How to be a Data-Driven Creative

Vicky Shoub
September 4, 2019
6 minute read

In a 2017 article, the Economist declared that the world’s most valuable commodity isn’t oil anymore.

It’s data.

There’s ample evidence of this shift all around you. Of the world’s 10 largest companies by market capitalization, for instance, seven are tech companies who deal primarily in data (especially Facebook and Google (Alphabet)).

In this data-driven world, where does the creative fit in? How does this primacy of data affect your creativity? And what can you do to embrace data while still building a thriving creative career? 

We’ll explore answers to all these questions and more in this career guide. Read on if you’re a designer, artist, or anyone involved in any creative field.

How Data is Changing Creativity

Marketing, and its subset, advertising, used to be creative-driven fields. The great advertisers you’ve heard of – Leo Burnett and David Ogilvy and Mary Wells – were all creatives (copywriters) first and foremost.

Even the fictional Don Draper is a copywriter first and businessman second. A data nerd, he is not.

But this creativity-first culture of advertising (and to a larger extent, marketing) is changing. So much of advertising is now done on digital platforms that relying entirely on creative is a tactic bound to fail. 

Take programmatic advertising as an example. What used to once be a niche advertising field now accounts for nearly $70B in annual ad spending.

Programmatic advertising relies heavily on data. So much of it focuses on incremental changes and improvements based on individual preferences that you can’t operate without data at all.

This is just one example. Look around and you’ll find the impact of data on every aspect of marketing. As Tom Benton, CEO of the Data & Marketing Association says:

“Data hasn’t just changed the CMO Role. It has disrupted it.”

Marketing and data are so intertwined now that there’s a strong argument to be made that the CMO and CIO roles can be merged. What used to be the domain of IT is now increasingly influenced by marketing – and vice-versa.

Perhaps the biggest indicator of the marriage of creativity and data is the fact that Cannes now has a “Creative Data” award category.

Where does this leave the creative professional? 

Historically and culturally, agencies – advertising, digital, PR, etc. – have been some of the largest employers of creative pros. If you’re a designer or copywriter, your first gig will likely be at an agency.

With the growth of data-driven marketing, however, this is changing. Creative professionals are increasingly flocking to the companies that create and own data – software companies. 

As one AdAge writer bemoans,

“If Don Draper were working in today’s ad business, there’s a good chance his business card wouldn’t read Sterling Cooper but instead Google, Apple or Facebook.”

In tech companies, creative takes a backseat to, well, tech. While a creative agency will pride itself on its creative work, Google and Facebook primarily sell tech, not creativity.

You can already feel that your creative worth is being diminished.

More important than this job profile shift is the change in how companies evaluate creatives. It’s not enough to have a strong portfolio; you also need an understanding of data – how it is captured, stored, and analyzed.

In other words, you need that proverbial “T-shaped” skillset where creativity is your bedrock, but you expand increasingly into data-focused skills.

It’s not just about jobs; understanding data also makes you a better creative. A McKinsey report titled “The business value of design” found that companies that focus on design perform better than their non-design-focused counterparts.

The report also found that these lower-ranked companies either had no way of capturing data from customers or any way of turning data into actionable design.

In other words, without an understanding of data, designers are not able to excel at their work. If you don’t know what your target customers think and act like, you can’t possibly create interfaces and applications that serve them well.

Which is to say: data touches every aspect of creativity today, from finding jobs to being better at your work.

This brings us to the question: how can you become a more data-driven creative?

Let’s find out.

Two Types of Data-Driven Creativity

The first thing you should know is that not all data-driven creativity is the same.

The first kind is “big idea” creativity. These are the kind of campaigns agencies used to create – splashy, headline-grabbing, boundary-pushing. Except now instead of pure creativity, they’re co-opting data to bring these big ideas to life.

Think of the kind of campaigns that show up in Cannes’ “Creative Data” awards list, such as last year’s winner, the #GoBackToAfrica campaign.

At a smaller scale, this kind of big idea thinking can be seen in the infographics, data visualizations, and visual stories agencies and media companies create regularly. These campaigns are not incremental improvements; they’re bursts of creative thinking tempered by data.

If you’ve been in the creative industry for a while, you already have a fundamental understanding of such campaigns. The only thing that’s changed is that such campaigns now leverage data to create, distribute, and understand the creative work.

But there’s a second kind of data-driven creativity – the “programmatic” kind.

