Data is not the enemy: why numbers can help you take a creative leap
A view from John Townshend

Data is not the enemy: why numbers can help you take a creative leap

Data may reduce the risk to your business, but that's not to say it reduces the ability to be daring in creative execution, says Now's founder and chairman.

Have you ever been to Bilbao?

The city’s Guggenheim has put the city on the map. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank Gehry and forged from titanium, glass and limestone, the contemporary art museum was a groundbreaking architectural achievement of the late 20th century. Since opening its doors in 1997 it has brought in over 17 million new visitors to the city. A city that previously, dare I say, would not have been in my top five places to visit. Nor even my top 20.

Like all great creative leaps, the building has been a magnet for people, because it is extraordinary and beautiful. It has contributed to the social and economical revitalisation of Bilbao and the surrounding Basque country. Like great marketing, it captures the imagination and changes behaviour.

And underneath that building is maths and physics. The mathematical complexity of Gehry’s design meant he had to draw on the help of a unique computer software that was meant for use in the aerospace industry. This means every extraordinary curve and vaulted ceiling that Gehry had in his head is realised through brilliant engineering and programmatic precision.

Great art has always been built on basics. Picasso learned to draw perfect portraits before he bent faces out of shape. Dickens learned grammar before he wrote Great Expectations. Vivienne Westwood was a talented seamstress, before she dressed Johnny Rotten. Zuckerberg learned code before he made Facebook.

It’s strange then that our advertising industry feels somehow that data spells the death of creativity.

That word: data. Let’s talk about that – it gets bandied around a lot. People are dropping it into conversations like a badge of modernity. Most don’t even know what they’re talking about.

To be clear, I’m not talking about programmatic. Nor am I talking about the kind of data that’s used in CRM to optimize performance.

I’m talking about using the information that we now have at our disposal to find stories, inspire new ideas and give us lateral solutions. To answer some of the trickiest marketing problems.

It's not really the data that does this. It's the intelligence and acuity of the people who look at it. Those minds are as creative in their way as the advertising craftspeople who make those magical leaps into execution.

In a world where creativity is needed in business more than ever, we need to show businesses that creativity is based on substance, not just supposition. Numbers allow you to convince a business that a creative strategy is right. It reduces the risk to the business, but that’s not to say it reduces the ability to be daring in execution.

On the contrary, it means that when a client looks at the work they can be confident it’s in the right territory. I have been in many meetings where the discussion of ideas bounces between the strategy and the execution. It makes for a confusing meeting, and makes our lives as agencies harder.

Besides giving clients the confidence to be bold, a strategy built on analytics gives creatives the confidence to commit. Creatives love certainty in a brief, and the more substantial the evidence behind the direction of the brief, the more they can focus on the business of making that magical leap. Rather than questioning the creative proposition. Better still, the data may well have given you a jumping off point that’s far more interesting than you’d expect.

Data has changed pretty much every aspect of business. Isn’t it time it changed the traditional "above the line" world too?  If we put numbers and rigour at the heart of our creative process, we can make a more convincing case for creativity. It’s an ally, not an enemy. 

John Townshend is the chairman and founder of Now