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Marketing Challenge: Analytics Versus Creativity

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Marketing Challenge: Analytics Versus Creativity

Just over a decade ago, Douglas Bowman launched an interactive consultancy called Stopdesign. His work for clients such as Capgemini quickly made him one of the most respected creative directors in web design.

In 2006 Bowman made a big announcement on his Stopdesign blog: he was off to Google to become its head of visual design. Bowman signed off the post: ‘Here’s to hoping and wishing for a successful adventure and many great things to come.’

Three years and several hundred blogs later, Bowman made another announcement. He was leaving Google for a specific reason: his time there had been blighted by a stultifying focus on data. ‘When a company is filled with engineers,’ he concluded in a blog this year, ‘it turns to engineering to solve problems. Reduce each decision to a simple logic problem. Remove all subjectivity and just look at the data. Data in your favor? OK, launch it. Data shows negative effects? Back to the drawing board. And that data becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions.’

Bowman might be working at the new frontier of marketing, but his experiences at Google are just the latest manifestation of an ancient question: is creativity constrained or catalyzed by consumer data? In advertising agencies this debate plays out in the constant power struggle between planners and creatives. In market research, it’s the qualitative- vs quantitative-method tussle. For brand managers, it’s when you either trust your gut or commission another survey. And if you want to go all the way back, it’s Plato’s conviction that creativity is sent down from the heavens versus Descartes’ belief that any challenge can be best answered by breaking it down into its constituent parts. Unfortunately for marketers, we can legitimately find ourselves attracted to both schools of thought.

The prime directive of marketing – to listen to consumers – impels us to agree with Google (and Descartes) and use as much market data as possible to guide our decisions. Websites such as Google rarely make any bold decisions any more; instead they roll out multiple iterations of their site and opt for the one that tests the best. Bowman cites one example where Google tested 41 shades of blue before it decided on the color of its toolbox. It’s a similar story at Wal-Mart and Tesco where analytics, not marketers, drive every decision from stock levels to direct mailshots.

All well and good. But this clinical process seems bereft of the passion and synchronicity that many marketers aspire to. Don’t great products come from accidents, serendipity and flashes of Socratic inspiration?

The biggest brand of them all, Coke, was built not from market analysis but by a potty pharmacist brewing medicinal tonic in his back yard using nothing more than instinct and a three-legged brass kettle. Chanel maestro Karl Lagerfeld, meanwhile, claims he gets most of his ideas in his sleep. For many marketers, then, there is an intrinsic belief that truly great consumer advances can be made only without the direct intervention of the consumer in the process. Data dulls creativity.

Perhaps both perspectives are correct. At some stages of the product life-cycle, you may need disruption and inspiration. At other times, with your brand and consumers well established, a more analytical route might work better. Bowman would disagree. He has had enough of analytics and has taken a job at Twitter, where he says customer data is treated with respect but also with a healthy ‘grain of salt’.

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4 Comments

Eric Tsai on May 20th, 2009 said

As a designer early on in my career, I struggled working with corporate executives because they kill innovation and put pressure on creativity. Marketers have to answer to clients and deliver a measureable outcome. As a result, a marketer collects research data to try to make sense out of them.

As a public company, Google has to answer to shareholders and meet Wall Street expectations with numbers. Turning to engineers for answers seems logical in solving their ‘product’ problem but limits their creativity. I would argue that analyzing data itself is subjective and creativity, like imagination, aren’t limited by knowledge or data.

Creativity does involve a convergence of ideas and iterations which should use analytical data as one of the many considerations. In fact, analytics confirm what we set in place and put them in perspective which says little about creativity. And as a trailing indicator, it always looked behind not forward, creativity is about leaping us forward, to the new new thing.

I love to throw ideas against the wall and see what will happen. Sometimes the most creative ideas comes from those happy accidents; you won’t know unless you try and that’s how creativity is all about. Even , Karl Lagerfeld had some pretty harsh criticism on his designs, that doesn’t stop him from trying.

Brian Creath on May 21st, 2009 said

Is measurement inherently bad for marketing? Of course not. It’s when measurement becomes a replacement for insight and experience that the problem begins. And today, more and more, that’s exactly what’s happening.

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Scott Gerschwer on May 22nd, 2009 said

There is no reason the two are incompatible. Organizations need to find “middle-brained” people who are comfortable with both analytics but who are also crazy-creative. The anecdote about the engineers is spot on, though. Any company run by engineers–and I used to work for one–will be stunted by their over-analysis of every little thing. I was once stuck in a re-org meeting that had to wait 45 minutes to get going because the president and vp (both engineers) couldn’t agree on the visio of the org chart.Those boxes and arrows mean so much to “those people”.

Arthur on May 26th, 2009 said

Creativity sparks from spontaneity, but structure is also needed to establish balance. It is easy to see how leaning towards one side can hinder good creative, so there needs to be a good mix between the two.

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