Does too much data stifle creativity?

Is the data deluge causing problems for creatives or is all information beautiful, Arif Durrani and David Benady ask.

The role and impact that data has on the creative process was a recurring theme at Cannes Lions this year.

The evolution of the ad market was demonstrated by the arrival of the Creative Data Lions, designed to recognise campaigns that use data as a catalyst for creativity – defined as "game-changing campaigns that clearly demonstrate an execution enhanced by the use, interpretation, analysis or application of data".

For some, however, the whole concept of data-inspired creativity can be something of a misnomer. As ad agencies and marketers have access to an increasing array of first- and third-party data sources, data can become a kind of crutch and have a detri­mental impact on creativity, according to some of the industry’s top creatives.

The sheer volume of data pumped out by our interactions with brands through social media, search, digital display and sales is producing quantities of information never seen before. But does all this data threaten to swamp clients and agencies? It is time-consuming to interpret and could it reveal misleading or conflicting patterns?

Unsurprisingly, the maths men at media agencies have been among the most vocal advocates for the continued rise of data to help direct advertising campaigns.

For example, ZenithOptimedia addressed the debate head-on in Cannes last month, bringing in additional help in the form of the UK’s most presentable scientist, Professor Brian Cox. He told Campaign:  "Data is never bad, it is never restrictive."

He also suggested that just because you have data, you don’t have to use it: "You might not be able to interpret a data set you get, but I don’t see how a data set can be a negative."

"I cannot conceive of any reason that knowing more about something makes it worse," he added.

Many remain sceptical and suspicious about the increasing hold data has over the business. As the Cheil Worldwide chief creative officer, Malcolm Poynton, noted: "I wonder if Ed Miliband would agree that data is never bad given this year’s general election polling?"

YES Mark Roalfe, chairman and executive creative director, RKCR/Y&R

"The world’s greatest ideas and innovations did not come about as a result of a collection of pure statistics. And let’s not forget that a focus group never invented anything new. Intuition and instinct can be our most powerful tools."

YES Andy Jex, executive creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi London

"It can. In music, if you try to predict hits just using data, you end up with I Should Be So Lucky. If you use talent, instinct and the heart too, you get Good Vibrations. The stuff that works best is the stuff people never knew they wanted."

NO Darren Wright, creative director, Grey London; Creative Data Lion winner

"Data isn’t just about numbers, it’s about information and insight. Used the right way, it’s the jumping-off point for more creative avenues. Our job is to help clients play a powerful part in culture – using data to create a conversation."

NO Sean Healy, global planning director, ZenithOptimedia

"It’s beyond doubt that data patterns are fuel for creativity. But the debate is focusing too much on execution. Importantly, what data can tell us should be used to help define creative strategy and shape communications briefs."

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