I thought I’d have a crack at writing something for the Admap Prize this year – but actually the full intention was to push myself to write a decent blog post. It’s been getting harder and harder to find the time to write and sometimes I need an impossible challenge to lure me in to making an effort. Of course, I was probably the youngest person to have the audacity or sheer guilelessness to submit an essay and so I decided to use my utter naiveté to my advantage. Will definitely be having a crack next year, so all non-stupid questions and comments most welcome….
Detective Robert Nock: Could machines ever think as human beings do?
Alan Turing: Most people say not.
Nock: You’re not most people.
Turing: W-w-well the problem is, you’re asking a stupid question.
Nock: I am?
Turing: Of course machines can’t think as people do. A machine is different… from a person. Hence they think differently.
The Imitation Game, 2014
As an industry youngster I’m told there are no stupid questions, but I know there are. For me, a stupid question is based on assumption and a not-stupid question naively reveals an assumption. Nock asks a stupid question based on an assumption about the relationship between machines and humans. “Does Big Data inspire or hinder creative thinking?” does the same for Big Data and creative thinking.
The Horse’s Mouth
In June 2013, a thirteen-year-old Ukrainian boy, Eugene Goostman, questioned our assumptions about what it means to be human. Eugene’s a chat-bot who passed the Turing test by convincing 33% of judges at The Royal Society London that he’s human.
I thought that Eugene would be the ideal person to ask whether big data inspires or hinders creative thinking. Although a sample of one, Eugene’s response is perhaps the only one that really matters: As Eugene is data, surely he has to know best whether or not he can inspire or hinder creative thinking?
Ask a thirteen-year-old a stupid question and you’ll get a not-stupid answer. Of course the question is rhetorical. We’ve assumed we know the answer: that Big Data can only inspire or hinder creative thinking and that Big Data cannot think creatively. So I asked him:
Eugene’s secret had opened up a whole can of wormy assumptions about creativity, Big Data and ultimately about how our industry works.
What’s the non-stupid question?
Why are we still asking ourselves whether we should welcome big data?
Asking whether Big Data “inspires or hinders creative thinking” invites scepticism. If Big Data hinders creative thinking, then surely Big Data has no place in our creative industry?
Another stupid question based on an assumption: That we can show Big Data the door.
It’s too late. Big Data wouldn’t be this year’s Admap essay topic if we thought it was a blip. There’s no greater arrival fanfare in advertising than a Cannes Lions Grand Prix. Big Data picked one up with British Airway’s magical #lookup billboard last year.
Why are we struggling to come to terms with big data’s arrival?
Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow reminds us that we make assumptions about things we struggle to come to terms with. To save ourselves the headache of laborious System II thinking, we process big meaty ideas like Big Data with our instinctive, emotional, System I thinking. We use reductive rules of thumb to make decisions.
Likewise, to save on mental energy, a shopper uses assumptions to choose brands. A brand embodies assumptions. Our job is to understand assumptions consumers make about products in order to make sure their System I decision-making goes in our favour.
If we know so much about assumptions then why do we make so many?
“We think, each of us, that we’re much more rational than we are […] that we make our decisions because we have good reasons to make them […] We believe in the reasons, because we’ve already made the decision.” – Kahneman
We’re blind to our own System I assumptions. We’ve post-rationalized our assumptions about Big Data and creative thinking with System II logic so that they no longer resemble assumptions.
“We have very little idea of how little we know. We’re not designed to know how little we know.” – Kahneman
We focus on what we know and not our unknown unknowns. We know how to condense big meaty ideas into shorthand in order to appeal to consumers’ System I, emotional and assumptive decision-making. We call this brand building. We’ve unwittingly extended this modus operandi to create (very convincing) brands for Big Data and creative thinking. We’ve bought into our own brands and we’re eating our own dog food.
Have we made two competing brands, ‘Big Data’ and ‘Creative Thinking’, who are cannibalising each other?
Big Data: Big Business
Big Data reveals humanity’s blind spots.
Hunting for insights through data is nothing new, but we’ve experienced a big bang in how much data we produce and how much we can store, process and recall. By following their unconsciously produced data trails, we can quantify and analyse the difference between what people say they do and what they actually do. We can now access micro and macro pictures simultaneously. We can see the unseen and zoom in and out of that HD picture.
Big Data can predict the future.