This kind of creativity focuses on incremental and iterative improvements. Think of a company launching a Facebook campaign with a single creative to test the market. Once it gets the data, it creates hundreds of similar creatives targeting different audience groups.

This programmatic creativity relies entirely on data and has completely changed the creative process. A designer working in this programmatic kind of creativity needs a close understanding of data and an ability to follow the create-test-iterate cycle – something that’s closer to programming than pure creativity.

So the question is: where do you, as a creative, fit into these two kinds of data-driven creativity? Should you optimize for big impact ideas, or should you focus on iterative improvements?

The truth is that these two kinds of creativity are neither dissimilar nor are they mutually exclusive. Instead, they feed off each other.

  • A creative team taps into data to come up with a “big creative idea”
  • The “big creative idea” is distributed to a small market
  • The data from this small market run is used to change the creative idea
  • Once the idea goes live, several ancillary campaigns are created to capture interest from it
  • Data from these campaigns is reused to create further “big ideas”

Creativity is required at every stage of this Big Idea > Programmatic Improvement iteration cycle. You need big picture thinking, as well as the ability to distill data into actionable creative insights.

Master this and you’ll find opportunities at every turn.

The Future of Creativity is Collaboration

This brings us to the other big issue in creativity: collaboration.

We all know that creativity cannot thrive in isolation. But in our data-driven world, creatives need to lean on others more than ever to be at their productive best. 

Think of any campaign you worked on in the last few years. Before you could even begin to dream it, you had to rely on:

  • Researchers and marketers to collect data (say, via a survey)
  • Programmers to make sense of the data
  • Marketers to promote and distribute the created content

There’s an argument to be made that data-driven creativity essentially means finding novel ways to collaborate within and across departments. 

Think of the stores of data locked up in your company’s vaults. Could this data yield any actionable insight for key decision-makers? Could it yield interesting visualizations? Maybe you could use it to create a “Big Idea” campaign?

For example, Nike’s massively impactful “Find Your Greatness” campaign was born when the company’s internal data showed that most of its customers were everyday people, not athletes or even highly active individuals.

Nike used this fact to create a campaign celebrating – and motivating – these everyday folks to push themselves to do better and “find their greatness”.

Creativity like this would not be possible without close collaboration. Without big data analysts to crunch internal data, a creative would have no way of coming up with this insight. 

In simpler words, to be a better data-driven creative, you have to first get better at collaboration.

Find Creative Ways to Interpret Data

For most businesses, the problem isn’t a lack of data; it’s a surfeit of it.

Analyzing this data is the job of data scientists. But turning it into human-readable, actionable insight often falls to the creatives.

This is the core skill that creatives must nurture in the coming decade – the ability to interpret and humanize data. An endless spreadsheet or even a scatter chart in R might make sense to the data scientists. But to key decision-makers and customers, it might as well be gibberish.

For example, Spotify has a massive amount of data on its users’ listening habits. Turning this data into something that users can actually understand requires not just data analysis, but also creative interpretation.

The end result is the “Your (Year) Wrapped” campaign which features every user’s listening habits in an interactive, visually pleasing format.

This is the kind of marriage of data and creativity that is going to dictate not just advertising, but also decision-making in the coming few years. 

So how do you cultivate this ability?

A few pointers:

  • Focus on your strength: As a creative, your strength is, well, your creativity. Instead of trying to learn how to code or transitioning to data analysis, focus on what you can do best: humanize, empathize and visualize complex concepts. 
  • Understand end-users: Bring your understanding of end-users – customers, decision-makers, key stakeholders, etc. – to data interpretation. A data scientist might help you extract insight from data, but it’s up to you to turn it into something end-users can access.
  • Become a better communicator: Communication is vital for collaboration. It is also vital for interpreting complex data. A sufficiently broad data set can offer multiple and often conflicting insights. Your ability to communicate with end-users and understanding their needs is crucial for creating the interpretations they truly care about.

What the Future Holds for Creatives

It’s tough to look into the crystal ball and come up with a foolproof prediction of the future. But there are two things we can be fairly certain of:

  • There will be more and more data created, captured, and analyzed
  • There will be an even stronger need to translate this data into human-readable content

While there will always be a demand for creatives, if you want to thrive in this data-driven world, you have to cultivate the right creative skills. Become better at collaboration and develop a deeper understanding of end-users and their needs. 

It’s not enough to know how to do something; you must also know the why behind it. This will help you interpret data in a way that’s actually useful for end-users, and not just something that looks pretty.

Build these skills and the future indeed will be bright.

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