Marketing’s Uneasy Relationship Between Research and Creativity

Today’s marketers can collect data on almost everything. We know how many people are buying certain products. We know their annual income, how many kids they have, where they live, and what they eat for breakfast. The current state of data and analytics gives advertisers more power than ever.

But do data and insights provide us with enough fuel to reach our consumers?

In a world full of analytics, we have started to rely so heavily on what’s measurable that we may be losing sight of what’s meaningful.

Creative briefs have grown thicker as data tools have gotten more sophisticated. Instead of a simple target demographic or consumer persona, we are now expected to brainstorm ideas that also take into consideration top-ranked keywords, active times of day, images most likely to be tweeted, and specific characteristics of subcultures. While statistical insights can be extremely valuable as a guide, they can also stifle the creative flow.

In 2004, Quiznos was bold enough to launch a campaign about spongmonkeys, inspired by a random video someone from the company’s ad firm received in an email. As Trey Hall, CMO of Quiznos, relayed to Slate, “Quiznos needs to be ‘dramatic’ with the airtime it buys because it’s got a smaller ad budget than its competitors.” With too much data, the sub maker may have been deterred from taking the risk.

The ad is bizarre, catchy, and mildly off-putting—but it works, uniquely highlighting Quiznos products. In today’s data-driven world, I wouldn’t expect something like this to ever get approved.

While it’s understandable to be wary of basing an entire campaign off of a creative whim, letting data control your content also brings up serious concerns. A few years ago, Target thought it hit the jackpot by using its massive data-mining capabilities to predict customer pregnancies. But when a teenage girl received ads for diapers and cribs to the confusion of her father, Target’s research suddenly became a creepy and insensitive PR nightmare.

Research is comforting. It’s a security blanket you can depend on with statistical significance. Its objectivity is easy to defend when mapping out budgets. But we must recognize that numbers can’t tell the whole story. Creativity is needed to make facts and figures human. Just as Apple gave its first operating system a personality, we must dress our information in identity.

But is there a science behind creativity? Can we quantify its success or failure? A few years ago, two researchers from the University of Cologne ran a study to find out, asking consumers to quantify and evaluate creativity based on five factors: fluency, originality, elaboration, abstractness, and a resistance to premature closure. In an article published by the Harvard Business Review, the researchers found that most companies are “underinvesting in creativity” and “the types of creativity that agencies currently emphasize are often not the most effective ones at driving sales.”

It turns out that different products need different creative strategies to be most effective. For example, shampoo or detergent ads fared better with more creative approaches while body lotion and face care categories were actually “harmed by additional creativity.” Though not a perfect science, these results justify a more nuanced relationship between research and creativity, tailored for every brand, service, and product.

To strike this balance, we should take advantage of the tools and analytics to gain a better understanding of each brand’s foundation, and use that as a springboard for creativity and intuition. Since data is only predictive, research should inform creative, not dictate it. We must also empower copywriters and art directors to develop and execute ideas beyond the spreadsheet, even if it means approving a campaign that might not align completely with the research.

A great example of a successful partnership between data and intuition is the “Like a Girl” campaign from Always, which has already received a ton of good press. Procter & Gamble, which owns Always, knew the brand dominated the older demographics, but saw an opportunity to engage with millennial girls on social media.

Research conducted for the campaign revealed that a key phrase captured the lack of confidence girls feel during puberty: Like a girl. The final campaign wraps hard facts in humanity; by marrying insights and emotion, Always created a meaningful conversation with consumers about what the brand stands for.

We’ve reached a point where research and creative can no longer live in silos, working independently and resisting any input from the other side. Instead, they must work together to bring about the best in both disciplines.

When used properly, good research makes the hunt for a creative idea easier because the team knows where to look. And when research is used as a guideline rather than a rule, creatives are given the freedom to turn ideas into meaningful campaigns.

Haley Robinson is a copywriter at MMI Agency.

Image by David Malan
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