Brands have become risk adverse. Ads are boring. That’s the gospel according to advertising legend Sir John Hegarty in a recent interview with Marketing Week. But before there’s a sea of roll-eyes and tut-tutting from marketing teams (Hegarty’s dinosaur who doesn’t get data, right?), Hegarty actually cuts straight to the heart of a modern creative marketing dilemma.

If we’re not careful, the seductive siren call of data with its predictable comfort of tuneable numbers and conversion pipelines is in danger of becoming the exclusive focus of marketing teams. Data itself isn’t the problem but when marketing meetings descend into updates on optimisation and conversion upticks, I think there’s a sense that the brand is being robbed of its essence and reduced to the ones and zeros of metrics and measures. That yardstick of brand essence – the bold insurgent step forward – gets lost.

Marketing data versus creative marketing

Hegarty goes further. Innovation, creativity and imagination are being sidelined, he says, in favour of research-led marketing executions. Data isn’t “the only thing”.

Hegarty is no stranger to creativity. He co-founded TBWA and started BBH (the H is for Hegarty). His work has resulted in some of the most profound and memorable creative ever made. He has Levi’s and VW and Audi to his name. So, when the creatives’ Creative says our fixation with data is an issue, it’s worth a second look.

So, is Hegarty right about creative marketing?

Like most content marketing agencies – we’re no stranger to data at Submerge. Data is about results. It’s a measure of success. As editors and publishers, we’ve seen data play an increasingly key role in using audience insights to shape editorial choices, and measure success in terms of reader numbers and engagement.

Taking the creative leap

But, there is a danger is that an over-reliance on data will dampen brands’ appetites to take a creative leap. To dream and forge an execution that goes against the grain and that challenges, provokes and thrills audiences and the industry alike.

The challenge with purely focusing on data to drive creative marketing decisions is that data – by its very nature– is in the realm of the past. It’s limited to looking over your shoulder. It can measure what was, and if you’ve good systems, what is happening right now. It’s safe: no-one every got fired for sticking to the metrics.

Creativity on the other hand is about the future. It’s intangible. It can zig when data says you should zag. It’s risk. It’s uncharted waters – and for data-driven marketeers that can be unnerving. Why swim far from the increased certainty of making marginal improvements through optimising pipelines for the feels-like-a-gamble of creativity.

Creative marketing

Creativity for creativity’s sake isn’t without its flaws. Creativity is at its best when it is solving a problem and hunting for a creative execution to a challenge. Creativity within boundaries can be incredible; ‘being creative’ without goals or focus can rapidly become a costly, vainglorious exercise in creative narcissism. For every Levi’s, there are a hundred creative executions that collapsed into ‘good idea, bad results’ bin.

Hegarty leaves the question open in the Marketing Week interview – but squaring the circle of creativity versus data is one all successful agencies and marketing teams will need to grapple with. Here are six quick suggestions for bridging the divide:

1.     Data for foundation, creativity for execution

Data measures and informs. I’ve used data extensively to understand what audiences read and watch, and to test editorial and content concepts. The results have often been surprising – and contrary to what I thought would resonate with them. Data is highly useful for making sure you know your audience. Use data as your foundation, and then creativity to answer the challenge. Data sets the audience boundaries, while creativity reaches out to the audience.

2.     Data first, creativity second, data last

Data should be the starting point. It sounds obvious but knowing your market demographics, needs and behaviours via quant and qual data is invaluable to get your creativity marshalled and over the starting line. Creativity then leads – brainstorming, free-thinking, boundless ideas and imagination, before heading back into data and testing responses. Use data to tweak, not dilute, creative outputs.

3.     Space for the art of looking sideways

If you find marketing meetings overrun with spreadsheets, metrics and analytics cubes, it’s time for a different type of meeting. Carve out time in marketing processes – even in BAU sessions – for creative thinking and discussion. Share great examples and run brainstorming sessions that keep the creativity flowing. Set regular creative challenges as homework between meetings – how can the team creatively address an issue that has previously been expressed as ‘optimising’.

4.     Allow for calculated creative marketing gambles

Not every business has the budget or time to take a punt creatively but it’s worth trying out as few experimental approaches to marketing if you can afford it. Avoid piling on KPIs and targets for any creative experiments – it simply puts a straightjacket on the execution – but encourage teams to express the brand and its activity across different channels in new, adventurous ways. Challenge the status quo. Don’t expect a return – this is more R&D than ROI – but use it to grow creatively and take any lessons back into BAU.

5.     Start-ups should take more risks with creative marketing…

This goes without saying but hampered by tight budgets and limited reach, start-ups need to tap into boundless creativity. Agile thinking and a ‘screw it, let’s do it’ (thanks, Richard Branson) approach can get your brand noticed, make it desirable for agencies to work with, and communicate the unique brand essence that makes your start-up the exciting, defiant newcomer it is.

6.     … while big brands need to become insurgent again.

As brands grow, it’s easy to circle the wagons to protect business gains and market position. The frequent cry of “we’ve always done it this way” should be a warning that creativity is slowly ebbing from the business in favour of refining and polishing existing customer pipelines. Fear of change – especially when your brand is successful – is understandable. It’s also a creeping restraint on keeping your brand from being insurgent and approaching markets as if you were a start-up again. Remember Kodak? Blockbusters? There are countless behemoth brands that fell by the wayside playing it safe. Be insurgent. Be creative. The data will show you have succeeded!