Creativity in Malaysia: Does data have any say in it?

In the advertising and marketing industry, creativity is undeniable the heart of the business. ECDs of the madmen era have in the past heavily banked on moments of inspiration to strike, and hunted talent with a special "spark", today data has carved a position out for itself in that conversation.

While this is not to say that inspiration and spark are no longer important, in a blogpost, Alberto Brea, group planning director of Edelman New York says that at the end of the day "creativity without data is largely ineffective". Vice versa, data without creativity too is irrelevant. "Businesses that can seamlessly integrate data and creative with purpose will edge the ones which only excel at one," he said.

But yet, this is clearly easier said than done. In our many conversations with industry professionals, they highlight to us that while conceptually the two should be married into one, in many markets across Southeast Asia - Malaysia included - this has been a tougher nut to crack.

In a conversation with A+M, Datin Lara Hussein, CEO, M&C Saatchi Malaysia was of the view that the increase in data's importance in the creative process has sparked a cultural shift in the industry. She added that while some might argue that Malaysian agencies are not making data their primary go to when conceptualising new creative work, it largely depends on the aspect of the work.

Nonetheless, she agrees that more can be done to utilise both insight and data to develop the big ideas, the skill lies in combining data on people's actions with methods such as ethnography, behavioural science, or traditional focus groups which help us understand opinions, emotions, motivations and hidden drivers.

She added, the industry is also experiencing growth in contextual, responsive, personal and retargeted digital communications using programmatic media. This hyper-relevant targeting, leads to multiple creative executions and measureable increases in responses, conversions and ROI.

"I do think we can become too obsessed with KPIs. We should be looking beyond views and clicks to always consider memorability and the longer-lasting brand effect. If we just invest in what can be immediately measured we forget the power of a brand in uplifting every metric across the board," she explained.

Nonetheless, Lara said the industry as a whole can get better in sharing data and insights between the client organisation and the different agencies. This is because clients often have first party data, such as customer servicing records, that is underutilised but is very valuable to better understand customers' behaviours, emotions and moments of truth.

On the other hand, some industry folks still believe that data informed creativity remains a buzzword in the industry. Amit Sutha, managing director, Universal McCann & Ensemble Worldwide, told A+M that ad teams are still structured in the same way as they were decades ago. Hence, most do not have the necessary skills to tap into the rich behavioural data that brands can mine from new age media platforms and private data stacks.

According to him, however, the conversation should revolve around data plus creativity rather than data versus creativity. While most industry players think of the future of the industry as being defined by the battle between data and creativity, Sutha said many forget that analysing data can help brands make correlations between two seemingly unrelated behaviours.

"In this case, math can help us uncover interesting emotional triggers, and in the hands of storytellers, instinct and creativity can take over to make magic," he said.

David Mayo, former CEO of Ogilvy Malaysia said that the client-agency relationship in Malaysia is still very much a print and broadcast market - similar to the way things were 10 years ago. While clients do request for digital, social and data-driven solutions, in reality,

It is a very traditional market with a traditional approach to creating work.

"I do not accept that agencies do not or will not use data to inform great work but the clients need to help make it available and accessible and work with the agencies in putting it to work. Agencies are only as good as the clients they serve and - in the words of David Ogilvy - 'Clients get the agencies they deserve'," he said.

Also weighing in on the conversation is FCB's chief creative officer Ong Shi-Ping, who said that on the contrary, some agencies are all about data and "very little of anything else". According to Ong, he has witnessed presentations that comprise "chunks of data that lead to very flat campaigns".

"The data is useless if it’s not broken down to strategic bits to create effective creative work. We still need talented and creative people to do this. Data is but a tool that’s available to everyone who seek it. Hence, not quite as revolutionary in the the wrong hands," he said. Ong added:

Let’s get one thing straight, data doesn’t help a piece of work become creative, we still need creative talent to do that.

Enforcing a data first culture

To enforce a culture of using data in one's creative work,  Lara said the cultural shift needs to happen both quickly and across different disciplines in the working teams. Everyone needs data skills and knowledge, but the "real brilliance", Lara said, comes when everyone is also capable of combining it with human intuition and experience.

"Many competitive brands will have very similar data - data doesn't mean anything if you don't know how to apply it. Creativity will always be the differentiator," she said.

Lara also argued that there will be increased emphasis over time on the need for data as data quality improves. As data increases in quality and usability, identifying people’s preferences will create more relevant ideas and executions. Tracking user experiences and actions will also determine the effectiveness of the work, Lara said. As such, it is important for the industry to adapt to new inputs without losing the raison d’etre of marketing.

She explained that her team use data from a myriad of sources, such as client transactions and bespoke studies, as well as third party data and research, to help uncover the information and insight needed.

"The vast majority of data tells us what has happened, not why. Currently, creativity is still predominantly intuition and gut-feel, but this doesn’t mean it’s wrong," she said. According to her, data should bring insights about people, brands and culture for the strategic direction in order to inspire and fuel creativity. She added:

Creative inspiration and development shouldn’t be hampered; data should serve people, people should never serve data.

Meanwhile, Mayo urged marketers and agencies to "just make a start", adding that most strategic planners will already be using data to inform and speed up the delivery of their strategy. Recounting his experience at Ogilvy Malaysia, Mayo said it partnered with Kantar to gain access to data that clients previously had paid for.

"It worked well, made us more efficient, improved the sell of the work and the work itself. It decreased the number of corrections and injected much needed confidence into the brands and the clients responible for them," he explained.

Mayo added that teams need to understand that both data and creativity need to come together to allow brands to use behavioural patterns and hard decision-driven facts gathered from the data, to inform the persona of the consumer based on habits.

"Currently, the planners laboriously work on the consumer, market and buying process that is then interpreted into a brief. At this stage, we are three weeks down the line and the clock is ticking. The brief is then put into creative and the client either decides the brief is wrong or sit on it for a couple of weeks. By now, time has passed and the original knowledge has been diluted," Mayo explained. By combining creativity and data, the planner or analyst can drill "deeply and confidently" into turning the persona into a real person quickly. Subsequently, the creatives will then have a clearer view of creating better and more effective campaigns.

"Data simply takes a lot of the time wastage off the table and strengthens the overall process, by forcing people to accept who they are talking to and why you are relevant as a brand," Mayo explained. Nonetheless, he noted that it is important to use research as a lantern rather than a crutch.

"Creative leaders need to be practical and have a firm grasp of the role of the communications and then make sure that what they serve up meets and surpasses the expectations of the client," he said.

(Read also: Has the growth in digital stunted creativity in advertising?)

(Photo courtesy: 123RF)