I have worked in data for the past six years and I don’t like it much. I don’t like the terminology around it; data scientists in data labs working on data-driven artificial intelligence algorithms. I don’t like the certainty it supposedly carries and consequently the restrictions it places on creativity. The data says it should be five seconds long, shot vertically, soundless, branded upfront, with a celeb in it, wearing green, posted on a Wednesday at 6pm on TikTok.
After six years, I have never learned anything from a "test and learn"; it has a place, but not in the evaluation of creative work. I’ve been witness to – and, to my shame, been part of – some 70-slide presentations to clients in which hundreds of data points are shared and not a single useful piece of information is learned.
The problem with data boils down to two things: lack of relevancy and restriction. Relevancy is about showing people interesting stuff, not a load of irrelevant information packaged in an impenetrably complicated document that has no use in the strategic and creative process. Restriction is about understanding that the majority of data does not equal the truth or fact; it represents an interpretation of information. There’s a reason people can barely agree on global warming or if crime in the UK is going up or down. It’s why pollsters can’t seem to predict anything; just look at the 2015 and 2017 UK elections, Brexit, Trump etc.
But I have seen first hand that data can play a role in fuelling curiosity and finding space for difference. A pithy insight such as "kids spend more time indoors than prisoners" is a creative wet dream for Persil. "Just 2% of women describe themselves as beautiful" was gold dust for Dove. Or we can look at some of my significantly inferior campaigns. There is a massive conversation around clean eating but a backlash is brewing – cue positioning KFC as the joyful antidote. Everyone is talking about this new film with three billboards in it [Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri] – let’s buy three billboards for Justice4Grenfell.
As strategists such as Martin Weigel scream out for a need to bridge the gap between consumer and brand, surely data can play a bigger role in this.
In order to plug this gap, we need to understand that the numbers don’t speak for themselves. We need to inject more opinion and interpretation into our analysis of the data – with creative output in mind. Presented not as fact but as stimulus. Presented not as numbers but contextualised with stuff that creatives get. In a time when we are talking about machines taking over with automation, algorithms and programmatic, we should be trying to add more humanity and lateral thinking into the analysis of data.
We need to integrate data, or data planners, further into the creative process rather than compartmentalising it, with data aiding creativity rather than hindering it. Or as someone smarter than me once said: "Hire people who use data as a pogo stick, not a crutch."
Or don’t bother. Creativity has been around for a lot longer than data planners have. The Mona Lisa wasn’t data-driven and, as far as I’m aware, Guinness' "Surfer" wasn’t grounded in any social listening data. Data can be an immensely powerful source of strategic and creative stimulus, just as going to The Plough in Bolton can be.
In the meantime, could the ad industry stop blaming data for its woes? Don’t hate the data, hate the data interpreters.
Jack Colchester is director of data strategy at Wonderhood Studios