truly understanding customers means using the knowledge that data affords us to stand in the shoes of the people we are analysing. The empathy this requires – an appreciation for the complexity of human passion and aspiration – is an emotion, not a formula.

Any scientist will tell you that people are the hardest thing to predict. Being able to process millions of people’s personal data but simultaneously treating each one as an individual is therefore a profound opportunity for business. True personalisation through data-led strategies will mean a mass transformation in the way that consumers interact with brands.

In short, data-led creativity is unquestioningly the future. It’s about understanding that people are different, and need to be treated differently. That’s why a combination of scientific thought and artistic creativity is necessary.

Consider education. In order for teachers to be effective, they need to know which pupils struggle in what classes and in what places. The simple fact is that people learn in different ways, and being able to personalise the learning experience is the sign of a great teacher. Moreover, understanding where the blockages are and finding flexible creative solutions to individual problems can be enormously powerful. Let’s take these lessons out of the classroom and into our boardrooms.

“The greatest artists are scientists as well,” said Albert Einstein. To this end, we must uncover the complementary blend of skill in data-driven creativity, so that we may continue the discovery of ever-more complex insight, and ultimately – as ever – improve the relationship between people and brands. When Einstein is on your side, you can’t lose.

Edwina Dunn was co-founder of Dunnhumby and is now CEO of data insight company Starcount.


Clive Humby: Star Wars bridges the gender gap like no other franchise

Clive Humby

The release this week of Star Wars: The Force Awakens has generated a marketing frenzy of commercials, merchandise and brand tie-ins. Clive Humby, co-founder of Tesco’s customer science firm Dunnhumby and chief data scientist at Starcount, explains why the franchise is fertile territory for marketers seeking to cross the gender divide.


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  1. ijustneedtosay 21 Apr 2016

    This article has enlightened me, a software engineer with an advanced degree in Computer Science, that data science isn’t mathematical in nature, despite the heavy usage of machine learning and computational statistics. It’s all about people, man.

    On a serious note, this article incorrectly uses, “data science” in place of “data analysis”. The latter being the byproduct of the former. And it’s true, that after a high level of technical skill is achieved, whether in art or science, there is little distinction between the two in terms of the exactness that’s required to perform at that level. Einstein was quoted correctly, however, he did not mean that artists were ultimately scientists as well, as this article strongly implies.

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