Big Data vs. Big Creativity

As Tham Khai Meng took to the Adara Stage at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square, New York City on Monday, the first day of Advertising Week 2014, one question crossed his mind. Ogilvy & Mather’s Worldwide Chief Creative Officer glanced at his fellow storytellers on stage and wondered aloud, “Creatives sitting around talking about data…how [xxxxx] up is that?”

A nonetheless proper question given that the subject of Monday’s discussion centered on two subjects that, on the surface, don’t seem to intersect: data and creativity. Joining Khai were Sir John Hegarty, founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and Chuck Porter, Chairman and co-founder of CP+B, and all three had much to say about the impact big data has had on the creative process in today’s advertising world. For Khai, data and creativity are inexorably linked. Humans have been information processors throughout their existence, gaining insights from data. But, as ever when creative minds get talking, passionate and sometimes differing viewpoints were on display.

Chuck began with how data can be viewed as a threat. The amount of data being collected today is staggering, even intimidating to some. Big data seemingly knows everything about everyone. And what this culture has resulted in, Chuck said, is the inundation of countless and often meaningless ad messages every day. Data helps advertisers reach people, but the message still matters. People still want to be inspired, and data alone won’t get the job done. Unexpectedness is one of the key drivers of emotion and inspiration and because of this, Chuck said, agencies remain crucial. He likened storytelling in advertising to another creative art form: music. In art, there’s no scientific method to create inspiration. “If science could create this,” Chuck said, “every song writer would be John Lennon.”

Sir John Hegarty sang the praises of creativity. Before that, though, he reminded us that the collection of data isn’t a new phenomenon, harkening back to King William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book in 1086 in England. But for John, what’s most important is that data provides insights. But, while data can be great at promotion, it isn’t very good at persuasion, the lifeblood of advertising. “Creativity will always be the most powerful tool that we will ever use,” he said.


Khai pulled the audience back on an even greater scale. We can view the universe as one large quantum computer. Matter is everywhere, but information is more important than matter. So since the dawn of time, we’ve been collecting data and gaining insights from it. Khai showed the famous drawing on the wall of the Caves of Lascaux, a depiction of a dead bison and a dead man, killed in the hunt for food. This, Khai said, was one of the first pieces of data. And it provided a vital insight for our caveman ancestors: a key to survival. This continues throughout human history. The giant north-south axis of the Pyramids of Giza helped the Egyptians mark the floods of the Nile, and to know the time for sowing and reaping—another example of humans procuring insights from strains of data.

Human beings have always been processors of information. We even do so during sex, our most popular recreational activity. What are humans but DNA? At our core being, we are all information. Thus, Khai noted, when two human beings engage in sex, they’re really in the act of exchanging and processing information.

Fast forward to now, and the math man has met the mad man. To Khai, data and creativity are two sides of the same coin. Data can often be the catalyst for truly inspiring creative work. An example: on the simple, raw data point that just 4% of women believed they were beautiful, Dove built its Campaign for Real Beauty—with no story more famous than “Real Beauty Sketches.” The award-winning campaign is one of the most-viewed ads of all-time, an inspiring, culture-changing story borne from a singular piece of data. And while information becoming intelligent on its own is a long-standing science fiction trope, we’re seeing it come to life. IBM’s Watson, the computer that embodies natural language capability, has graduated from winning Jeopardy! onto more important matters. These days, he’s helping doctors become better healers. So far, we haven’t had to worry about the machines taking over.

The data vs. creativity debate isn’t going away, because there isn’t a definitive answer. But as the three, influential creatives all noted on Monday, the key lies in gaining insights from data. Moreover, the crucial step comes in the human ability to take the insight and craft a great story behind it. A piece of data, such as Dove’s discovery of women’s perception of their beauty, is a static piece of information. But when great creative minds take that data, gain an insight, and go to work, they can build compelling stories.

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