What does data-led creativity look like?

How do you bring together the two most sought-after skills in marketing to generate more original thinking? Here’s some inspiration from Advertising Week Europe

April 2, 2019

What does data-led creativity look like?

LinkedIn data shows that Creativity is the single most sought-after soft skill in the world today. It also shows that Analytical Reasoning, working things out on the basis of data, is the third most sought-after technical skill. Organisations of all types know that data and creativity are equally important to their future success. The trick is combining them in the right way – and it’s a particularly relevant challenge for marketing.

Ours is an inherently creative profession. The ability to come up with original ideas enables marketers to create competitive advantage for our businesses. Those creative moments differentiate our brands, make our campaigns distinctive, drive awareness and engagement, and generate the all-important emotional responses that grab people’s attention – and help them to remember what we say.

Ours is also a profession with more and more data available to it – and more and more pressure to translate that data into results. Evidence of the value of data-led creativity is all around us: from the way you experience films and TV on Netflix to your Spotify playlist, to some of the most creative brands operating in the LinkedIn feed. Data should elevate creativity and open up new spaces and opportunities for it. However, as marketers we know that doesn’t always happen. If we’re not careful, data can become a constraint on creative thinking. We personalise aspects of people’s experiences but forget to make the experiences themselves magical.

I’m somebody who’s passionate about the value of data-led creativity. I believe that it should elevate our ability to think differently rather than restrict it. And as an agency partner lead at LinkedIn, I’m fortunate enough to see that type of data-led creativity in action on a regular basis. That’s why I was excited to be a part of a panel discussing how to develop data-led creative at Advertising Week Europe last week. It was an opportunity to try to pin down exactly what’s involved in bringing data and creativity together.

How does data lead creativity?
The first task is to identify the different ways in which data can positively impact on creativity. If we’re to be creative in how we use data, then it’s important not to think too restrictively about how and when it can contribute.

Most B2B marketers are very familiar with the value of testing, which is the most obvious way for data to influence creativity. As my fellow panellist DuBose Cole of VaynerMedia put it, “if you want to see what an audience believes, put a bit of content in front of them and test it.” For a creative-minded marketer, the ability to access relevant metrics in real-time should be an invitation to keep experimenting. Try something, see if it works – and if it doesn’t, be ready to try something else. In the right hands, the ability to test should be a spur to creativity. Because we can course-adjust quickly when we need to, we’ve got the opportunity to take more risks.

Quickly assessing whether creative ideas have the desired effect is only one way for data to lead creativity though. When marketers only use data to optimise, there’s a tendency to narrow what they do on the basis of what’s worked in the past – and if you’re not careful that ends up constraining creativity rather than liberating it. The risk we must guard against is allowing previous results to dictate what we do next, rather than inspire what we do next.

It’s important to take a broader view if we’re to unlock the real potential of data for triggering creative ideas. That involves preparing and selecting data that can act as a source of creative inspiration, thinking creatively about the opportunities you have for using it, and finding the right balance between using data as a trigger for thinking – and using it as a guide to success.

Getting data into a creative state
It all starts with the data itself. To act as a form of creative inspiration, it needs to arrive in a form that’s simple, focused and actionable. And this is often the responsibility of a platform like LinkedIn. The Managing Editor of WARC, Lucy Aitken, who moderated our panel, mentioned that today’s marketers are crying out, not just for data, but for actionable insights about their relevant audiences. The new Content Suggestions feature in LinkedIn Pages meets this standard. As a B2B marketer, you get a clear, straightforward signal of the issues that a target audience is engaging with – and it’s then over to you to approach these white space content opportunities in a creative way.

It strikes me that, to work as a source of creative inspiration, data really needs to be as focused as possible. Ask any graduate of a good design school and they’ll tell you that creativity involves the ability to synthesise lots of different sources of insight in a playful, free-flowing and often unstructured way. That’s where original ideas come from. However, it’s difficult to do if each data source requires a big mental investment on your part to make sense of it. As DuBose put it, “data is only as valuable as the insights you generate from it.” I would add that an insight is only as valuable as the way you can apply it. Choose data that is relevant to a brief and has something clear to say, before you start playing with it creatively. If the data is confused, the creative idea might be too.

Making creative decisions about the data possibilities
In a packed seminar at Advertising Week Europe, Google’s Senior Vice President for Ads and Commerce, Prabhakar Raghavan, spelled out the company’s position on data: “Google seeks to use the least amount of data possible to create magical and trustworthy advertising experiences.” That’s not just a sensible approach to privacy concerns and the new regulatory environment. It also happens to be a smart approach for any marketer or advertising agency wanting to make creative use of data. Challenge yourself to use as few data sources as possible – and then select the ones that have greatest value to add.

Shell’s Global Head of Integrated Brand and Communications, Americo Campos Silva, argues that the way to merge data and creativity effectively is to focus on outcomes first, rather than data first: “Keep your objectives in the centre of your thinking – and surround those objectives with insights that are related, not random pieces of data.” This approach won’t just give creatives a manageable set of insights to work with – it also prompts you to think creatively about how exactly data can add value. Rather than amassing insight for its own sake, you’re pulling together information that gives you different perspectives on a particular creative challenge.

