The Miles Davis take on creativity and data

By "playing what's not there," creatives can harmonize with analytics, writes Wunderman's global CCO

Miles Davis once famously said, "Don’t play what’s there  —  play what’s not there." This may seem like an odd way to introduce a discussion of data and creativity, but the core concept is essential to what brands are doing today. Data is what’s there; and creative people have to play what’s not there.

Saying this, of course, doesn’t emphasize one over the other. Davis may not have always provided sheet music, but he selected musicians he respected and always gave them harmonic frameworks to riff off. In a similar way, data serves the foundational truth of what you do. But the magic is not contained in it; it’s derived from it.

To see how this works in the real world, let’s start with data itself. Done well, it lays out your opportunity. On the most mundane front, it can tell you where your audience is. If it’s smart, it also tells you who a person is at a moment of time. Maybe they’re stranded and hungry at an airport; or waiting in line for a concert ticket. If you know things like that, you can anticipate and even answer their immediate needs with something of interest and value. At its best, however, data provides truth, a single point of insight that goes to the heart of what people think and believe — and enables you to connect with them in a deep way.

For a very simple example, the New York Times recently had an article on Pay Your Selfie, a company that pays people a small amount to take pictures of themselves with products they own. From the data a large toothpaste brand collected from it, the brand was able to learn something it didn’t know: there is a huge uptick in tooth brushing between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. You could call it the "Happy Hour Surge," where everyone wants to clean up before going out. That insight taught the brand a new reason why its customers were reaching for their product. It could have a lot of implications, either for the timing of social media outreach or the inspiration for a tent pole campaign.

In other words, data helps get you noticed. In the good old days, we had a captive audience that didn’t mind looking at a breakfast cereal commercial right after dinner, because they had no other choice. Back then, great creative got you noticed. Nowadays, we also need the kinds of insight that data can provide. We need to serve food to people who are hungry or to find out what lies at the heart of their identity.

The space between the notes
Of course, data is just that first step. Data analytics and a brilliant new breed of planners are also required to plumb data’s depths and deliver important insights. Creativity takes these data-driven insights and uses them to magnify a potential opportunity into a real one. Real creative magic only happens today when creative people collide with deep insight. Data told Yeti (manufacturer of premium coolers and accessories) that the hardcore outdoorsman was a valuable influencer and that people would buy products he or she used. But it did not suggest making quiet, long-form videos about fanatical outdoorsmen. Creativity did that. If you merely had data, you could have understood your customer, but you wouldn’t necessarily build something that delivered a 10x result.

We can also see this principle at work today in the auto industry. Cars have become increasingly out of reach and even uncool for younger people to own. One car maker predicts that 30 million people will be using ride-sharing services rather than owning a car a decade from now.

You might think that the auto industry would be bothered by this insight, but it’s actually given birth to many creative solutions. For example, Ford has introduced Ford Credit Link. Essentially, it’s a smart program that distributes the costs of a vehicle among several co-owners and helps them coordinate their use of it.  This is innovation that comes not because you fear big data and data forecasting but because you relish the opportunities and innovations that they can inspire.

Put simply, data and creativity are essential parts of the same opportunity today. Data provides Miles Davis’ musical foundation, but musicians and creative still need to be able to improvise or innovate solutions to produce something consumers love. Done right, there’s no opposition between the two, just a smoothly functioning band of players, intent on making magic happen. As Miles Davis also noted, "Anybody can play. The note is only 20%. The attitude of the mother!&@#%^$ who plays it is 80%."

Lincoln Bjorkman is Global Chief Creative Officer of, Wunderman.

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