Tham Khai Meng
Oct 8, 2014

When Big Data meets Big Creativity, you get pure sex

Data and creativity are the Montagues and Capulets of advertising, writes Tham Khai Meng, worldwide chief creative officer of Ogilvy & Mather. They are seen as polar opposites, yet when they combine they create something profound, like 'Romeo and Juliet.'

Data and creativity are a lot like Romeo and Juliet — but you knew that already, right?
Data and creativity are a lot like Romeo and Juliet — but you knew that already, right?

I was recently invited to take part in a debate in New York with the grand title "When Big Data meets Big Creativity."

You know when you read a formula like that — when Big This meets Big That — something big and bad is supposed to happen. Like matter meeting anti-matter and making the universe disappear in one huge stellar bang. It implies that data and creativity are polar opposites, enemies forever at war like the Montagues and Capulets. Romeo Montague is data, Juliet Capulet is creativity. And ne’er the twain shall meet. That’s the theory anyway. And obviously, as a creative, I’m expected to sympathize with Juliet. After all, data is cold and clinical and soulless, isn’t it? And modern, too. Whereas creativity is warm, human, timeless and beautiful. Normally, you wouldn’t expect to catch a creative waxing lyrical about data.

Well, the first rule of creativity is to resist the obvious. So I’m going in to bat on behalf of data and information. I love the stuff. Why? Because it’s sexy. At the very core of our being we are all information. Ask yourself, when Romeo stole into Juliet’s room and spent a night of passion with her, what did they do? You probably learned a lot of words for it in the school yard, not all of them printable. Making love, bonking, making the beast with two backs? No, it was none of those. They were information-processing. It’s the world’s most popular recreational activity. After all, what are we but DNA? Information encoded into the famous double helix DNA molecule. At the climax of their love-making, Juliet uttered a sweet moan and Romeo issued her with a set of instructions on how to make some copies of themselves. Written out in full, the human genome would fill 142 telephone books, and Romeo would have struggled to climb onto the balcony with that. Fortunately nature had found a way to miniaturise it.

There is nothing new about data or information processing. The pyramids of Cheops are aligned along a north-south axis to facilitate calculations about the rise and fall of the Nile, and consequently when to plant and sow. Stonehenge is a big stone astronomical calculator that allows those in the know to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. Information processors have always been with us, it’s just that in ancient Egypt they were called priests; now they are called Planners.

The first prophets of the digital revolution emerged hundreds of years ago in the rainforest of the Congo where the African tribes had perfected a method of sending messages by drums. Until the invention of the telegraph it was the fastest technology in the world for transmitting messages over long distances. If Apple had been around then it would have named it the iDrum.

The notion that there is some sort of conflict between information and creativity derives in part from the pop-psychology split of left brain and right brain. Van Gogh is on the right. Mr Spock is on the left. One is cold and passionless. One is wild with hot fiery passion. Often the cold-hearted clinicians of the left brain are perceived as a threat: science fiction cliché tells us the rise of artificial intelligence will lead inevitably to our enslavement. Anyone who saw the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" will remember the moment the onboard computer HAL refused to obey the human command, "I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that."

In advertising, the left brain gets a bad rap in part because it gave us that venerable advertising icon that has now long disappeared, the coupon. In particular, the coupon as championed by Claude C. Hopkins, whose classic book, "Scientific Advertising," was published in the 1920s. For Hopkins, advertising was an exact science with no place for intuition or imagination. He had little time for creatives who thought of themselves as performers and spent their time showboating. The adman in his view should be a sober, serious-minded artisan. His description of the ideal coupon counting department in an ad agency sounds like a scene from Fritz Lang’s "Metropolis": "In a large agency, coupon returns are watched and recorded on hundreds of different lines. In a single line they are sometimes recorded on thousands of separate ads. Thus we test everything pertaining to advertising. We answer nearly every possible question by multitudinous traced returns." This is the sort of advertising Pavlov’s dog would enjoy. Advertising as a form of tinnitus, that annoying noise in your head that you can’t switch off. Forty years later the famous Rosser Reeves, inventor of the USP, played a similar tune. He mocked creatives as necromancers and shamans who "believe in ghosts" and "listen to voodoo drums, whisper magic incantations, and mix in their potions eye of newt and toe of frog."

This was left brain without the right at all, data without any soul. But in advertising, as in just about any other walk of life, there are two sides to the coin. You generally need both, the yin and yang, for a harmonious existence. The "advertising as science" mantra received its first mortal blow in the early 1960s, when the creative revolution began on Madison Avenue. It started with blasphemy. In a land that fetishized the automobile, someone ran an ad for a car with the headline "Lemon." A single word, probably the most incendiary single word in the history of advertising. It detonated a bomb under the belief system of the coupon clippers. It is the purest expression of advertising creativity and yet it is not antagonistic to the world of information.

Curiously, it derives its power from what Danish philosopher Tor Norrestranders calls the cousin of information, exformation. Exformation is the stuff you remove when you craft your message, the stuff you don’t need because it is understood. To explain it, Tor Norrestranders cites the story of what the Guinness Book of Records calls the world’s shortest correspondence. In 1862 author Victor Hugo was on holiday just after the publication of his novel "Les Misérables." Impatient to know how sales were going, he sent his publisher a letter containing the single letter ‘?’ The reply came back ‘!’

It’s like the old story of the elephant carver. When asked how he produced such beautiful elephants, he said, "That’s easy, I just cut away all the bits that don’t look like an elephant." Similarly, with the word lemon, the exformation is the set of cultural assumptions that tell us no automobile manufacturer would run an ad saying his car was a lemon, so it must be ironic, an ad about quality control. To someone from a different culture, one where the word lemon just meant a yellow fruit, the ad would be meaningless.

More recently, the final nail has been driven in the coffin of the coupon clippers by the unstoppable rise of social media. Advertisers ignore the huge connected world of clickers, likers and sharers at their peril. In this brave new world, creativity and data can work together with formidable results. One of the most successful campaigns we have ever run at Ogilvy & Mather was for Unilever Dove. The platform for "Campaign for Real Beauty" was a reaction against the sea of fake images of female beauty that women are bombarded with from the cradle. It touched a nerve and touched the heart, literally moving people to tears in the latest incarnation, Dove Beauty Sketches. But the key insight from which the creativity sprung came from the data gatherers. Unilever researched global attitudes towards beauty, and found that just 4 percent of women considered themselves beautiful.

Another exciting project we are working on at Ogilvy & Mather is the IBM Watson project. A computer that embodies natural language capability, hypothesis generation, and evidence-based learning — an early version of Kubrick’s HAL, but with better manners. Watson started off winning as a contestant on the TV quiz program "Jeopardy!" but has since moved on to other more important pursuits like learning, being taught and helping doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital New York refine clinical recommendations in the treatment of cancer. Far from artificial intelligence being a threat to us, it is our handmaiden. So far, Watson has been very well-behaved, and shown no inclination whatsoever to take over the world. Although, we should keep our finger on the power switch, just in case.

This article originally appeared on Campaign US.


Campaign US

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