When does data stop helping creativity – and start hindering it?

When does data stop helping creativity - and start hindering it?
When does data stop helping creativity

Make no mistake – audience feedback is a valuable commodity. From the early days of focus groups to the endless options now available digitally, marketers have diligently gathered insight to help refine and target their campaigns.

Knowledge is power after all and an improved understanding of your customer base often allows for tighter briefs and more focused goals. Hugely beneficial since less time spent trying to fathom a brief, or speculate how customers may respond, allows more time to find creative solutions and create work that has a better chance of capturing the customer’s attention.

Anyone who has worked closely on a brand, really lived and breathed it, will also relate to the inevitable clouding of judgement that can occur. Data is sought as a balancing tool.

But as useful as facts and figures can be, it’s important to remember that they will never be a substitute for face to face interactions, empathy and personal experience.

Take focus groups. You may think they’re inhibited ‘safe spaces’ where subjects can respond honestly, but whether they’re conscious of being watched or are tuned into the whir of a camera, it isn’t a natural environment.

Studying the results of focus groups has been compared to watching the way animals behave in zoos then making sweeping generalisations about the species. There are plenty reasons subjects could respond differently to how they might in the comfort of their own home or at the pub.

The danger is, data can lull you into a false sense of security, making you feel more informed that you actually are. You forge onwards, moulding an entire campaign based on the focus group or audience survey, then watch with confusion as the results fall flat. Statistics can mislead creativity. For real insight, you need to get personal.

The customer behind the click

Last October, Instagram researchers hit a market in Kolkata, India. Without revealing their identities they stopped passersby to ask them questions about the app. One woman revealed she didn’t feel as if her life was interesting enough to post on an Instagram account. This honest, single story insight was bought back to their headquarters and directly influenced their strategy in the area.

Forcing yourself to talk to people and find the human insights behind the stats is one of the cheapest and most effective things you can do. Create relaxed, genuine perhaps even anonymous scenarios where people can offer their opinions – and do it often.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” so goes the legendary Henry Ford quote. While it is contested as to whether those words did come out of the Ford Motor Company founder’s mouth, Steve Jobs echoed the sentiment when he said: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Unless you’ve got the innate creative instinct of Jobs, completely dismissing market research is probably ill-advised, but it is true that innovation and creativity often lives outside customer expectation. Using data as your sole inspiration can not only mislead you, but be incredibly restrictive – and creativity is difficult to foster in restrictive spaces. Its needs an open forum.

Many of us while have been in a brainstorm where a good idea is shot down in seconds with a ‘but the data tells us our customer doesn’t like that/ him/ her’. Dead end. Conversation over. The alternative? More often than not, the safe option.

Relying on data too heavily stunts creativity

In a presentation turned blog post, Martin Weigel, Head of Planning at Wieden+Kennedy, makes ‘the case for chaos’ arguing that ‘unchecked, order, predictability and control create dead zones of the imagination’.  He suggests that we need to escape the constraints of best practice, benchmarks, process and inherited ‘wisdom’ to allow creativity to flourish and more effective work to be created.

Effective because, as Jame Hurman explains in his book, The Case For Creativity, creatively-awarded campaigns deliver 11 times the return on investment of non-creatively awarded campaigns. 

Creative work is unexpected and memorable. Beyond purely fulfilling a need shown by data, game changing ideas push boundaries, evoke emotional responses and ultimately drive ROI. Data may help you navigate to the right area, but without true creativity you’ll never hit the spot.

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