Necessary but Not Sufficient

Data; don’t you just love it? Call me Mr. Logic, but as a creator of communications and business ideas, data — and by data I mean anything and everything numerical, informational, strategic or otherwise, before or after the event of creation and airing — is the floor on which I walk, the air that I breathe, the arrows in my quiver, the… OK, enough of that.

Every day it seems a new company, proprietary black box or dashboard pops up claiming to be able to slice, dice and order data in new, intriguing and illuminating ways. I can imagine some members of the “creative community” find this about as interesting as watching their towels dry but, frankly, mastery of data is the basis for any truly resonant creative act. Great creative people regard data as an opportunity to improve their work. Less-than-great creative people see data presenting a risk of getting found out or upstaged. The better the tools, the better the wielders of those tools, the better you can do the job.

As a creative person, you can’t create something extraordinary if you don’t have a complete grasp of the ordinary, so to speak. The great artist masters the fundamentals because he or she absolutely loves every single little thing about his or her craft. By understanding the fundamentals, the data, the ordinary, the artist is — and here’s the really exciting thing — liberated to leap off this platform into the stratosphere of the extraordinary.

Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling reveals a soaring artistic vision, but it also demonstrates a complete mastery of the fundamentals of draftsmanship. In the art of communications, mastering the fundamentals includes things like understanding that the Internet has made the world a metrics-driven environment.

A related fundamental is feeling comfortable with process. John Truby is one of the most respected script doctors in Hollywood. His book, The Anatomy of Story, is all about process. Namely the “22 steps to becoming a master storyteller.” Like all great artists or creators, great writers are animals of process. In fact, the first of Truby’s 22 steps is immersing oneself in the subject matter. He is adamant that all the following steps are irrelevant until you become the complete master of your subject matter.

Homework, practice, research, data and process are hardly the stuff to which one would imagine creative people aspiring. But true artists do because they are dedicated to, and fascinated by, the entire process. They see glamour and fulfillment in the entire craft — not just in the money, the Oscar or Pulitzer. As an “artist” myself, I can’t imagine working without the “liberating discipline” of process and metrics. I hope I’ve made my passion for metrics of all kinds crystal clear by now. So hold that thought. Because there is, of course, a kicker: At the same time, we seem to be in danger of forgetting that data and process are limited. They’re a means to an end, a given, the cost of entry, bare floorboards. The end is moving people.

Yet in marketing there seems to be an increasing lionization of data and strategy and dashboards and black boxes and processes in marketing as a be-all and end-all. That’s like researching a novel and publishing the research. That’s like going in to pre-production on a movie and screening the pre-production notes in the movie theater. It’s like televising your marketing strategy. None of this is likely to be at all interesting.

And of course, there is a hell of a lot of not very interesting marketing communication about at the moment, more or less all of it produced by extremely highly paid and high-powered smart people, all of it supported by — if all the articles and conferences are to be believed — unimpeachably rigorous data, process and strategy. But where’s the magic? Where’s the art? Where’s the charm?

Look at it this (slightly macabre) way: A body is not a person. A body is a commodity, a mass of bone and flesh and sinew. It becomes a person when unquantifiable stuff like life, soul, spirit, character and magic are added. It’s the unquantifiable stuff that makes the difference. I laugh out loud when people talk about “the commoditization of creativity;” it’s precisely the one thing you can’t commoditize. You can, of course, commoditize bad, artless, on-the-nose, mechanical creativity, because anyone can do it. Great creativity is Eli Manning somehow eluding the tackle in the Super Bowl and lobbing a pass to David Tyree who catches it while falling backwards with defenders all over him and somehow glues the ball against his helmet. Commoditize that!

You wouldn’t want to bet your life on this kind of creativity alone, but what is the joy in life or marketing without it? Sure, there’s an efficient process behind moving the ball up the field. Every single team in the NFL has a process that looks rigorous and professional on paper; none more so than the robotic Patriots. But they were beaten by creative magic because without that it’s just a bunch of processes grinding away against each other. You’re not in the game without process and data. But only creative magic is game changing.