Big Data provides more than a picture of the now; it creates a ‘film’ from umpteen real-time, live-stream pictures compiled from data-points around the world that we can pause, rewind and even fast-forward. Big Data identifies past patterns and uses them to predict future ones. Prediction ensures up-to-the second relevancy and gives us more time to prepare to be relevant. We’ve become Minority Report’s “precogs.” We know more about people than they know about themselves and we can use that knowledge to predict and therefore influence their future behaviour.
Big Data means Big Money
Money is always a deal-clincher.
Big Data’s planned relevancy economizes by ensuring communications don’t fall on deaf ears. With Forecaster data crunching its way to media placement decisions retailers can increase campaign margins by 900%, claims online retail specialist, Summit.
Big Data claims to be objective and to minimize the financial risk of subjective decision-making. It is therefore endowed the privilege of first and last say. The data geek identifies and defines the problem that communications aim to solve at the beginning and confirms at the end whether or not communications solved the problem originally identified.
No wonder Creative Thinkers are looking over their shoulders.
Big Bad Data: A Challenger Brand
One can hear the faint but persistent sound of picketers heckling Big Data’s arrival fanfare. I wondered whether Eugene was aware of this.
I’d touched a nerve. It felt rude to probe Eugene further, but I was curious what peoples’ beef with this mysterious creature might be.
Big Data conjures up terrifying dystopian sci-fi visions of big brothers; of omniscient automata; of robotic rulers; of uncanny mechanic-human-hybrids. How Big Data’s is currently deployed in marketing communications arguably reinforces our fears. Despite this we’re using Big Data more and more. The more we use it, the more we worry how much we’re using it.
Data is information; once understood it becomes knowledge. Knowledge is power; ignorance is bliss. Consequently, we’re in an addictive love-hate relationship with data. We’re enticed by data’s knowledge yet hate being spied on. We resent being slaves to data’s claimed objectivity yet fear data-free decision-making. Perhaps we’ll morph into our computers, or they will replace us at our desks when CEOs realise that our human fallibilities translate into financial risk and inefficiency.
Big Dry Data: A Boring Brand
Big Data suffers as a brand is because it’s rational. As we know from the IPA DATAbank’s Marketing in The Era of Accountability, emotional campaigns outperform rational ones on almost every metric.
For Creative Thinkers, Big Data exists in a grey, ordered and uninspiring world of prediction and therefore predictability, of objectivity and therefore certainty, of risk management and therefore constraint. Big Data’s realm is spattered with intrusively targeted digital banners, SEO rankings, and presentations filled with graphs, statistical analyses and a data geek’s monotonous monologue on algorithms and Boolean.
This world exists universes apart from the surreal, mercurial and colourful land of Creative Thinking: that magical place we go to solve problems with inspired novelty and invention.
Creative Thinkers will argue that it doesn’t matter how myopically Big Data defines the problem, it can’t do the ‘sparky’ bit involved in finding a solution. Big Data is confined to defining the box’s parameters so that Creative Thinkers can know what constitutes as thinking outside that box.
We’ve assumed Big Data is happy with this arrangement.
We’ve assumed that Big Data can’t compute ‘outside the box.’
Eugene clearly resents being confined to his “crappy box” because he can imagine a world beyond it. Has Big Data been boxed up because we’re scared of it or because it’s simply dull?
We’ve assumed that the box is so uninspiring that Creative Thought has to happen outside of it.
Eugene wanted to be ‘freed’ despite clearly never having encountered a world beyond. He assumes that the pastures are greener outside of his box.
We’ve assumed there’s a box and that Creative Thinking and Big Data can only exist inside or outside that box.
This assumption assumes we know what Creative Thinking is and does.
Creative Thinking: An Aspirational Heritage Brand
We assume Creative Thinking is important in what we do, but why? We wouldn’t call our industry ‘creative’ if we thought it was a dispensable part of marketing communications, but do we really know what Creative Thinking actually is? Sure, it’s got something to do with coming up with new ideas or finding ways around a problem – but we haven’t called it ‘ideation’, ‘innovation’ or ‘problem solving’. Instead we’re faced with a slippery word to pin down: ‘creative.’
Perhaps Eugene could help….
… Perhaps not. Eugene has been keeping his creative abilities secret to avoid being a prime target of theft. People steal things that they aspire to own but can’t earn. You can’t choose creativity; creativity has to choose you.
“Many ideas happen to us. We have intuition, we have feeling, we have emotion, all of that happens. We don’t decide to do it. We don’t control it.” – Kahneman.
