Are data nerds the new creatives?

This article originally appeared in The Drum on September 28, 2018

In his book, The Art of Possibility, Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and an enthusiast for applied optimism, tells a story of a US shoe manufacturer in the 1950s who sent two executives to sub-Saharan Africa to assess the prospects for expanding business there.

The first one sends back a gloomy telegram: “Situation hopeless no one wears shoes.” The second wires home triumphantly: “Glorious business opportunity they have no shoes.”

Same data, two interpretations. One of them demonstrating perfectly the transformational potential of creative thinking.

Over the decades creative thinking in marketing has been ghettoed into the creative departments of brand owners and their agencies. Creative investment is largely confined to superficialities – messaging, packaging - rather than solving business fundamentals.

But as the status of the traditional creative has diminished in marketing, a new cohort is beginning to emerge: the data interpreter.

Increasingly data is moving out of the back room into the glaring light of the C Suite. One of the outcomes is that data experts need to learn how to tell a compelling story with a beginning, middle and end, told in understandable language. A story with the power to persuade and inspire.

Just as the giants of old school creativity developed brand stories that captured the imagination of customers and the confidence of shareholders, a new breed of interpreters is needed to apply the power of story-telling - metaphor, analogy, character and vision – to the data they collect and distill.

A while ago, I read an opinion piece that advised chief marketing officers to learn to love data if they wanted to extend and consolidate their influence at board level.

But if data is to be the new source of the CMO’s authority, it doesn’t help if their data experts give them abstraction and ambiguity rather than clarity and direction.

To be leaders in the conversation, data experts need to communicate with the same values that made past creative thinkers so influential in marketing:

  • Empathy: The imagination to understand what it is like to be another person.
  • Courage: The energy to stand up for something, to challenge received wisdom.
  • Disruption: The urge to create a fresh version of reality. The appetite to unsettle the familiar.
  • Optimism: The confidence that things can be better.

Ben Goldacre, research fellow at the University of Oxford and prize-winning author on data futures, says it best: “Amazing things happen when you pull individual pieces of information together into larger datasets. Meaning emerges as you produce facts from figures. If you’ve ever wished you were born in the 19th century when there were so many inventions and ideas to hook for yourself, then I seriously recommend you become a coder of data, because future nerds will look back on this time with the exact same envy we feel for inventors of that century.”