Sir John Hegarty provided one of the more memorable quotes from last week’s Advertising Week Europe conference. Talking about that horrible expression "big data", the current vogue and an altar at which many agencies are genuflecting, he pointed out that "supermarkets had so much customer data coming in, but didn’t realise that they were flogging horsemeat". It was a neat point that summed up how data is not infallible, despite what those with a vested interest (technical organisations that hold data) would have us believe.
Hegarty went on to highlight that, throughout history, people have fought for the right to be individuals but that big data (and the constant threat of "personalisation") is in danger of taking this away. Some hope that this is the beginning of a backlash against data in favour of something that is more rooted in simple humanity.
This school of thought believes that data is a threat to creativity – that, in the brave new world, everything will be based on rational decisions; logic at the expense of magic.
But is this right?
Sid McGrath, chief strategy officer, Karmarama
"Creativity comes from an inspirational trigger, when we have a daring, original thought. That trigger can be an experience, a sight or sound, an insight, or anything that inspires us to think with originality. Can that trigger be data? Of course it can be, but it isn’t always. Useful data can give fresh insight into how people think, feel and act. So whether it’s brand communication, a service or a piece of technology, that insight and knowledge can really help inspire. Data that just delivers reams of numbers isn’t useful. If it doesn’t allow you to see things differently, give a fresh perspective or a cunning way into a solution, it’s just numbers."
Sophie Maunder-Allan, group strategy officer, VCCP
"Creativity was at the centre of advertising in the offline world. Now testing, data and focus groups dictate the rules. How can this lead to brave and challenging work? Creatives might not want to know how the data got to the insight (although the best do), but they can appreciate that creative work written to it has a greater propensity to be bought than one that isn’t. I don’t think the majority of briefs are dictated by data yet, and I’m not sure they’ll ever need to be. Great ads have been based on solid data insight, so it follows that data is not the strangler of creativity. There will always be great creative and crap creative."
Jason Gonsalves, joint chief strategy officer, Bartle Bogle Hegarty
"The digital world is built from data. Data can reveal hidden truths that lead to original ideas. It can show how ideas are working and help improve them. Ideas can even come from creative uses of the data itself. There is a fundamental relationship between data and creativity. But to see them as interchangeable is a mistake. Data reveals what has, or is, happening. But only creativity can shape what will happen. Data reduces risk and uncertainty. Creativity creates change and opportunity. We are often drawn to the reassurance of the known; what the data tells us. But ideas power progress and growth."
Anthony Edwards, director of communications planning, Havas Worldwide London
"The promise of new technology, new platforms and new types of data is a much richer understanding of consumer behaviour. The reality has been a sort of turbocharged feedback loop whereby we understand almost instantaneously how people are reacting to brands and marketing. It’s useful, and it’s fast, but I’m not sure it’s new or what it’s killing… apart from bad ideas. I think bad creativity has always had a short life expectancy. And when you think about data-driven ideas like Nike+, which fuels passions and behaviour, it hints at an exciting new area for brands to experiment in. A bit of creative destruction is a good thing."
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