As a marketer, data drives nearly all of the decisions I make.

I use data to tell me which version of a web page is likely to drive more visits, more engagements and more conversions. I use data to determine when the best times are to post to my company’s social media pages and to my clients’ accounts. And I use data to understand who my audience is and how I can connect with them best across multiple channels.

But even as an enthusiastic proponent of data usage, I have to acknowledge that it has its weaknesses. It’s only through this recognition, I believe, that we can find the balance between the two disciplines – data and creativity – to produce work that moves hearts at the same time as it moves the needle.

The Argument Against Data in Brand Building

As described above, there’s a lot data can tell me. But in all of these situations, data is reactive. It’s based on things that have happened in the past. And although I can make a pretty educated guess that these trends will continue in the future, I can’t guarantee it.

Data also tells me what people do – not necessarily how they feel. There’s a big difference between knowing that more people clicked on the red button than the blue, and knowing that an ad campaign or brand concept is resonating deeply with the people it’s intended for.

In practice, an over-reliance on data can lead to marketing collateral and advertising pieces that seem devoid of any true heart and soul. Sir John Hegarty, legendary advertiser and founding partner of Saatchi & Saatchi, TBWA London and Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH), has been vocal about what he sees as the negative impact of data on creativity.

In an interview with Marketing Week’s Sarah Vizard, he states:

“Data is great at giving you information, giving you knowledge; but it doesn’t give you understanding and that is its great failing. What we need is greater creativity and what we’re doing today is reducing the power of creativity. Marketing, I believe, is suffering because of that; you’re not getting imaginative ideas that capture people’s imagination.”

An Opposing Viewpoint

Some dispute Hegarty’s position that data can’t produce understanding. Take Dan Kelleher, chief creative officer at Deutsch, who was tasked with helping Sherwin-Williams develop a campaign for its Krylon spray paint line.

Kelleher’s team, according to Kate Kaye’s profile on AdAge, began with data. Numbers were crunched. Charts were reviewed. Analytics were sifted through. And in the end, it was data that led Kelleher and his team to a surprising realization:

“While historically the paint has been used to cover rust, research data revealed a lesser-known use that was gaining ground among crafty types who use the paint to transform household goods and furniture,” Kaye describes. “The information led to a 2016 campaign that included the ‘First Ever Pinterest Yard Sale,’ in which Krylon representatives bought ‘690 miles of worthless items’ like old watering cans and tennis rackets, spruced them up using Krylon paint and sold them on Pinterest.”

In this case, Deutsch would not have been able to produce such a creative campaign – which won a 2016 Titanium Lion at Cannes – without data-driven insight into the people it was intended to reach.

Or, take the case of preclick data, which involves capturing the specific, measurable actions web users take before clicking on links or creatives. We’ve been testing this process at Windsorborn, because capturing this information tells us quite a bit about searcher intent. In turn, we’re able to develop better, more relevant creatives and determine where they should be placed for best results.

A Balance Between Data and Creativity

Ultimately, there’s no “either/or” here. Data without creativity is dry; creativity without data is directionless. When Windsorborn was building Icon Cancer Centres’ website and content strategy, for example, we wouldn’t have been able to arrive at a positive outcome which balanced both the modern aesthetic the company desired and its position in a traditional industry without drawing on both.

What matters is awareness. It’s about understanding the importance of both data and creativity, without treating either one as the “end all, be all” of modern marketing. Prioritising both makes it possible to produce campaigns and results that benefit both businesses and the customers they serve.

What do you think? Is creativity being compromised for the sake of data? Or is there a way to balance both priorities? 

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