The ad industry’s obsession with data is killing creativity

Posted on March 26, 2015

The ad industry’s obsession with process and data is killing creativity. You can’t create difference if you rely on the conformity of process and the safety of data.

Process and data are the advertising equivalent of the Health & Safety Executive. We know why they’re there and accept that they have a role but they also get in the way of progress. When was the last time you saw a brand campaign that really made you think, the sort that people like Bill Bernbach and Hal Riney, champions of intuition over science, excelled at? There’s plenty of innovation through data, technology and insights, but innovation and creativity are not the same thing.

Caution is king. Campaigns are safe. Even award winning work is characterised by conformity and a warm fluffy feeling. It’s the creative equivalent of easy listening music.

Despite what the data scientists tell you – whose job it is to make money from selling data – nobody really understands what motivates individual purchasing behaviour. If they did, every ad would work. It’s estimated that 89% of marketing and advertising isn’t noticed at all. That’s £17 billion wasted, if you’re interested, much of it ‘justified’ by data. (Read this article by ‘Raving Adman’ Simon Sinclair for a brilliant take down).

Like most things in life, it’s about balance. Knowing what data to use, understanding which insights are relevant and, most importantly, applying them to your human instinct and over-riding them if that’s what feels right. We all know this but the fear of making mistakes drives us into the safe arms of rigour, logic and process. It is the refuge of the meek and the mild. It allows us to say, when an ad fails, that at least the data supported the idea. It’s a cop out.

At the other extreme, I used to work with a multi-award winning Creative Director in Asia who didn’t give a shit about data or process. He was a maverick and occasional liability, but a genius.

He and I were asked to develop a new strategy for a famous alcohol brand in need of a new lease of life. The client gave us a budget and asked for three new concepts.

After 4 weeks of grafting we had three routes – two basd on data and one completely instinctive alternative which we loved and decided to present first. It was, quite frankly, brilliant. We knew it and so did the client who practically signed it off there and then. It was handshakes all round until he asked to have look at the other two concepts, you know, just in case.

“There aren’t any more,” said my colleague, as much to my surprise as the client’s.


“What do you mean there aren’t any more? We paid you for three.”

Subordination is poor form in this particular Asian country and the client, a global marketing director, was fuming. Knowing my colleague’s reputation I prepared to say something diplomatic but before I could open my mouth he started to talk. I can remember it almost verbatim because it still makes me laugh.

“This is a brilliant idea and you know it. We have bust our balls getting it right for you and used every cent of your measly little budget making sure you don’t need another. There is nothing else to see. Nothing.”

And with that he stood up and walked out, leaving me with an incandescent client demanding his head on a plate. However, we all knew the idea was a winner. We could feel it. It was brave and instinctive, whereas the others were safe, based on data, insights and, of course, process. Had we presented them, there was every chance the client would bottle it. As it turned out, the campaign ran for several years and won a hatful of awards.

Creativity won the day.


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