Old-school creatives, with their thick black-rimmed glasses, beards, tattoos and mopeds*, have often looked at data as the enemy of the creative process. Creativity is a dark art and exclusively for those with the required talent / art school background. Data sounds like science and maths which are binary (it’s right or it’s wrong, simples) and are the opposite of the world of colour ways, type choice, photo shoots and video treatments.

Even some creative legends like Sir John Hegarty, the creative genius of Bartle Bogle Hegarty fame, feel that putting too much emphasis on data can have adverse effects on the end product, claiming that advertising has become boring as data has taken a more prominent role in the marketing of brandsHe makes a good point. In an interview in New York in 2014, he said “If we all ask the same people the same questions, in the same way we will get the same answers”. In short, if the data directs us to the “right” message, all brand communications would look the same.

Indeed, some of the best advertising over the years has ignored some of the data in favour of being brave and risking it on gut feel and faith in the creative talent. The Guiness “Surfer” television ad – if you haven’t seen it, you’re probably very young – has been voted as one of the best, if not the best, TV ads of all time in the UK almost every year since 2001. It, however, did not test well and typically this spells changes for the creative route (even if minor). But the client and agency stuck to their creative guns and disregarded the research so as not to dilute the concept. Not only is it a phenomenal example of storytelling and production, it was a commercial success.

But the world has moved on since Sir John’s heyday and the overwhelming dominance of TV advertising has been eroded by the sheer number of channels, streaming services and the rise of digital in the marketing mix. We consume our content in different ways and we see brand communications via multiple channels in multiple formats (eg. a Facebook post vs a YouTube video vs a digital poster on the London Underground). We’ve moved away from blanket bombing (press, radio and TV campaigns which talk the masses) to more targeted forms of communication with programmatic media buying and targeted advertising. This predominantly digital marketing enables brands to deliver more personal messages to specific types of customers in the right channels at the right time for that individual. Most importantly, digital has enabled us to gain a massive amount of data about our customers AND use this data to help hone messages and make decisions about which channels are working best in our campaign DURING the lifecycle of the campaign.

Data is everywhere and the challenge is to use it wisely to inform the creative process both before the launch of a new campaign and to continue to use customer data to refine the message so as optimise its effectiveness.

A client asked me this summer which ad (from a group of 8 theme and variations) I thought was the best. The client’s favourite ad was different to mine and we both had strong reasons for feeling that ours would ultimately “win”. I said it really didn’t matter, though, what either of us felt. The data would show which one was the best performing ad. Neither of our preferred ads hit the number 1 spot and were culled in favour of the better performing ad.

Data-driven creativity should still be focused predominantly on the creative. Data is there purely to sharpen the communications and to remove some of the “finger in the air” guesswork often associated with the creative world.

*Dom has a beard, thick-rimmed glasses, tattoos but no moped.

About the Author

Dom Marchant is Founder and Chief Creative Officer of ARK Agency, based in Covent Garden, London. ARK is a data-driven creative agency with clients in healthcare and the not-for-profit sector.

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