Creativity and Data: Can’t We Just Be Friends?

Creativity used to be the secret sauce of business success. Just several years ago (2010), an IBM global survey of 1,500 chief executives (CEOs) identified creativity as the number one “‘leadership competency” of the future.” In response to new links between creativity and economic success, starting with the famous “Marshmallow Test,” nations around the world increased efforts to integrate creative thinking at the earliest stages of childhood development. “Ideation” became an important marketing buzzword.

And then came the data. The social Internet generated huge amounts of new consumer preference and interest data and marketers shifted attention to mastering the data-driven insights that could connect us with our very active and vocal customers. The Harvard Business Review even declared “data scientist” as the sexist job of the 21st century. Creativity was no longer driving the messaging – since the data told us what worked, we stopped worrying about why.

I’m a data-driven marketer and proud of our dependence and utilization of the data. Guessing or hoping is never a good business strategy. But the only problem with leaning too far on the data side is that humans just don’t think or operate that way, and our work will never be optimized unless we utilize both our analytical and creative sides. No longer is business done with just right brain/left brain – we need both sides, for everything. If you “tried to be creative using only the right side of your brain, it’d be like living with ideas perpetually at the tip of your tongue, just beyond reach,” states this Newsweek article, “The Creativity Crisis.”

I propose that marketing automation is the missing link between our left and right brain operations. Automation is now personalized, and so the creative team doesn’t have to make a guess as to when a certain message will resonate; it leaves that detail to the technology and the scientists. What the creative must do, however, is understand the customer journey and map messaging to each phase. The work of matching creative assets to the right channel, right time, right cadence is easily done by the automation tools.

Anyone who has ever turned to the data for inspiration when out of ideas or who has had to rely on native ingenuity to bridge the gap between data sets will recognize how frequently we apply this continual left-right brain switching in marketing. Recognition is key, but it is it not enough. Once we acknowledge the need for both sides of our brain – and the need for types of expertise to be applied – we need to set ourselves and our teams up for success. Thus, technology does not operate in a vacuum, no more than the creative team or analytics team can operate without each other. It’s the role of the automation technology to implement well-designed tests, provide actionable data, and be responsive to audience feedback.

There are two places that this combination of operations-technology-strategy comes into play, and I would posit that nearly every marketing situation falls into one of these camps:

  1. Getting started. All this sounds good, but where do you start? Frankly, it’s first in recognizing our dependency on each other. Next, we must have good leadership to empower the teams to work together. Small projects to test out new ideas and get people familiar with working together usually break the ice.
  2. Optimizing existing programs. How many times do we lament, “If I only had time to stop and figure out what is broken, we could be much more productive.” It’s hard to get things done in any organization, and making space for optimization is challenge. Still, it’s like exercise – you sometimes have a hard time getting going, but you feel great and see results after it’s over. An understanding of the importance of both creative and data-driven thinking will help you identify the right areas of vulnerability and focus on opportunity.

How are you solving for the creativity gap in data-driven marketing? Please comment below or suggest ideas for future columns.

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