Data with soul: Have we forgotten about the humans behind the data?

There are more data points than ever before - but is data in advertising a zero sum game now? Is it time to put the focus back on humans and creativity as the differentiators?


Data has been the story in our industry for years now, commanding the biggest investments, driving share price, and - sometimes - improving effectiveness. Marketers and their agencies use the vast amount of data points available to conceive insights and try to create unique campaigns that not only stand out but truly grip the public.

But data is now so ingrained into commercial creativity, with many brands accessing similar banks of data, that in some cases it's becoming a zero sum game. And as the rational, proven and statistical has become the norm , are we using data effectively enough to identify the anomalies and provide the insights that lead to distinctiveness? Has the rise of data come at a cost - impacting creativity and propelling uniformity and mediocrity?

Has the industry forgotten about the truly human insights that lie behind data? How do we reframe data to get back to the human? And is it time to put the focus back on creativity as the differentiator? Is it time for more 'data with soul'?

Robyn D’Arcy, head of data, AMV BBDO

Data is often considered reductively, as if it’s estranged from creativity. There’s a perception that data is simply code, conversions, or numbers in an excel, when really, data quantifies and adds texture to words, colours, cultures and themes, real people’s feelings, perceptions, and actions around literally anything: any brand, topic, or trend.

Data works best when it’s incorporated from the beginning, uncovering insights we may not otherwise have considered: most importantly, how, when, where, and why audiences think about a brand, a need it delivers, or an association they have with it. Most award-winning campaigns centre around a human truth, and the best ideas come from the best insight.

One of my favourite examples is our ongoing work for Sheba, analysing social conversations from cat parents. We track the top emotions they perceive their cat to be feeling across hours of the day and months of the year, understanding their dynamics, when they feel closest, and when they find them utterly bewildering; 4AM Stories was based on the finding that cats are most restless at this time.

One reason I wanted to work at AMV was its open API approach, plus its ethos of radical empathy and data with soul; we merge sources ranging from lyrics and podcasts to Amazon searches, TikTok challenges to YouTube comments, website visits to surveys, Pinterest boards to Twitter rages. If you pull data creatively, you’ll get creative outcomes.

I would argue that even if multiple analysts were looking at an identical data-set, we’d all have different interpretations. We have our own brand knowledge, experiences, and gut feelings. Everything we learn in advertising is essentially data acquisition.

This is why I lean into AI advancements, and why I don’t worry about it negatively impacting our industry- from input to output, data is essentially human.

Ben Silcox, chief product officer, Publicis Groupe

Our experiences with data reflect the same unintended consequences, myths, risk-aversion and technology obsessions that have long defined the interactions between corporates, media owners and advertising.

As a wise TV detective once said, “follow the money”.

A net flow of spend towards digital channels, from ‘traditional’ advertisers to tech and high growth brands, from brand building to sales driving – these shifts define our use of and relationship with data.

There are no meta physical attributes to data. There is no inherent humanity in a set of ones and zeros, there are only the questions we ask, the data sets we gather, the analytical models we use, and the interpretations and stories we tell.

The signs of cause and effect are clear. Using data to find more opportunities to sell products, measured and shared comfortably on powerpoint vs the bravery, experimentation and boldness decline mirrored in creative effectiveness and brand building spend.

The focus should always have been – and now more than ever needs to be on humans. Real people that we pursue the deepest possible understanding of, and the most relevant and creative ways of effecting the real drivers of their behaviour.

We find in data the mirror image of how we look into it. Look at transactional data – and see people as buyers. Look at social media data – and see people as loud-mouthed, opinionated gossips in the town square. Look at demographic data and see a meaningless tapestry of age and income. Look at survey driven data and see the inaccurate biases of how we want to perceive ourselves.

If we are prepared to create data sets that reflect the real diversity of human behaviour and to invest in the people, knowledge, time and skills to ask good questions – we might find something akin to soul.

Will Hodge, co-chief, Accenture Song

We have more ways of understanding people and culture than ever before – more data points – yet at times, our industry seems to lack fresh insight, new ideas, new approaches.

Perhaps it’s because we forget that data-fuelled models are representations of the real world, not the truth itself. That data used to describe people is largely aggregated, rounding off the edges of what makes people different. Sharing similar data can be a problem for targeting, and as the basis of understanding people and customers - but there are also bigger issues.  

Human life is not linear – less so now than ever before, given the big shifts in generational wealth, health, and happiness.

If creativity is the capacity to imagine the unknown, it means putting curiosity and imagination into the data – being of the mind that some of the most interesting aspects of life live on the edges, not in the middle. We should be using data to prove and enable our new ways of being creative, making brands distinctive and memorable and to reflect back to the world that we understand what life is really like, not just what some blunt data has told us it’s like.

Rob Goodwin, global chief data officer, MSQ

We talk about creativity at MSQ as being one of the last true sources of competitive differentiation and advantage for brands. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of our data and insight teams – indeed it means they need to be even more switched on to be able to support brilliant ideas with strong data storytelling, audience understanding and data-driven creative flair.

That’s why I love working in this industry – I love the balance you have to strike by telling great stories through smart data enablement, unlocking insight and working alongside creative, brand, strategist and business leaders to fuel pragmatic hypothesis led ideation.

I can see why there’s an accusation that data is harming the soul of the industry. A lot of it is down to creative testing and performance measurement – creative testing has traditionally focused on historic data, meaning you’re less likely to test well to originality and differentiation. You’re going to end up being pushed down similar creative routes with the safety of the scoring, and the soul of an idea gets lost in the optimisation process.

There are definitely solutions to this problem:

  • Test in-market, with live small budget media activations, to identify initial scale impact of creative alongside your pre-testing solutions. This helps substantiate hypothesis and quickly contradict smaller scale creative survey testing results.

  • Enable your business process to fuel your data, creative and strategic teams from the start, with clear measurement objectives across the full brand to impact funnel, so that data is used in the most efficient, insightful, engaging and non-biased ways.

  • But most importantly, the best data teams help tell great insight stories – it’s why I went to Cannes Lions this year, because we believe in and need to feed off big ideas. We need to be able to use data and technology to support and fuel the bigger picture, because striking the balance of data and creativity is a must for the industry to drive effective cut-through and impact.

Steve Richards, head of data strategy and consulting, Wunderman Thompson

I fundamentally disagree that every brand now has access to the same data and that data driven marketing has become a zero-sum game.

In fact, rather than converging we are diverging in how brands use data, for three clear reasons:

  • Data is in the eye of the beholder

    Modern data audience platforms and programmatic buying clearly shows we value the same data differently. An impression on a travel website is one brand's valuable customer worth £20 CPM and another brand's remnant inventory worth 20p.

  • Brands know they haven’t exploited what they can from their own first party data

    Every client is still struggling to maximise the data they have. Whether we see this in the rise of conversations around procuring CDPs or clamour to add AI to as much of the advertising process as possible. Brands know they haven’t exploited what they can from their own 1st party data.

  • There is no universal data set for all

    Business models drive the data of value. An airline with a loyal customer base of business class flyers needs very different data to an up-and-coming street wear brand, and vice versa. The drivers of your business drive your data needs.


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