Let your creative people take a bath in data.

Data, and its sister, analytics, are the new sexy in advertising and marketing. Every agency and company now has an in-house data and analytics practice. It is blasphemy even to think of making any business move without the aid of sifting through mounds of data, given its ability to lead to better (more accurate) decision-making.

In today’s technologically-advanced environment, the ability to capture and report data is much more accessible. With increased data-processing capabilities, we can build more complex models that can churn out more complex data. Both descriptive and predictive analytics can now do an exceptional job of uncovering the answers to “who, what, where, when, how and why.”

So, with all of this data at our fingertips, you would also expect that we are becoming smarter, more efficient, and productive marketers. Perhaps in some instances this is true, but in many cases we have yet to optimize a data-driven creative process. We are overflowing with data, but there is a critical missing link.

What’s missing is the optimized ability to identify insights from data. What’s missing even more is the role of “creative” in this process. The very notion of inserting a creative person into the research process probably would send the greatest scientists, strategists, engineers and doctorates running. The commonly held view is: “to ensure the purity of data collection and unbiased analysis, this is where art and science shouldn’t mix.”

In fact, at the data-mining stage in the research process, we are just trying to uncover the facts. However, by introducing a creative into the process earlier, we are more likely to capture data that truly leads to insight. The ability to glean insight from data is where the art must take precedence over the science.

Insight is necessary to make data meaningful and inform/inspire strategy and creative development. In marketing, insight is now king. Insights, with their potential to inspire more conceptual design and creative, are what ultimately motivate consumer behavior. The critical question of how a consumer or shopper will respond or how an event will unfold in the future remains the role of insight. Insights can be used to guide merchandising decisions, drive brand relevance and help a brand differentiate itself within the category.

The creative challenge in shopper marketing is the ability to integrate multiple insights. The ecosystem of shopper marketing requires a blending of consumer, shopper, retailer, and cultural insights to form a differentiated strategic direction that will guide creative development.

As data from multiple sources is synchronized (say from the point-of-sale terminals, credit cards, loyalty cards) — the analysis of integrated data get us closer to a holistic view of the shopper. Who better to own this job than the creative team partnered with the research and strategy team? Today, it is our creatives who most deeply need to understand every aspect of the consumer/shopper at all moments of potential purchase and usage of brands.

When you consider where an insight comes from and what constitutes the best insights, it becomes clear why a creative person is so well positioned. An insight is often based on identifying a deep and unrevealed consumer behavior. It requires judgment, perspective through intuition, and introspection. Insights come from a calculated discovery that establishes a link between the consumer and the brand.

The best insights demonstrate that the brand understands the consumer and is the right choice. It is why we often refer to it as an “aha!” (eureka) moment. When it happens, it almost feels serendipitous. All of this amounts to nearly a 180-degree departure to the applied science of data and analytics. Who is more equipped and practiced with these skills than a creative person?

It is no longer a challenge to build good data models, but it remains a challenge to program and build insight models. Deriving an insight is inductive versus deductive. This requires human intelligence and intuition.

Think of the skills required to develop insights: common sense, immersion and rigorous thinking, a desire for great understanding, empathy, the itch to think differently, the ability to draw things together, seeing the significance or meaning in something, and making new connections. This both describes a creative person and a creative process (a strategic creative process to be accurate). Creatives are maniacally focused on gaining a deep understanding in order to communicate most relevantly. Creatives know that the key to effective insight is in knowing both the heart and mind of the consumer.

In an “always on,” “anytime,” and “anywhere” marketing environment, the moment-in-time creative brief that initiates the creative process must evolve. Good creatives and creative companies are constantly immersed in the data and analytics. It is their mission to develop a deep understanding of consumers’ lives and how they interact with brands. This puts them in the best position to identify true opportunities to address consumer needs, and to be most effective at penetrating the consumer’s emotional beliefs and values that can be addressed by the brand.

When you think about the most successful marketing, large and small, you can see this practice applied. Leader brands such as Starbucks and Procter & Gamble’s Tide consistently lead at delivering creative experiences and expressions that feel relevant and resonate with the consumer/shopper at every touchpoint. The messages and imagery work together to establish deep connections with the consumer and motivate purchase. Both are brands with entrenched creative teams in every aspect of marketing.

Kimberly-Clark’s Kotex U is another spot-on example — especially when you recall where the product came from just a few years ago. A creative team was instrumental throughout the data and development phase to uncover insights that led to critical decisions about the target, the package, the product’s positioning, and brand personality.

The relaunch of JCP (JC Penney) is clearly a creative-led, insights-fueled strategic approach. Everything about if feels fresh and innovative, even if you don’t personally agree with the vision or path taken. It is clear that it will deeply resonate with many consumers and that the experience is creatively designed around an unmet consumer need.

Layer on that the intuitive judgments made from the heaps of business data that must have been compiled and poured through. JCP knows that their creative ultimately needs to form the emotional, magnetic connection they are hoping to achieve. Creative was not relegated to a last phase hand-off; it was deliberately interwoven into every phase of the brand and operational reboot.

When companies stop at data to market, versus going beyond to developing ideas driven by creative insight, it is obvious to the consumer and an opportunity to enhance the experience is lost. Just as profiling feels invasive at airport security, so too does it, and will it, when it shows up in your marketing.

When the Amazon recommendation engine first started recommending other items for purchase there was an initial novelty and excitement. Now it often feels intrusive and, quite honestly, off target because of the numerous purchases we make as gifts. On the other hand, sites that are using Pinterest and other social platforms to inspire and show they are tuned into our interests are more appealing.

The partnership between creative, strategy and research creates a virtuous cycle, where the creative mind feeds inputs back into the data collection process. Because the creative team is already thinking about how the data will be used and what results they need to drive, they are often in the best position to help set clearer objectives for the research and give input into the questions to which they need answers.

If your creative team is not used to thinking this way, they should be. Because they are focused on what is most actionable, this will also inform the data gathering as well as synthesis. Knowing and understanding why someone does something is usually much more important to the creative process than just understanding what someone does.

A true partnership between strategy and creative facilitates the ability to get value out of the data in the form of insights. It is the job of this partnership to inspire each other to find what others haven’t found.

The best insights are specific, timely, relevant, critical and actionable. They have the potential to build brand equity when expressed well through the concept and creative process. Creatives develop inspired insight; insight empowers creative development.

It’s up to the creative to lead the dance between art and science.

The author: BETH ANN KAMINKOW is president and chief executive officer of TracyLocke. A strong advocate of insights-inspired marketing programs, she is a pioneer in strategic-planning research methodologies.