Why the future of creativity is data-driven

We chatted to Chrissy Totty, founder of The Big Thinks, about how data is feeding creativity for modern marketers.

In the past, data and creativity were viewed as two things at odds with each other. Today, they are an inseparable duo. 

Data is creating new creative opportunities

Not only is data feeding creativity by providing insights that inspire creative campaigns, but that creativity is leading to new data sources. Chrissy Totty, Founder of The Big Thinks, a consultancy that works with startups and scaleups, explained this phenomenon at an Attest event recently. 

In a previous role, Totty and her team pioneered a new data source in response to a challenge from alcoholic drinks maker Diageo to innovate in outdoor media. Working with a beacon technology provider, they installed tech in pubs that provided a data feed on how busy those pub gardens were in real-time. Combining that with live weather data, they were able to trigger different messages in digital out of home, helping people find a place to enjoy a Pimms in the sun. 

Chrissy Totty

“We were then able to run really targeted, relevant ads telling people, ‘There’s space in the Dog and Duck on the Clerkenwell Road right now. Go and enjoy a Pimms.’ 

“Knowing people enjoy a Pimms in the sunshine isn’t anything new, but the creativity came in creating a new data stream that would make the campaign more relevant to people right now. I would love to see brands and agencies pioneering their own new sources of data and plugging that into campaigns.” 

Ranzie Anthony, Founder and Chief Creative Officer of design and innovation company Athlon, who was also on the panel, agreed campaigns that use proprietary sources of data can be more innovative. He cited the example of British Airways’ Magic of Flying campaign, which used data from transponders on British Airways aircraft to create interactive billboards. The campaign saw the billboards come to life whenever a BA flight came overhead. A child would point to the sky, while the flight’s number and destination were displayed. 

Another standout example of a campaign melding data and creativity is when specialist insurer Hiscox connected billboards to live online servers. The campaign aimed to show the risk cyber attacks pose to small businesses. Every time one of the servers got attacked it would trigger a pulsing dot on the billboard. 

Anthony added that if you have a data source, the creativity can come in working out what to do with it. “We created a data-led product experience for the NFL. Based on sensors on player shoulder pads and within the ball, our client tracks real-time game data but one of the challenges they had was what to do with it.

“We worked to take all of that data and ingest it to create a digital service, helping coaches to predict when a player’s performance is going to drop off or peak. This gives them insights into games they cannot ordinarily see themselves while watching a match. That’s when data gets really exciting for me.” 

Don’t forget to ask ‘why?’

It’s the ability to gain otherwise invisible insights that makes data such an invaluable tool for the modern marketer, but Totty warns that it needs to be backed up with other information before becoming the basis of a campaign. She advocates combining digital performance data with consumer insights to discover why people behave the way they do.

“If you’re a brand with a lot of digital performance data, it will tell you insights like, ‘this demographic are clicking on this’, ‘this environment is performing better than the other’, ‘copy A is doing better than copy B’. What it won’t tell you is why people are doing that. 

“Understanding the reasons why gets you to real insight that actually impacts behaviour. That doesn’t come from behavioural data that you get in metrics, that comes from getting out in the real world speaking to people on the street. And doing your own proprietary qual and quant research into the category and the audience.”

Totty believes that when all of this information is synthesised into a key insight it can provide a wonderful launchpad for creative ideas. Because of this, it’s important that whoever is writing the campaign brief has access to all of the data but also really understands the audience, the brand and the business. This person performs the vital role of sifting through the learnings, preventing the creative team from becoming bogged down by data.

“The person writing the brief needs to lay out the problem. Yet the creatives that are coming up with the idea need to make the leap. Don’t burden them with huge reports, dashboard, metrics from data management platforms, don’t give them that. Give them an insight that can be a great place to jump from and make the creative leap and then bring in data where it matters.” 

It’s not all about big ideas, though. Data can be used to inform everyday, micro marketing messages too. Anthony believes personalisation will progress beyond simply addressing a customer by name to something considerably more sophisticated, citing the example of Very.co.uk, which can now serve up 1.2 million different versions of its homepage based on user data. 

