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November 29, 2012
Big Data Might Make Creative People Feel Small
Let’s analyze how data works in a subjective business
One of the more written-about, but less seen, developments of the recent election was the sizable data mining and analytics teams both Presidential candidates employed. Not to produce better campaign advertising, but to get a profile of each potential voter and ensure they all got out to vote.
Political campaigns and consumer marketing campaigns are different beasts. But the use of data and analytics to improve marketing and advertising efforts are being trumpeted continuously.
Are marketers and ad agencies getting the most effective use of all this information? Can data actually improve creative work? How does data filter through a client’s marketing department and ultimately to its advertising agencies?
Marketers have access to reams of data, but it doesn’t mean they know how to employ it successfully when working with their agencies. Let’s get back to the Presidential campaign for a minute: We saw newer guys like Nate Silver, who aggregated polling data and demographic information to produce predictions with a healthy dose of probabilities — which accounts for different outcomes. And we saw old school Karl Rove/Dick Morris-type pollsters, who insisted they were sole possessors of “the math” while cherry picking the polling data to fit their wishes and their agenda. In the agency world, when you run into analytics people and those who turn data into “insights,” it’s hard to discern which type of person you’re getting.
By the time data filters down to the people making the work, it has little meaning or relevance. Creative people largely don’t care about data. We don’t trust the numbers. We don’t know how to interpret the numbers. And we insist that creativity and originality, in their purest forms, trump all. There might be a few statistics on a creative brief, a cute infographic, or some charts on a PowerPoint deck, but they won’t tell the whole story.
So why do most creative people stay blissfully ignorant about data? Because they’re not exposed to it, not trained to understand it, and not interested in how to use it to their advantage. And that might be okay for some — if they’re still allowed to pursue great work. But increasingly, data is being used to microtarget and carve up the tactical pie — so it’s applied to the less sexy assignments: 100 targeted emails, not a great insight into a TV campaign.
Marketers are desperate for any logical way to measure their marketing efforts. Before they launch a campaign, they want accurate statistics on who their customers are and how best to reach them. Then they want an accurate prediction of how a proposed campaign will be effective. Then they want complete, real-time results with the ability to tweak a campaign midway through or assign blame if it doesn’t work as promised.
In contrast, creative people want to work on stuff that’s cool. And sexy. And agency executives want to do work that’s ultimately profitable. But sometimes the data supports doing less sexy marketing tactics and approaches. And when data tries to prove that a campaign isn’t working, the creatives might say, “give it more time,” or “they didn’t spend enough to run it.” The trouble is data, by virtue of its sheer existence, is hard to rebut.
Advertising people have gotten savvy at accommodating softer types of information. We’ve spent the last 30 years trying to mold advertising concepts to reflect consumer mindsets, observed behavior patterns, and emotions. Yet the effectiveness of creative work is always questioned. With more data, the work will come under higher scrutiny.
Creative instincts and aesthetics have to prove themselves even more in a data-obsessed world. Art Directors, writers, designers and coders can’t be the last cog in the creation wheel, doing the bidding of those who’ve already parsed the numbers and told us which deliverable to make and why.
But there’s going to come a day, maybe soon, where creative people discover how to use the data to their own advantage. Great ideas deserve to have support — not just in our guts, but also in spreadsheets.
At least that’s what my gut, and my experience, tells me. You’re welcome to share any data that tests my hypothesis.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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