Attention Creative People: Your Job Is Safe -- for the Moment

Could Big Data Have Come Up With the 'Ice Bucket Challenge?'

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Imagine you were sitting in a meeting with the nonprofit ALS Association discussing how to increase your fundraising for the year and someone suggested that you ask people to dump buckets of ice water on their heads. There's not a CMO or an agency creative director, or even a focus group in the world, who would have said, "I love it." And yet we all know how the story ends. The "Ice Bucket Challenge" has been a viral hit and has raised more than $100 million.

In an age when marketers turn increasingly to technology to solve the toughest problems, you would expect that analytics and big data would help us find out what ideas will work and which ones will bomb.

Netflix, after all, can predict which movies you like. In his New York Times article, "Why Computers Won't Be Replacing You Just Yet," Sendhil Mullainathan recounts how three computer scientists have created an algorithm that can predict which tweets will get retweeted more often. In both these cases, the edge goes to big data, which can grind through huge amounts of information and find insights in surprising places. This is very seductive. If big data can help us predict what people will like, and what they will retweet, we're one step closer to knowing what kinds of creative and content will penetrate the psyche of our audiences.

There's a catch, and this may be good news for all those people who have the word "creative" in their job title. As Mullainathan points out, "Guessing which tweet gets retweeted is significantly easier than creating one that gets retweeted." Or, "Being good at prediction often does not mean being better at creation."

This distinction seems to be one of the biggest sources of conflict in the advertising world. Look into any agency, and you will see teams of people trying to predict what ideas to put in front of a client. Creative people try to predict the response of the account people. Account people try to predict what the client will like. Clients try to predict what consumers want.

The problem is that when you try to predict what people will like, you tend to give them what they liked before. Instead of powerful new ideas, they get knockoffs of existing campaigns. Which is why the feel and tone of so much advertising blurs together and creates background noise instead of surprise and magic. Trust me, right now someone is working on a knockoff of the ALS "Ice Bucket Challenge."

It's not a matter of data versus intuition -- but rather where each is applied and the relationship between them.

The "Ice Bucket Challenge" circumvented this issue entirely. An ALS patient devised the challenge with no data and no ability to predict the outcome. It was more lucky lottery than marketing strategy. In that regard, it underscores the absolute serendipity behind so many great ideas. Score one for the human team.

Looking back, the "Mad Men" stereotype exemplified a culture of creative tyranny in which only a select few brilliant creative leaders could dictate which ideas to bring into the world. Now, the pendulum has swung the other way, and we have put our faith in data and analytics to predict what people will like.

As much as we crave absolute certainty, a moment always arrives when a living human being has to pass subjective judgment on the creative work. Whoever ends up with that responsibility should remember that there's a difference between knowing a good idea when you see one and predicting whether or not that idea will be successful.

This is tricky territory because we're in a business in which everybody believes they can identify a great idea, or more frequently where everybody knows what they don't like. Usually what they don't like is something they have never seen before. The irony being that the most effective work is both startling and memorable in its originality. That's why we need creative people, regardless of which department they serve. Without them, even the smartest social strategies and content programs will put us all to sleep.

But, lest we do something stupid like ignore the value of data to help sort out this conundrum, here are a couple of guidelines that make sense to me.

Data is a beautiful thing. It generates insights that open up the imagination to new experiences and new ways of seeing. It can also stifle creativity when we use it to tell us what will and won't work. There's no data that could possibly have told us that people will dump ice water on their heads to raise money.

Always err on the side of creative freedom. There's more to be gained from leading with the unknown, the thing you've never seen before. Values, taste and strategy should be your compass, not fear or anticipation of how people will respond.

If we want more ice bucket challenges, we need to let creativity thrive without being run through the predictive filter.

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