Data is defined via a cursory Google search as: "Facts and statistics collected together for reference or analysis." Seems simple, right? Not so much.
The problem with data is its finality; it's sense of infallibility. It is often used as an intellectual suit of armour. An impenetrable chain mail of numbers, facts and figures that is worn to construct a strategic or creative "No through road" sign.
Often, *insert amount here* means the end of discussion, rather than the beginning of one.
It seems to me that data could be better utilised to facilitate curiosity, rather than shut it down. Indeed (and let's go back to Google's explanation of data), the emphasis should perhaps be on the words "reference" and "analysis". In other words, that data should always be up for interpretation and used as supporting, rather than cold, hard, evidence. And it is the responsibility both of agencies and clients to keep this in mind.
Of course, none of this is to say that the potential of data to tie a neat bow around a strategic point of view, or creative output, becomes defunct. Spotify's "Listen like you used to" campaign used nostalgic cultural artefacts related to music to form the creative output itself. The campaign was a definite win.
It is no secret that campaigns underpinned with an incisive insight tend to be powerful. But there's certainly advantage to be gained in questioning and challenging data right up to the last minute. And, on top of this, there's a benefit to be found in broadening our understanding of what data is.
What springs to mind first when you hear the word "data"? For me, images of graphs, numbers, percentages flash across my brain. Perhaps it's the same for you. But maybe it's time to disentangle data from numbers only; to allow organic, human conversations on Subreddits, the comments on a Twitch channel and graffiti in a public bathroom to be put forward as data, too.
The brilliant phrase "everything is copy", uttered by Nora Ephron's mother on her deathbed, could be adapted to make the case for a more pliable definition of data. If "everything is data", then there is a lot more data around us to analyse and understand that we haven't yet seen; and a lot more interesting discussions that have not yet been had.
I've long been intrigued by the impact of gender on graffiti – how this variable might affect the codes, content and semiotics of the art – and I've continued to take mental notes of the coarse scribbles on bathroom mirrors and in toilet cubicles. I've noticed, in particular, an endearing sense of sisterhood in the back-and-forth jottings on the walls.
This, evidence contradicting the "catty woman" narrative, is just one example of why we should continue to explore and discover all sorts of cultural material to craft our view of the world.
More data can get in the way of a consolidated line of thought – but this is a good thing. Humans are inherently contradictory. We say things we don't mean and we do things we said we would never do, almost constantly. More data, from more places, can only shed light on the quirks of humans.
And, in this Covid era, the ability to take data with a pinch of salt and to use it to start discussion, as opposed to finish it, becomes even more pertinent. At any given moment, the goal posts for consumers are changing, so it's natural that their opinions, needs and desires would change at an equally swift speed.
We need to start seeing data as being, in equal parts, liberating and conclusive – otherwise we risk reducing our messy lives and ever-changing cultures to bar charts.
And nobody wants that. Do they?
Flora McKaig is a planner at Harbour