The great debate: Is data killing creativity?

Industry representatives from marketing, agency and publishing ranks debate whether data is killing creativity or in fact creating the opportunity for it

Data isn’t killing creativity, but it could threaten to kill the creative ego, according to HCF’s CMO, Jenny Williams.

Speaking as part of a lively debate at the Vivid Festival in Sydney and entitled ‘Is Data Killing Creativity’, Williams and fellow panellists, Dr Chelsea Wise, founder of the UTS Behavioural Marketing Lab, and Holly Joshi, senior manager optimisation and analytics for Asia-Pacific at Sapient Nitro, defended data’s role and argued it actually fuels and supports creative thinking.

In her 10-minute talk, Williams questioned the instinctive-driven approach taken by creative leaders when coming up with the ‘big idea’ for brands to lead with in their advertising efforts. Instead, she suggested data could help improve how campaigns and approaches to engagement are executed.

“If creatives are willing to stick around after the ad goes live and for the numbers about whether people do or don’t respond – because the technology is now there for us to do that – they’d see things like how TV drives search,” Williams said. “Data informs what I do, the ads I run and how to develop creative ideas.”

Prior to joining HCF, Williams worked in ad agencies with an emphasis on digital. She also spent time at the beginning of her career programming PCs for financial institutions.

As a health insurance provider, Williams said it’s vital to change the creative message and approach if it’s to position its products appropriately for a 60-year old customer versus an 18-year old prospect. And getting that level of personalisation requires data as well as human analysis.

“Data is not killing creativity, it’s giving us more ideas as that’s what I need to deliver,” she said. “It’s an opportunity, not a limitation, it just depends on how you look at it.”

For the purposes of the debate, Williams argued creativity was seeing things in new ways, and new patterns in activities, information and experiences that are innovative or haven’t been thought of before.

“Creativity and data are the best bedfellows you can imagine,” she claimed, adding that it’s the insights, intelligence and creativity human beings bring to the numbers that makes data useful.

For Williams, the ultimate combination for marketers and creatives is to marry data and creativity together, not choose one over the other.

“They can complement each other. The best relationships are those where there is that complement,” she said. “I’m not saying creativity is bad, or that creative people have to analyse data. But they should respect it as it’s demonstrating what’s working.

“Data isn’t killing creativity, but it threatens to kill the creative ego.”

The alternative, scientific view on why data kills creativity

An equally compelling and scientific view for data killing creativity was presented by Dr Fiona Kerr, systems and neural complexity specialist at Adelaide University and a regular speaker on the topic of creativity leadership. She was joined by Oliver Freeman, director and co-founder of The Neville Freeman Agency, and Luke Chess, partner at creative agency, Mammal.

Dr Kerr suggested humans have a level of creative dearth as they experience cognitive overload, as our brains become saturated in a way that stymies creative thought.

“It takes as much effort to deal with a boring fact as it does to deal with something that’s enticing, interesting and important,” she said. “You can get overwrought and then you can’t be useful or creative.”

The reason people notice things like which ways cow face (mostly magnetic north according to statistics) is because we are idiosyncratic and creative, Dr Kerr said.

“What our brains do that data mines don’t do is they abstract. What that means is we notice things and connect them in all sorts of interesting ways,” she explained.

“Creativity is non-linear, while data is very much linear – it’s parallel processing of a massive amount of terabytes of information and we have to shape that. When human beings get all together, they have lots of different ways of using their brains to interact. We use multiple methods of memory for example, which is very non-linear. And depending on who we are with, we can be deeply reflective, which is completely abstractive.”

Stepping back from a task to “daydream” and allow more abstraction gets us out of linear ways of thinking and prompts creative new ideas, Dr Kerr continued.

“Those cross connections that can just be the ‘aha’ moment, are very much to do with creative ideation… putting together information in your brain. That suffers when we have to start dealing with analysis,” she told attendees.

According to Dr Kerr, when we go into analysis of data or become task focused, certain chemicals in our brains are raised, we become worried, and we cannot abstract as much. We can also be swamped by big data, and she noted it’s the small data or the questions we ask that are useful.

“It pushes us into a script track and we start to rule out everything that’s not specific to the issue we’ve got, so we become very narrow. So we do change the way we look at things, which means we’re not as strategic,” she continued. “If you are driven by data alone, because it is linear and analysis focused, it minimises that level of intuitive knowledge and changes the process.”

Thanks to the bias presented in the way big data is shaped and the questions we ask of it, Dr Kerr said it’s changing the architecture of our brains – and it’s hurting our ability to be creative.

“As a human being, if something stirs your empathy or emotions, you go into a completely different thought process, it turns our motor neuron system on. It puts us into a discernment process which is a totally new filter on bringing up relative information and that is based on values, ethics. It’s also long lens and consequential, whereas data is short lens and very much driven by the question I’m asking right now.

“Not only does it kill creativity, it pushes us to live different lives and ask different questions. We need to be very careful about what we collect, why we collect it, how we use it… we need new ways to explore that flexibly and abstractively.”

Despite the persuasive arguments of the pro-creativity team, the majority of event attendees agree data was not killing creativity (64 per cent versus 36 per cent). The event was managed by Adobe and held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney.

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