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Don’t doubt it: Data-driven marketers do value thought, instinct and creativity

Have you noticed a flood of hyperbolic, fear-mongering pieces about Big Data eventually blotting out the creativity that attracted so many of us to marketing industry in the first place?

It seems that everywhere I look, there’s another ultra-emotional appeal for keeping imagination and artistry in the marketer’s toolbox — as if anyone has seriously suggested we should allow only algorithms and statistics to dictate our marketing plans and materials.

In early July, CMO.com published “Why creativity wins out over big data,” quoting marketing consultant Peter Field, who warned about the dangers of surrendering creativity to data: “Data offers interesting short-term opportunities, but we will be back on a level playing field before we know it. The truth is marketers are sleepwalking to a cliff, sucked into the world of big data which is more dangerous than it looks.”

Others have tempered their fear of data overtaking inventiveness with criticism about how some marketers ply their trade. ZDNet’s recent article “Can big data technology be used to replace creative marketing?” suggested that data is necessary to reign in creative types.

It noted that Virgin Australia loyalty and customer relationship management general manager Phil Gunter “lamented that the marketing industry is perhaps too caught up in the creative side, with the chief marketing officers more worried about what colours are used in an advertising campaign, rather than the data.”

But the most hyperbolic worry piece I’ve seen lately was published on the blog of the venerable Harvard Business Review. “Advertising’s Big Data Dilemma.” It blames Facebook and Google for using its Big Data bully pulpit to cow Omnicom and Publicis into consolidation and declares flatly:

“… an algorithm can never truly master the art of persuasion.”

Read it yourself to get the full feel for the authors’ issues with Big Data, but after the references to “the heyday of Madison Avenue” and “Apple’s groundbreaking ’1984′ television commercial” all I see is an overly-defensive appeal to value human cogitation as part of the marketing mix.

“… an algorithmic business model based on Big Data analytics — if this, then that — is not going to provide you with the greater insight or perspective. It certainly isn’t going to create a strategy or a campaign. For any of the above, you are going to need the human mind.”

I don’t know about you, but I have yet to meet a marketing data scientist, data-driven CMO or data-hungry CEO who believed that gaining access to consumer insights driven from Big Data is an adequate substitute for their own thinking and experience.

Speaking as the CMO of a data analytics firm, neither I — nor my colleagues in an industry still struggling to educate nervous traditional marketers on the benefits of digital business intelligence — have ever even come close to suggesting that Big Data could or should replace human thinking, creativity, or decision-making. That’s really not what Big Data is about.

All marketers’ decisions are made somewhere on a continuum from 100% intuition to 100% fact-based decision-making.

What data does allow for is risk mitigation, for getting rid of blind spots, for questioning historical ways of doing things and for providing context that is linked to an objective understanding of what consumers are doing now and how they are engaging with a brand.

Sometimes “gut feelings” and experience should and do play a role in decision making – but when there is good, solid, validated actionable insight from data, the data does not merely supplant the gut feeling, it informs and guides it.

As for creativity, data won’t kill it, but rather energize it.

Commercial artists are of course driven by the desire to create beauty, drama, joy and understanding. But they also want to evoke a response from their audiences and data can show whether their work is resonating with the customer.

On the “Beyond Madison Avenue” blog, Dwayne W. Waite, Jr. asks “Must Creativity Kowtow to Big Data?” and his answer reflects the struggle to understand how to use data and insights to create marketing programs that both delight our customers and build our sales:

“Big data makes audience targeting safe, while creative makes advertising interesting. Creatives rely on intuition, while data marketers rely on data collection, algorithms, and predictive modeling.”

Data and creativity must inherently complement each other – creativity will be more powerful because the data will reflect actual consumer response, and data will help to nurture and challenge marketers to embrace creativity that is built upon a “test->learn->iterate–>scale” model.

Instead of framing the discussion as a battle of creativity vs. data, shouldn’t we really be discussing the ways in which they are critical allies and what we can do to bring them closer together?

  • Jared Smith

    I completely agree. As a website conversion optimization specialist, I use data in 2 ways. First, it helps me identify when and where I need to get creative. After identifying pain points in the conversion flow, the data guides the decision to innovate (make something radically different) or iterate (make a few small tweaks). After I have some creative solutions to the problem, I use data again to verify the assumptions I made during the creative process. The result is an enhanced website that is both well designed and produces business results. As a CRO, I do this specifically for websites, but it is easy to see how the same methodology can be used to enhance all aspects of marketing.


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