I had a thought this morning driving into work, listening to the fascinating Revisionist History podcast by Malcolm Gladwell, author of Tipping Point and Blink. There seems to be this ongoing debate within our industry around creativity being killed by data.

As a planner who champions the use of data, but prizes an engaging creative solution, which side of the fence should I sit on? Am I with luminaries like Dave Trott, or do I believe the numbers I see with data driven client results?

Advertising changed post the early 90’s recession, with the extinction of long lunches and bad behaviour to an industry answerable to procurement, audits, and pressure on fees and costs. Now this is probably a good thing, right? Well yes and no.

The concept of econometrics and measurement became much more important, we all felt we had to become scientists to justify what we were doing. The rise of digital became a nirvana, giving us data beyond our wildest dreams to carry on trying to be scientists rather than Mad Men. However, and I think this is the crux of the debate, economics is not a real science.

Robert Shiller, Professor of Economics at Yale wrote in the Guardian in 2013 (sorry if I’ve taken this out of context), the necessity for approximation in economics is much stronger than in the physical sciences, especially given the models describe people rather than magnetic resonances or fundamental particles.

I don’t believe economics has a theory of relativity, proven beyond doubt, there are no controlled experiments or double-blind tests. Yet we as advertising and marketing search for this Holy Grail, develop formulas, to demonstrate that we have the best approach to delivering ROI.

Data driven advertising, like economics, falls down because as Thaler, another Economic Sciences Nobel winner, espouses humans don’t behave rationally, logically, or consistently. We don’t always make the correct choice or behave how data and theory says we should. This is where creativity works, for behaviour change to happen, we have to defy the laws of logic, and engage with the irrational, leaving us having to try and measure the unmeasurable.

So where’s this going? Data is a fundamental part of our industry and will increasingly continue to grow in importance. It gives you Simon Sinek’s How and What, but not the Why. Data doesn’t give insight, understanding human behaviour does. Data without empathy and insight is hollow and lifeless. As a Planner, with access to powerful systems and billions of lines of data, I encourage my team to meet people, chat to them, finding out about their lives, problems, and desires – generally being nosy. Only this way will we be able to understand what data is telling us, and contribute to great creative thinking that transforms good data driven creativity into great behaviour changing campaigns.