I love data: graphs, figures, dashboards, A/B tests, you got it, I am one of those data driven individuals that lives though dashboards. I have my running app, my food tracking app, my withings watch (to track my sleep and steps), my smart scale and my polar running watch. Being so connected is somehow really scary, especially thinking of the amount of personal data Withings, Nike and all the apps I use have on me. But this not what this post is about, this post if about the old yet current paradigm: Data versus creativity.
I just confessed being a data junkie but this isn’t to say that I don’t consider myself creative. As a matter of fact I believe that data is a tool that can feed creativity and the other way round.
A lot of media professionals have brought forward the idea that data kills creativity. The New York Time interview of John Hegarty, co-founder of BBH is a perfect example of that. When asked the question: How do you navigate the big data vs creativity question in an organisation Hegarty responded: “Data has never created wealth […], data in itself creates nothing, it’s creativity, all the time”. The author of the article then uses Amazon as the example of a as company which has neglected creativity in favour of data. He says: “At Amazon, the quants rule. Daydreaming, pie-in-the-sky time and giving people room to fail — the vital ingredients of creativity — are costly, the first things to go at a data-driven company. ” Timothy Egan, The New York times, 21/03/2014
Whist I don’t totally disagree with the author I believe that the view that data kills creativity is extremely one sided and false. Yes, if used wrongly data can kill creativity, however, if interpreted and used smartly data can be a powerful tool which can initiate thoughts and creative ideas.
Why data needs creativity
Companies store data on their customers, the idea is that the more data they have, the more they can adapt and personalise their offering to their customers in an aim to increase conversion. In short, data serve as a tool to apply basic marketing principles: “The right message, to the right person, at the right time”.
Now what is interesting is that whist data can be used to personalise the offering (think of Amazon recommendations) it is increasingly used for predictive analysis. So instead of using data to better the user experience and increase sale it is used to figure out what customers will want in the future.
How Netflix used data to decide on its first original programming
It is well known that Netflix tune your homepage based on your viewing habits, what is however less known is that Netflix executives utilised data when buying the two first seasons of House of Cards. As Netflix’s communications director Jonathan Friedland explained in Wired back in 2012: “We know what people watch on Netflix and we’re able with a high degree of confidence to understand how big a likely audience is for a given show based on people’s viewing habits. […] We want to continue to have something for everybody, but at the times goes on, we get better at selecting what that something for everybody is that gets high engagement”. Netflix knew that the British version of House of Cards had done well, that Kevin Spacey was liked and that users had streamed David Fincher’s movie “The Social Network” from beginning to end. In short, Netflix investment in House of Cards wasn’t a creative decision but a data-driven one.
Netflix decision was widely criticised, most famously by Andrew Leonard who accused Netflix of turning viewers into puppets. The main argument is that if overused, data could influence all creative decisions and kill all creativity. But this is not what happened in the case of House of Cards. The data helped determine whether the show would be a hit, the the show itself, the acting, music, script, cinematography and so on isn’t based on data. The brilliance of the series is mainly due to Spacey’s incredible acting and the great job of the writers (yes I am an House of cards fan).
The point I am making here is that in this case, I believe that data actually was informative, serving as a kick-starter to the creative process. Creatives love to solve issues and give people something they will love – and data can help inform on what that could be. As such, data can fuel creativity rather than alienating it.