Does Data Undermine Creativity?

January 20, 2016

Marketers are awash in data. Is this helping creativity, or hurting it?

Creative purists might argue that our collective obsession with numbers yields only incremental innovation by optimizing what's already working, rather than producing the kind of step-change that comes from unconstrained ideation. Quants would counter that data takes the guesswork out of creativity, increasing the odds of success. Even more importantly to the quants, data can prove the outcome of creativity that every marketer wants: attributable impact on the business.

Having worked at an advertising agency earlier in my career, I can understand both perspectives. But I'm siding with the quants on this one. Data augments creativity, rather than undermining it. Here are 3 ways that creativity benefits from data.

1. Data predicts creative effectiveness

Ever since a company first decided to test their creative on actual consumers before launch, or a movie studio first ran a test screening prior to creating the final cut, data has been harnessed to predict creative success. But the powerful data streams now available make it possible to move this prediction much earlier in the creative process. Take this well-known example from the creative field of television. Netflix used big data to 'guarantee the popularity' of House of Cards. From looking at their own data about what subscribers were watching, Netflix knew director David Fincher's movies were very popular, as were movies starring Kevin Spacey. They further knew the British version of House of Cards was a hit. Netflix put those three ingredients together and generated a binge-watching blockbuster.

2. Data proves creativity works

Marketing performance has never been more trackable. This is especially true in digital, where ad tech, marketing automation software, and analytics suites collect every observable behavior. It's a quant's dream. But creatives also have reason to celebrate, since the impact of their work is now reliably measurable. They're no longer forced to wait months for brand tracking results. They're not limited to vanity metrics that approximate their work's impact. Creative marketers can now report results in the language of business: euros, dollars, yuan, rupees, etc.

3. Data democratizes creativity

The abundance of tools available to track and optimize marketing performance have leveled the creative playing field within organizations. Good ideas can not only come from anywhere in the company, they can also be objectively evaluated for effectiveness. This removes the barriers that a good idea from an unexpected source might have traditionally encountered, such as red tape, politics, and the HIPPO (HIghest Paid Person's Opinion). Even more simply: before, the best ideas won. Now it's possible for the most effective ideas to win, wherever they originate.

Where do you stand? Do you think data is helping creativity, or hurting it?

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