Embracing Data as a Creative Tool

April 2, 2018


Working in one of the largest global networks of research professionals in the communications industry opens your eyes to a few things.

You realize the sheer volume of data that is out there at your disposal to help improve research and communications decisions, and how little you know about something without the added dimension of measurement. At the same time, you realize our profession has a strong aversion to data. It is often seen as the enemy of creativity.

Here’s why that perspective needs to change.

Filtering the noise

Our current output of data is 2.5 quintillion bytes per day. It even sounds ridiculous. In this age of big data, it’s daunting to think about where to start, particularly if you don’t have a strong affinity with numbers. When people hear data, they think ones and zeros. They think formulas. They don’t think data can allow you to “see the world for what it really is” or even “help solve today’s communications challenges.”

I have always been told that for creative inspiration it is important to keep an open mind, try new things and seek the opinions of others with different experiences. But all those experiences are recorded by the most powerful data processing tool there is: our brain.

Here’s how it happens: First there is a sensory input, with our brain filtering out most of the 400 billion pieces of information we receive. Then we make sense of the important things among this information to inspire our creativity.

The process really isn’t that different from the way we view data. Using a bunch of smart methods, we explore, observe and filter through the noise to make sense of the insightful stuff out there. There just happens to be some empiricism behind it.

Selling new ideas

We all have biases. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to break out of that unilateral worldview and this inevitably hampers creativity. I have not met a single person who is an expert on all audiences, channels and verticals, and this is where the role of data comes into its own.

However, when it comes to understanding how to deliver against new challenges, I have encountered the point of view that data and research can railroad creatives into not only the destination but the route for their creativity. This can be very uncomfortable for them.

Yet, I think data helps to sell creativity, allowing us to confidently say “we know this piece of brilliance will work and here’s why.” But more than providing the proof points, data can completely blow the doors wide open as we discover something new, providing creatives with a blank canvas to go and do what they do best.

I like to think of data as our North Star, leaving lots of freedom to turn left, right and go for a walk around the park, so long as we know what we are working toward. Ultimately, what “creative” doesn’t want to be known for delivering amazing ideas that actually have an impact?

Inspiring bold projects

Data doesn’t suffer from an awareness problem. We know that once people see how data can lead to new creative opportunities, they’ll come back for more.

One recent example which sums this up perfectly was a media landscape analysis we conducted for a large technology client. Our challenge was to drive editorial coverage for our client on a specific topic. Using natural language processing, we analyzed 10,000 pieces of coverage around this topic to identify five key white space areas that the media liked to write about, possessed high social currency, and represented an opportunity to differentiate from the competition.

These areas were totally new for the client and required a completely different approach to how they normally do communications. But the proof was there: If you want to drive editorial coverage of your brand in this topic, then this is where you need to play.

The client’s reaction? “Cool, go tell us how to do it.” That doesn’t sound much like being railroaded to me. 

Tom Earl

Since 2013, Tom Earl has specialized in providing data-driven counsel to some of the most successful global businesses across corporate, technology, consumer and healthcare verticals, leading Ketchum’s digital research and analytics capability in London. Email:  Tom.Earl@ketchum.com.


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