SAS: In search of the next great data artist

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A clash of cultures is emerging in British marketing, but creative and data-focused people can help each other improve, says SAS’s Charles Randall 

Charles Randall

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Over the past five years, Marketing Week and SAS have been collecting information on the marketing preferences of British marketers. This has revealed a division at the heart of our discipline – an alternative view of the world that challenges the establishment. 

This is not the world of clever words, beautiful imagery and exciting creativity that has long been the domain of marketing. Rather, it is a place of dull data, relentless objectivity and the unceasing quest for measurement – welcome to the realm of the data scientist. Surely all true marketers must look on this new perdition and weep for the light that has gone out of their world.

A battle of the brains – right versus left, emotional versus analytical, creatives versus statisticians – is underway in marketing. But that was not always the case. This division between the ‘rightists’ and the ‘leftists’ is an invention of the early 20th century. Our forefathers would not recognise it. From Leonardo da Vinci (engineer/artist)to  Florence Nightingaleopi (nurse/statistician), history is replete with individuals whom we would now refer to as polymaths, but for whom our current obsession with this  distinction would have been ridiculous.

As we move forward in the 21st century we need to throw away this new dogma. We should no longer seek to rely on just half our brains. We need to embrace our other side, learn to appreciate it, and then use it to make us more rounded, more effective, more complete marketers. 

There is much that each side can learn from the other that can help both creatives in making the most of their creativity, and ‘statos’ in getting their organisations to engage with their data.

SAS data artist
The Greeks defined beauty by the ‘golden ratio’ which is still used today by painters and photographers but is also prevalent in nature

Three things creatives can learn from statos

 1. Numbers are beautiful:

Rather than being drab and dull, numbers can be both creative and beautiful. Indeed, the ancient Greeks believed that beauty is absolute, and is defined by a mathematical formula. They called it the ‘golden ratio’ and gave it a number, φ (the Greek letter phi). 

Despite being nearly 3,000 years old, this ratio is still used by painters and photographers when determining the composition of a picture. It is also prevalent in nature, influencing the proportions and structure of objects as diverse as the human face and the structure of a conch shell.

2. Our assumptions are often wrong:

What we assume may not be true – the truth is often more surprising than we can imagine. If  you buy a used car, your best bet is an orange colour. Most drug dealers in America earn less than the minimum wage. The odds of two children in a class sharing a birthday is 70 per cent. 

It may seem odd to think of a nerdy stato in this way, and yet one of their most useful roles in marketing may be as an overturner of conventional wisdom, a slayer of shibboleths, an iconoclast.

3. In life all things are possible:

We can never guarantee that the outcome is the one we expect. So you need to be able to distinguish between a run of luck, both good and bad, and an error in the conception of a project, where some previously unconsidered element worked either for or against your efforts. When we modestly accept this reality, then we can really begin to learn.

Three things statos can learn from creatives

Just as there are things that creatives can learn from statos, there is also much that statos can learn from creatives.

1. Marketing is all about people:

Sometimes we need to see through the numbers to the people behind. It can be easy to lose yourself in the process of perfecting a model, an algorithm or a prediction, but we always need to come back to the people behind the numbers. If we forget this, then it becomes easy to stray in to creating monsters that are ill-considered, potentially unethical and downright creepy.

2. Imagery is an important part of communication:

No matter how clever the analysis, when it is poorly presented it is difficult for others to understand. The human mind is designed to respond to visual stimulus and if you want your work taken seriously, you will need to find ways to help others understand it visually.

This may be using one of the many plots and graphs that we have access to, but equally it could easily be something more creative. And when you plan to use graphics and images, think carefully about colour, proportion and ordering, and how these can help you communicate your findings.

3. Engage the heart as well as the head:

You need to be able to tell stories – the data will not speak for itself. For thousands of years humans have used stories to pass wisdom between them. These help us to understand complex situations and make decisions with confidence. Our numbers often hold the stories we need inside them. 

If we want our data to really make a difference, then being able to create a narrative that is concrete, empathetic and engaging will pay dividends. Taking decisions based on anecdotes may be foolish, but using anecdotes to illustrate data and drive a decision – that is smart.

Looking for data artists 

Some of my colleagues at SAS have recently embarked on a quest to find the UK’s greatest data scientist. There is a good possibility that he or she may come from a marketing background, since much of the most exciting and innovative work we see going on is in this area. The search, no doubt, will focus on their technical skills: their ability to manipulate vast quantities of data, create powerful predictive models and wrestle with unstructured data. Certainly if you read a typical job description of the role, this is what you would expect. 

Here is a thought. Maybe that is not what we should be looking for in our data scientists. Maybe imagination, creativity and the ability to empathise should be considered just as important. Maybe what we should be looking for in the marketing department is not the next great data scientist, but the next great data artist.

Charles Randall

Head of solutions marketing

Wittington House
Henley Road

T: 01628 486 933


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