Creativity in data

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I had the honour of being part of a panel for the PRCA on the creativity in data run in association with The Work Crowd.

Creativity and data

Here was the synopsis of the panel discussion that the PRCA put out.

Communications is frequently seen as all about ‘big ideas’. But increasingly, it’s being recognised that to develop a big idea that’s really going to have an impact, it’s not just about creativity. Now, the winning formula is creativity + data.

Of course, data has always played a role in the creative process, but historically through a more ‘rear view’ measurement of past behaviours. However, with technology advancing and predictive analytics utilising newly available data, the data we have access to is more forward-looking than ever.

The ability to synthesise these insights is super-powering strategic planning for businesses, but it’s definitely not just the boardroom who should be interested in ‘running the numbers’. Maths and data may not be seen as natural bedfellows of storytelling and creation, but have we been underestimating the power of creativity in data? Ultimately, is data a friend or foe to the creative process?

I kicked this around with Camilla and Richard. Here are my thoughts that came from this process in no particular order below:

I wondered what the forefathers of the communications industry would have thought about the question? Leaving ethical considerations aside for a moment about the legitimacy of their techniques, what would they have thought?

Edward Bernays was famous for using consumer insight, research and psychology in his work. It would likely have felt very alien to Bernays that we were even asking such a question. He would have felt that the answer is self-evident a 100 years later.

Data isn’t a friend or foe to the creative process. It is part of the creative process. The sieving of data to get down to the grain of truth – the insight that you can hang your creative idea off.

Thinking about the nature of data itself is muddled. Over the past couple of decades the communications industry has struggled with measurement. This then shaped its perception of data.

  • Data is quantitative
  • Data is tech dependent
  • Data is precise

All of which is wrong:

  • Data can be quantitative, but qualitative data is also important, particularly to the creative process. Qualitative data is the stuff of stories and storytelling
  • A lot of data is technology dependent, but a lot of good stuff from a creative perspective isn’t. Marketing communications as an industry, has increased its use and importance of cultural insights in planning
  • Quantitative data isn’t always precise. Correlation and causality aren’t the same things. In addition, if online ad fraud has taught us anything, it is to be skeptical of data quality

I am not saying that communications should move away from obtaining and using quantitive data. But this should be balanced by a focus on qualitative data as well.

Data is seen paradoxically as ‘all around us, pervasive’ and expensive to obtain.

So what data should the creative planners of the communications industry care about? Some of the sources listed below are free, some are books that are worthwhile investing in and others are expensive services that even the largest agencies struggle to afford in many markets.

The data that the client has already

Clients are already sitting on a wealth of information inside their organisation:

  • Past marketing campaigns. What has worked, what hasn’t.
  • Web analytics – what content is doing well. What do we know abut site visitors?
  • Key words that they use for SEO. What language should we be using for coming with messaging?
  • Sales data. Not just qualitative data, but what is coming out of sales calls and customer services enquiries? What concerns prospective and current customers? Why do they buy? Do they stay loyal? Do they have great stories? Who buys and who is likely to influence a buying decision?
  • Competitor research including brand tracking data if available
  • Planning work and creative briefs done by the clients other agencies. Chances are that a comms agency will have been brought in after other agencies. What channels are those agencies looking to leverage. Where can you complement their work? What is the human truth that they are hanging their creative from? Are there any design cues in their artwork?

Work smarter, rather than harder. It is foolish to try and do the same information gathering twice. A client’s willingness to dig and get this for you gives you a rough read on how important your work is for the organisation.

Best practice data on efficiency and effectiveness

The marketing industry as a whole has put a lot of money into the Ehrensberg Bass Institute and they have compiled decades of marketing science research to some accessible books. How Brands Grow parts 1 and 2 are constant references for me.

The IPA’s publication The Long and The Short of It by Les Binet and Peter Fields is another reference for me. Binet has updated this research to cover B2B recently.

They help me answer questions such as:

  • Is PR the right tool to solve the client’s current problem?
  • Is our creative likely to be effective?
  • How much should be focusing on brand building versus activation?

To make your life easier, here’s a slide where I distilled optimal channel choice versus marketing strategy.

Zero-Based Budgeting

Where you see ticks, that’s when the marketing tool (PR, advertising etc) will do the most good.

The Holmes Report and WARC have collaborated so that if you have a WARC subscription you can access award winning case studies and learn from campaigns that have solved similar problems to the ones that you face. None of the industry organisations or communications have distilled this kind of data down into a comms agency equivalent and Binet and Fields.

Desk research

  • Videos – its amazing the insights you can pick up from observing YouTube videos
  • White papers – I have become a pack rat for these, I download everything and keep them on my machine because you never know when you might need it
  • Your own data bank. I have over 40,000 site links to content that I’ve found of use in the past. It’s where I go to before DuckDuckGo since I already know its of a certain quality. I use a social bookmarking tool called Pinboard


Both Scopus and Google Scholar have got great resources on social science based research. In addition, Wolfram Alpha is a really good sources of validated data points. The British Library can also be a treasure trove of content.


  • Blog posts (like this one)
  • Free and paid resources for example: Apollo Research, Business Insider Research / Contagious / Datamonitor / D&B Hoovers / Ebiquity / Emarketer / Economist / EIU / Financial Times / Forrester Research / Gartner L2 / Global Web Index / IPA databank / Kantar / Lexis Nexis / Little Black Book / Mintel / Nielsen / Pew Research / Statista / WARC / YouGov
  • Management consultancies in particular McKinsey do a wide variety of research
  • Other planners (for instance here’s an article that I wrote about trends in the beauty sector)
  • Trade bodies (particularly good examples are the GSMA Intelligence and CES)

Government statistics bodies

  • CIA World Handbook
  • EuroStat
  • Government national statistics offices (Wikipedia has a great category page that points you to the right countries and regions for these sources)
  • IMF
  • UN Statistics Division
  • World Bank
  • World Economic Forum

Social listening data

Social listening data needs to be used with a certain amount of caution. It is a measure of the level of discussions around a given subject but not the sum of them. Some of them are likely to happening in real world settings, many in ‘dark social’ – social interactions that tools can’t see.

As a rule of thumb in European countries there tends to be less B2B social discussions going on than the US. For consumer brands there has been some good work done to show how social media listening attributions (volume, share of voice, sentiment etc) can approximate to brand tracking.

Primary research

This could be everything from:

  • Quantitative focused research: running a quick and dirty survey on Survey Monkey, a reputable omnibus survey provider like Dalia Research, Kelton Global or YouGov through to commissioning a piece of bespoke research
  • Qualitative research: eye tracking, focus groups, interviews, neurological scans to analysis response to stimulation, observational research, video diaries
  • Field trip: go out with sales people, meet clients, walk around stores and notice what people do, strike up conversations in stores or trade shows. The art of the flâneur is made for the planner

More information


British Library – getting a reader pass

Google Scholar

Scopus (paywall)

Wolfram Alpha

Best Practice

How Brands Grow What Marketers Don’t Know by Byron Sharp

How Brands Grow: Part 2: Emerging Markets, Services, Durables, New and Luxury Brands by Jenni Romaniuk and Byron Sharp

The Long & The Short of It: Balancing Short Term and Long Term Marketing Strategies by Les Binet and Peter Fields


FT Graphics

World Economic Forum reports

Governmental organisations data

CIA World Factbook


IMF Data

UN Statistics Division

Wikipedia category page on national statistical services