Every day, every single day, we are inundated with statistics, numbers, and data. Our phones are tiny computers, sharing information with us even as we sleep. People are gradually embracing wearable technology as Apple Watches and FitBits codify even the most mundane of day-to-day activities.
Many, myself included, readily accept this massive amount information as mostly useful. However, it’s fair to ask whether or not all of this data is fundamentally changing the way humans interact with the world and endangering the creative spark from all of our collective lives.
This is an especially relevant question in the digital marketing space. Data analysts, digital strategists, and creatives work with data in different capacities to very different results and with various degrees of comfort.
I sought to know whether or not data could be the gateway a to creative efficiency or if people feel stifled by it instead.
What is Creativity?
What is creativity in the first place? Undoubtedly, people will have different definitions of it based on their daily actions and their professional roles. I wanted to start here for that reason. Of course, the answers were diverse and insightful.
Linda Johnson, President @ SOCIALDEVIANT, Chicago, IL: “good creativity is elegant problem solving…all great creativity solves a problem-- a functional issue, an emotional void, etc. But it must also be simple, true, easy to understand and use.”
Jim Jacoby, Co-Founder @ Bienville Legacy Motorcycles/Partner @ ADCMi: “Creativity is the ability to get super instinctive at one moment and super factual at the next. The faster you are able to move back and forth, the more creative you'll be…In rare instances, you can hold both factual understanding and instinctual urges at the same time. That's when the magic happens.”
Maikel O’Hanlon, VP, Social Media Strategy @ Horizon Media: “Unlocking non-obvious insight that results in an idea that becomes an activation that can prove the theory that the insight was valid or right.”
Elisha Rio-Apilado, Senior Art Director @ PACO Collective: “Creativity is the most climatic point in a thought-process. It allows the imagination to run around freely and becomes a new way of seeing the world. It's a form of magic that keeps us open-minded, present and empowered.
Intuition, “magic,” instinct, and elegance are common themes when the subject of creativity comes up. All of these are intangible concepts, but seemingly instrumental to the creative process. It, at least on the surface, assumes a level of improvisation and invention, but with that in mind…
…Can Data Seamlessly Fit Into The Creative Process?
This is the heart of this debate. I’ve worked at a variety of agencies in the nearly 10 years I’ve been working in digital advertising and I’ve seen how data can both help and hinder the creative process.
I’ve seen art directors roll their eyes at having to incorporate data-based insights into their design methodologies. It’s frustrating for them and why not? It feels restrictive. Let’s also not forget the amount of testing many agencies are employing on a constant basis.
Ms. Apilado: “Data to me on a personal/philosophically level are just facts.”
Data provides the tools to further understand the world around us. Its purpose is ultimately to shed light on problems and present opportunities to conceive an intelligent solution.
Mr. O’Hanlon: “Data builds a foundation for strategy that allows for much more connected creative ideation. The day of creative mystics who simply are attuned to creative rhythms is over and that all creativity needs to be proven by insight and data.”
Mr O’Hanlon describes the fundamental role for all information and the point is to use that information effectively. Still, there are consequences to this amount of data consumption. We can easily get to a point where our desire for information leads to a retardation of inventive thought.
Ms. Johnson: “The truth is that so much data is available to us today that two potentially bad things can happen: you get so consumed by the numbers, you can't make a decision and don't move forward [or] you get so focused on frivolous numbers that don't relate back to your intended impact that it limits your creative potential and your ability to hit your goals.”
Jennifer Lynn Berman, Senior Account Planner/Brand Strategist: “I try to use it in a positive manner, not as an indicator that I’ve done something wrong, but it can backfire if I get too caught up in the weeds.”
Data clearly has a role in the creative process. The challenge will always be to apply the same creative thought to the data that’s used as there is to the problems that need to be solved using that data.
Part of that means not blindly trusting facts and figures and instead understanding the goals of a project, determining the what information will help achieve that goal, and what creative -- copy, color palette, imagery -- will help get closest to that goal.
We’re not talking about rocket science; this boils down to common sense thinking.
How Can Data Be Used to Improve Creativity?
The fact is that, as Mr. O’Hanlon mentioned above, we are no longer in a world where it’s enough to have a cool idea. It’ll get attention, but more and more the question of what it does for business goals is getting louder and more difficult to ignore.
And we shouldn’t be ignoring those questions. We now have the ability to measure things previously out of our reach. This information can’t be treated like an annoyance; it has to be embraced in order to be effective.
Elisha: “I use it every time I start a new project. Using target audience insight helps me understand their behaviors better, what they like/don't like and it slowly molds the focus of my creative thought. It's really helpful with the process of elimination on how to illustrate/letter.
Jim: “We'll use data to cross-check our creative instincts OR to inspire an entirely new idea. Neither is first or second, better or worse. Either end of the spectrum feeds the other.”
Put bluntly, restrictions often inspire the strongest creative thought. Data, if appreciated as simply facts and information, is a restriction that helps more than it hinders.
Data allows a look into why things happen. Why a group of people gravitates towards one image or another. Why a brand’s resonance with people shifts from month to month. Creatives and strategists can then work together to act on this information towards creative solutions.
Linda: “[The data] helped us as we declared that Keystone Resort's goal should to become the most referred ski resort in North America and that all creative executions should drive referral. We could look at the data and see that satisfaction scores were high from those who came and who love the mountain experience. We could also see that referrals would drive the revenue goals we were looking to achieve. Data helped us build this case and open up the creative potential for us.”
This particular example is where data’s role in the creative process is most evident. You can see how Ms. Johnson’s thought process is shaped by the information gathered.
In turn, the creative they decided to focus on building was geared to generating referrals. Ignoring that data could have led to both a creative brief and creative output that was off-target and unsuccessful.
So? Can Data and Creativity Co-Exist or Not?
Data informs creativity. Data enhances the creative process. Data can validate creativity. In fact, data and creativity must co-exist for now and in the future. Agencies of all kinds are under increased scrutiny from their clients and partners.
The success of creative ideas can no longer be defined in “cool points” and awards. Creatives must work with strategists to understand what resonates most with people. Their motivations and interests can mean the difference between good creative and effective creative. Working in tandem like this only improves the overall quality of everyone’s work.
Otherwise, everyone will end up simply stifling each other.