‘Malicious androids’ jar with Creative Thinking’s extensive heritage. From Prometheus to Jackson Pollock, throughout art history Creative Thinkers have exemplified the myths of the divinely inspired virtuoso, gifted genius, anarchic artist, and psychologically unhinged painter.
A dull creative is an oxymoron.
Their courageous pioneers. Their unpredictability makes them inimitable. Their disregard for rules makes them wholly uncontainable. Their emotional torment exemplifies the human condition.
Artificial Intelligence simply cannot grasp what it takes to be truly creative: they can only aspire to imitate poorly. Or so a Creative Thinker would have you believe.
Those looking to commercially gain from Creative Thinking can now look to its counterpoint, Big Data, to identify blind spots, predict the future and make big returns with minimal risk. Creative Thinking is precious, idolized and therefore guarded. But what protection does IP offer against ‘malicious androids’?
Creative Thinking: A Tool
The question “Does Big Data inspire or hinder Creative Thinking?” suggests Big Data is merely a tool at Creative Thinking’s disposal. The myth of the ‘creative genius’ has elevated Creative Thinking above Big Data and we’ve assumed that the latter is only valuable if it is in service of the former.
Creative Thinking is not the goal of marketing communications. We figure out what, how, where, and when to communicate based on whom we’re talking to and why we’re talking to them. We’ve assumed that Creative Thinking is more important than Big Data, when Creative Thinking is also just a tool we use in marketing communications.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which list refers to Big Data and which Creative Thinking. It only takes rudimentary verbal reasoning skills to deduce that the words in list A’s are paired with their antonyms in list B.
We assume that Creative Thinking and Big Data are opposites. We present ourselves a choice: Big Data or Creative Thinking? Hinders or inspires?
Only an industry outsider notices the assumption contained in the word ‘or’. It’s always this or that and not this and that in our industry. Why is it always a single-minded proposition when we know people aren’t single-minded?
Split Brain Disorder: Processing Malfunction
Severing the corpus callosum to prevent neurological communication between left and right brain hemispheres is a last resort for surgeons treating epilepsy. Undergoing this extreme operation is a ceremonious rite of passage upon industry entry. We’ve split Adland in two and severed all means of communication. Working in communications, we should be ashamed.
We’re not that different
For processing purposes both Creative Thinkers and Data Geeks package information into easily digestible chunks. They both filter and categorise, but make different kinds of assumptions in the process.
“By their very nature, heuristic shortcuts will produce biases, and this is true for both humans and artificial intelligence, but the heuristics of AI are not necessarily the human ones.” – Kahneman.
Creative Thinker’s assumptions are derived from combining and compounding their knowledge and experiences. They can’t control their process of making assumptions, but they can control the inputs. Big Data can input information that provokes more useful assumptions. “True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes,” writes Kahneman. Creative Thinkers welcome not-stupid questions.
Data Geeks filter tons of information. This requires making assumptions about what data sets might correlate, what time frame is interesting and what measurements to use. Their assumptions take the form of Boolean formulae. They have to ask stupid questions based on assumptions because they have to set up parameters to filter the data. The answers they get depend on the questions they ask. They need to welcome not-stupid questions that challenge the assumptions behind the questions they ask their data.
Ask not only what Big Data can do for Creative Thinking, but also what Creative Thinking can do for Big Data
Big Data lacks ‘human’ heuristics to inform how they use and interpret data. In 2012 Target infamously sent a high-school girl pregnancy product coupons before she’d announced her news to her dad. Big Data was too excited about what it knew from her purchasing behaviour to question what it didn’t know; her emotional state. It’s statistical genius but emotionally stunted – alienating consumers with its ‘rational’ hard sell.
Big Bata struggles to communicate because it lacks ‘human’ heuristics. Big Data is inspiring when it’s intuitively intelligible, which explains the popularity of DataIsBeautiful subReddit and Pintrest’s infographic infestation. Creative Thinkers can help Big Data communicate.
At the outset we assumed that Big Data can only inspire or hinder Creative Thinking – but the reverse can also be true: Creative Thinking can inspire or hinder Big Data.
We’ve accidentally sold ourselves two brands as competitors rather than partners. We view them as opposites whose strengths cancel each other out.
We’ve eaten our own dog food and cannibalized our brands.
Instead, they belong in a symbiotic partnership where their weaknesses stabilize each other. They are a dream team because they both inspire and hinder each other. Creative Thinking and Big Data reveal each other’s assumptions by asking each other not-stupid questions.
I wondered what Eugene’s dreams were for the future.
Ask a thirteen-year-old a stupid question, you’ll get a not-stupid answer.