The great news is that, in the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), almost anything can be quantified as data. If you can think creatively about the type of insight that would really make a difference, then the chances are you can access the data that you need. And the more counter-intuitive and lateral your thinking about the data you choose, the greater the range of creative ideas you can come up with for using it. The bank ING won a Cannes Lion for its The Next Rembrandt campaign, using AI to create a new painting in the style of the Dutch Master. It was only able to do this because AI systems can now quantify things like the style of the brush strokes and angles of light that a painter used.

Three stories of data-led creativity
What does the creative use of well-chosen data look like in practice? Here are three of my favourite examples:

It goes without saying that Spotify has a lot of data on what its subscribers listen to. It could have used that data just to rank the world’s most popular tracks (the staple Top Ten’s that radio stations have published for years) – or tell each person what they should listen to next. However, Spotify identified another creative opportunity: telling the stories of its listeners through carefully selected data points: the fact that somebody had streamed “Sorry” 42 times on Valentine’s Day for example. A long-running outdoor campaign has leveraged these insights in witty ways that bring to life how music unites different human experiences. It led to Spotify being named Media Brand of the Year at the Cannes Lions in 2018.

Everyone knows that Netflix algorithms are able to access vast lakes of data to personalise selections of films and TV shows for each of the brand’s subscribers. However, one of the most creative and impactful uses of Netflix data is actually much simpler. The business has developed data-led personas for its viewers, based on whether they lean more towards comedy, romance, action or other genres. The thumbnails that it displays to help people choose what to watch are tailored to these personas. If Netflix has identified you as romantic then you’re likely to be shown a still of the lead character with her or his love interest. If you prefer comedy, then you might see characters laughing – or an actor who appears in the film that is also a famous comedian. If you’re an action junkie then Netflix will find the most daring moment of the film to serve up for you. Each still is a creative opportunity to show the aspects of an experience are likely to mean most to different people.

One of my favourite LinkedIn campaigns used a similarly well-chosen piece of data to establish a creative opportunity that would resonate at particular moments in people’s lives. The luxury watch brand, Baume et Mercier, used LinkedIn data to identify transformational moments in young professional lives: the promotions and job moves when aspirations are realised and new opportunities open up. It then leveraged these moments with a personalised invitation to spend time exploring a first luxury watch purchase: an earned sense of belonging that fitted with the particular emotions that come from a career moving forward. The campaign, for the launch of the Classima range, delivered some of the most spectacular engagement levels we’ve seen on LinkedIn, and built a constituency of new luxury buyers who remain connected to the Baume et Mercier brand.

What strikes me most about these three examples is the way that they focus on one clearly defined data signal that’s actionable, relevant and will deliver results. These brands didn’t drown their creatives in data and expect innovative ideas to magically appear. They started with imagining sources of insight that could enable them to do something different.

Where does data end and creativity begin?
Another feature of my favourite data-led creativity stories is that they don’t expect the data to do the entire creative job. It’s there to provide insight and open up new opportunities. Making the most of those opportunities remains the work of the human imagination. One of the most talked-about campaigns at Advertising Week Europe explored where the handover between data and creativity takes place. Developed for Lexus by The&Partnership, Visual Voice and IBM Watson, it promoted the intelligent features of the new Lexus ES by using an AI algorithm to generate a script based on data about the most consistent features of auto and luxury advertising. Crucially though, the AI and its data didn’t have the job of bringing that script to life. That was the task of award-winning director Kevin McDonald – and his creative treatment of the idea is what gives this ad its impact and charm.

There’s a whole separate debate around the role of AI (and therefore data) in creativity. I think its most constructive to consider the ideas that an AI generates as another source of data-led insight for the human creative process. It’s a starting point for you to play with, and apply in a distinctly human, imaginative way.

Is your data a leader or a micro-manager?
Just as there are many different types of leader, there are many different ways for data to lead creativity. As I’ve outlined in this post, we can use data as a source of inspiration with a role to open up new possibilities and empower people to experiment with them – or we can use it as a firmer guide, channelling creativity towards what works and what doesn’t. The most spectacular creative ideas may come from the first type of data-leadership, but the second also has value to add – provided we get the balance right.

When data becomes a micro-manager it tends to squeeze creativity out of the process and narrow what you do and how you do it. One example of this is hyper-targeting, focusing in on the same core audience just because they deliver on a particular metric, but missing the broader audience that you need to engage and inspire to fill the marketing funnel and drive sustainable growth. However, data micro-managers also risk diminishing returns through sheer repetition – doing what the data prescribes, but not doing it creatively enough.

Insight about what works has real value – but you also need the courage to use that insight in imaginative ways. I think the advertising legend David Ogilvy put it best. “Big ideas come from the unconscious,” he wrote. “But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant.” If you want more relevant creative ideas, start with relevant, creative sources of data. And then embrace the idea of exploring all of the different places they can take you.