Tinker, tailor, data, art

(Photo courtesy Rebecca Siegel via Flickr)
(Photo courtesy Rebecca Siegel via Flickr)

Like architects and contractors -- or clothing designers and manufacturers -- creatives and data analysts must collaborate in the service of the work

A week ago, my colleague Jonathan Lee wrote an important piece about the challenges involved in collaboration between people from advertising and digital backgrounds. Figuring out how to harmonize these disciplines is crucially important, because the future belongs to the companies (and agencies) that can overcome these challenges to create amazing, simple experiences that are fundamentally connected to business value.

Just as creatives in traditional agencies across the world are grappling with the expectation that they work alongside digital designers, developers and strategists, one of the most difficult collaborations of all is beginning to take shape: the one between creatives and the data analyst.

Rushing to respond to questions about "big data," agencies are hiring data experts and analysts en masse. Soon, clients will expect that these experts do more than just show up to meetings. When this happens, these two archetypes, which approach the world in such different ways, will have to find common ground on which to collaborate. The closest model we have to base this collaboration on is the one between architects and building engineers, and the only reason that ever happened was because people would die if it didn’t.

The following are three principles for aligning teams and for creating collaboration that we’ve found have worked for us at Huge:

  1. Find common ground through beauty: We’re all here for the same reason. It is very easy for data folks to prejudge creatives’ decisions as opinion-based and without any empirical basis. Similarly, creative teams look — often rightfully — at analysts as mathematicians who want to optimize the soul out of their ideas. The truth is that analysts that end up at creative agencies are there because they like creativity. Analysts need to remember that they’re there to help create make beautiful experiences, not just a perfectly A/B tested wireframe. And creatives need to remember that optimization need not mean losing their vision any more than a tailor destroys the vision of a beautiful suit: The goal is to create a perfect fit for the end user.

  2. Creative instincts are analytical hypotheses in the making.  OK, basic rule: No patronizing each other. Creative teams, instead of asking for a specific analysis, ask a question you need answered and make it clear why it’s so important.  Asking for specific analysis constrains in the analyst’s own creative instincts (yes, these do exist). Analysts need to keep in mind that there are no stupid questions in a creative process. You might think that the answer to something is self-apparent: It’s not, or your colleague wouldn’t be asking about it. There are connections between things like design and UX it’s hard for analysts to see because they tend to removed from the creative process. And while it’s an analyst’s job to be objective, it can also make it easy to get all judgmental about the simplicity (or lack there of) of a specific need.

  3. Don’t get pissed off. No one wants to be told that their baby is ugly. That is equally true for both creatives and analysts. It is very easy to be defensive if someone criticizes your work, particularly if that criticism is coming from someone with a fundamentally different worldview. In the early part of projects, we build hypotheses built on instinct and experience. The job of an analytics team is to test those ideas through a formalized process (we do love a good process formalization). Sometimes those hypotheses need modification in order to adhere to user needs that might be unanticipated. It’s important to give yourself the allowance to incorporate challenges to your core assumptions. Analysts need to keep in mind that data does always tell the full story. Not even close. Your ideas and analysis are no more precious than those of your creative peers. Accept that the role of creative teams is to take your analysis into account alongside multiple other inputs. My rule of thumb is that typically one-half to one-third of my most brilliant analysis will ever be used in a specific project. Yeah, it sucks to spend hours in your data-crunching package of choice and then find out that much of it gets left on the cutting-room floor. You know what? That happens to creatives, too.

Much of this looks like simple common sense, but it is amazing how often both sides talk past each other, tuning each other out because they start from the position that the other is always wrong. Data is here to stay as a significant input to the creative world. That said, this moment of obsession with data is likely to be brief: it will become part of the process the same way that everything else is. If we are going to make this investment in data systems, analysts and optimization/personalization as a philosophy, we need to take the time and think smartly about how to incorporate these new methods and ideas.

Oh, and for all you analysts out there — it doesn’t hurt to read up on creative design and UX fundamentals. We’re the new kids — guests, even — at creative shops. My experience has been that when you respect the work, you’ll find those who made it will respect you right back.

Jon Gibs is a specialist in online and cross-media audience analytics, social media measurement, and advertising effectiveness research and analysis. Prior to joining Huge in 2013, he was senior vice president of research at NBCUniversal. Before that, he oversaw analytics and insight for the Nielsen Co.

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