Data Feeds Creativity

“Remind me,” said the surgeon as the patient slipped under the anesthetic. “Which hand are we operating on today?”

“Hand?” replied the patient, fading fast. “It’s not my hand. It’s my…”

That’s not much of a joke. We want surgeons to know how to conduct an operation, just as we want airline pilots to know their routes and lawyers to be on top of the facts of their cases.

And advertising people? Is it different for us? Shouldn’t we be basing our creativity on the facts, or data? You know, the customer purchasing patterns sitting in our clients’ databases, the lists of search questions pouring out of Google and Bing and the real-time insights uncovered by online listening platforms.

Apparently we do think it’s different for us. Too often, we continue to base our creative decisions on the flimsiest of focus group data. And we seem to take a perverse delight in the separation of data and creativity in both client and agency organizations.

I find this bizarre. Throughout history, great creativity has marched hand in hand with a deep understanding of the data. James Watson and Francis Crick were not the first to reveal the mystery of DNA because they were good at drawing spirals. They discovered the double helix because they understood the data better than anyone else. 

The notion that a data-rich approach could help develop good advertising is not new. Many years ago in his classic book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young counseled that the best ideas emerge from a deep immersion in the product. Since then, others have variously advised us to interrogate the product until it confesses the truth, to use the clients’ products every day, or simply to know our onions, as they say in England.

What is new is there’s more to know than ever before. And there are new types of things to know.

A simple trawl through sites such as Digg or Technorati will tell you more about your brand, product or service than most creative briefs. Does your brand have fans or critics? Does your brand stimulate debate or leave people apathetic? What objections do you have to overcome?  These are handy things to know when you set out to persuade people to buy into your brand instead of choosing the other guy’s. And how much more powerful to glean these insights from the chat, the blog posts and the ratings that people volunteer, instead of relying on the stated opinions of 15 people paid to come into an uncomfortable room with a strangely large mirror.

At a more sophisticated level, wouldn’t it be useful if data could help guide us as we write copy?  It can. Listening platforms can search and sort the language that communities of consumers use to talk about your product. To give an obvious example, the thing that used to be called “credit” is now more likely to be called “debt.” Data insight into the words that consumers — rather than marketing departments — use to describe a category gives any writer a flying start. How much easier is it to generate empathy if I speak the same language as my target audience?

Data can also initiate — and validate — the kind of lateral jump generally thought to be the exclusive preserve of the creative mind. If that sounds counter-intuitive, consider this story. A couple of years ago, I was part of a team working with a large IT brand. We were doing fine by using our skill and our creativity. Then one day our data guys volunteered the observation that the database predicted that our target customer was likely to be particularly interested in cycling.