“Increasingly, with machine learning and AI we’re able to serve up contextually relevant things to people without them even knowing it, it just affects their behaviour in a different way. Whether it’s overtly personalised, or we’re just using data in a way that makes the work we’re doing that much more relevant, I think that it will increasingly become a fundamental weapon in the armoury of how brands market effectively.” 

But if we reach a point where AI can predict our every move, mood and want and need, won’t it all become a little bit boring? Totty thinks the role of the future marketer will be centred on trying to surprise consumers. 

“I’m going to be very disappointed with myself as a human being if I conform to all the expectations the AI advertising system thinks I’m going to do. It’s important to be surprising and I love that. I think in a world where everything is predicted, that element of surprise could be the secret weapon for brands to get cut-through. I love that as a challenge.” 

Anthony agreed: “I absolutely think we still need that creative cut-through, and for it to be done in a way that surprises people sometimes and is emotive, but it’s the ability to use data in a relevant way that’s really going to make brands stand out.”

When data becomes a drug 

Of course, data works two ways – there’s the data used at the beginning to help plan a campaign, and then there’s the data at the end, which lets you know how it performed. Is a focus on this second type of data a threat to the creativity of marketers?

“You can be so data-driven that ultimately all you’re really doing is looking to nudge the needle a little bit along, very incrementally, based on performance marketing,” said Anthony. “There is the danger of becoming way too focused on performance and not necessarily focused on creativity or the big idea… incremental marketing can have a big impact for some brands and there’s a great role for that in certain contexts.”

A far bigger problem, according to Totty, is taking a view that’s too short term and becoming a slave to every analysis or report generated.

“In general, most companies are incredibly focused on the short term,” she said. “Whether you’re a startup that’s got to hit a growth number this month in order to unlock the next round of investment or you are a very big brand chasing a growth number that the CEO is going to ride or die on, that short-termism is something that’s infecting British business, politics, you name it. 

“That filters down into marketing when they look at objectives. When you look at the average tenure of a marketing director, it isn’t necessarily that long, so you’re going to need to get results immediately. But building brands is a really long term game and it’s very hard to measure in the short term.

“What is really easy to measure is performance metrics and it can be like a drug in certain businesses, where they are hooked on counting stuff and measuring stuff – but just because you can measure it doesn’t mean it counts. Identifying the right metrics for your business is so important.”

Taking a very short term view and working to very short term metrics will impact every decision a marketer makes – from the agency they hire and the brief people work to, through to the amount of time people have to turn things around. The result? The output of the work won’t be great. Totty recommends prioritising longer-term brand building measurements. 

“I work with a lot of companies right now that are switching from chasing a certain number to measuring Net Promoter Score; a metric that asks if people recommend you. There’s a lot to be said for being a company that you would really pleasantly talk about with colleagues and friends, and brands have realised how powerful that is. 

“You can measure that by looking at brand metrics like brand awareness, consideration, intent. Those kinds of metrics can really help measure that more intangible stuff. It at least gives you some numbers that help you optimise over a longer-term.”

The power that data puts into marketers’ hands to optimise their work – whether in the short or long term – cannot be overstated. Anthony believes it should actually change the creative process, making it something that is continuous, not something that comes to an end once an ad is aired. 

“It’s about not thinking of ads in a broadcast context i.e. we do some planning and then we broadcast it. Data gives us the ability to work in much shorter, faster sprints. We’re going to test and learn as we go along and continuously adapt. It’s an important aspect of how advertising and marketing needs to change.”

But while data is uncovering incredible insights and AI is enabling marketers to connect with consumers in previously undreamed about ways, Totty concludes that we mustn’t lose the human touch. 

“Data is not 100% accurate and machines do not understand us completely as human beings yet. It’s important to do a self-check to be sure we’re not making assumptions. One of the ways we avoid this is by doing that initial insight work and speaking with real people.”

For more expert advice on how you should incorporate data and insight into your creative ad campaigns, grab your free copy of the marketing leader’s guide to campaign planning – a guide packed full of expert tricks and tips for data-driven marketers.

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Bel Booker

Senior Content Writer 

Bel has a background in newspaper and magazine journalism but loves to geek-out with Attest consumer data to write in-depth reports. Inherently nosy, she's endlessly excited to pose questions to Attest's audience of 125 million global consumers. She also likes cake.

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