Rationalizing the irrational: Why creatives will always need data

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Data is transforming the creative process, providing hard numbers for clients and facts to support creative intuition, writes the chief creative officer of Innocean USA.

In the history of advertising, and I'm definitely taking a few liberties here, few four-letter words have had the power to transform the creative process in quite the same way as the rise of data. And, well, Lee Clow.

However in light of the recent "surprise" election, marketers and creatives alike are scratching their heads, rethinking how we study and segment consumers. For me, it was a wake-up call. Data has always had the potential to alter the way everyone touches a brand. But how can we really understand how we can rationalize and embrace data in a way that is accurate and human centered? 

Data is an incredible tool, but it should never be thought of as a replacement for pure creativity, good gut instincts and a deep knowledge of the culture we live in. Rather, data has the power to not only make our creative better and smarter, it can also make the process of developing and selling in ideas better. And who doesn't want that? How many times have you said, "Damn it, why didn't the client buy this idea?" Data will help the sell and give a rational reason to buy it.

In its purest form, data is pretty boring if it's not presented right. For the average person, it's like eating brussels sprouts covered in burnt hair. Data can tell stories, but not in a way that anyone would want to hear unless we humanize it. Remove the burnt hair and add bacon and some Gouda cheese. That's much better, right? Exactly. Think like a chef combining raw ingredients with creativity and a deep understanding of what your guests want. That's what we do. We are tasked with distilling raw intelligence down into something exciting and enticing for people to digest.

So in the current age of information, and everyone's post-election hangover, I believe that the best results come from one part art and one part science. Striking the right balance between art and science, however, is crazy hard. Here are some things to keep in mind as data becomes a larger part of the creative process.

Always trust your gut (think of data as your Tums). Everyone fears making the wrong decision. But data can be a cure to avoiding them. Hey, if years of mediocre consumer products born from focus groups have taught us anything, it's that data can never be a replacement for good instincts. Right Bic? You remember when they tried to expand beyond disposable razors, pens and lighters and introduce disposable underwear? No you don't, it was only around for a New York second. The point is, trust your gut and data, because we live and work in an environment where clients increasingly look to the hard numbers data provides to back up our guts. And we all need to have that certainty when there's tens of millions in marketing dollars on the line.

Anyone who has a creative mind knows that instinct is what creates ideas that truly connect with people and drive our culture forward. Data can act as an inspiration, and as a guardrail, to steer our ideas as they evolve. It can open up new creative avenues and identify fresh opportunities that might have otherwise been overlooked. Data can not only support our gut instincts, but it can also help it level up, making our work better. When creating ideas, you can never have too many smart people in the room.

Balance the rational + irrational. Or should that be irrational + rational? Over the decades, one thing that has remained a steady challenge to advertisers is the task of balancing the rational with the irrational. Hit people over the head with too many purely rational facts and you lose all the magic. And their attention. And their respect. And their wallets. But take rationality out of the equation completely, and you sound well, unhinged. So we need the balance. While data puts creatives at risk of over rationalizing, it can also be used to connect the dots for consumers.

The magic, the surprisingly irrational and cleaver story, gets people's attention. Think of some of the great, most beloved campaigns of recent times—Dos Equis' "The Most Interesting Man in the World," or Mini "Let's motor." While these ideas at first might seem farfetched for a beer or over-promising for tiny compact car to own, the data (and the pure love of consumers) tells us they are a resounding success. What we do is fundamentally irrational, but data can help rationalize anything.

Let's be honest. Data keeps us honest. The real strength in data is that it can focus strategy and creativity in the upfront, so you can build out the back end in the smartest way possible. Advertising has always been a mixture of art and science, but data has made the science much more reliable. Creative on its own is just art, which is awesome, but isn't always what our clients are paying for. Data allows us to prove we're actually doing what we're meant to do for our clients—drive business results. Whether it's a stronger engagement or an increase in sales, the data helps us know we're not just throwing ideas into the void. The proof is in the numbers. Data proves that our "work" is working, and every award show on the planet is rewarding it.

Data isn't going away. It will only grow in scale and influence over our day-to-day work, as it continues to redefine the way we do business. Now is the time to embrace this magical, life-altering, four-letter word that you can freely use around your mom.

—Eric Springer is chief creative officer of Innocean USA.

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