Combating data terrorism

First published in BW Businessworld here

In 1993, two Russian immigrant painters, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid decided to create a painting using data. They hired a market research firm and conducted a poll to determine American’s preferences and tastes in paintings.  All participants were asked what they would like to see a picture of, their preferences for interior or landscape scenes, the kind of animals they liked, favorite colors, what sort of people they enjoyed seeing depicted – famous or ordinary, clothed or nude, young or old, and so forth. This poll resulted in America’s Most Wanted and America’s Least Wanted paintings, that were exhibited in New York. Vitaly and Alex went on to conduct the same poll in a dozen countries. In the end, in about every country – from America to Iceland to Kenya – the “most wanted”, was a painting of some kind of a landscape featuring human figures going about their business, some animals in the foreground, a big blue sky, some coastline or a path extending into the distance and some water – a river, sea or lake. And the ‘least wanted’ were abstract compositions with geometric or angular shapes. Dependence on data revealed a certain sameness, a bias towards the safe average.

Our faith in numbers and data is ancient, we believe numbers don’t lie and that truth is a number. More so today, when ‘data is the new oil’ is a much-abused cliche. Today we analyze “big data”, deploy a wide variety of tools from the analytics alphabet soup in our quest for insights and to make decisions.

But there are many who believe that creativity and intuition are now held hostage by, what they call, data terrorism. To them, the need for data to support bold creative ideas is exactly what’s wrong with the world today. Depending on your point-of-view, your organization may be at differing points on the ‘data terrorism’ continuum; from being guided by data to being a data-junkie – completely dependent.

Image from Marketoonist

To them, reliance on multiple research studies to make decisions is ‘hiding behind data’, exposing the organization’s inability to make bold decisions. They quote Steve Jobs, who said that people don’t know what they want until you show it to them. Or they repeat what Henry Ford said, if I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would have said a ‘faster horse’.

However, both Henry Ford and Steve Jobs were entrepreneurs, they founded their own companies and could pretty much do what they pleased – market research or data be damned. But you are employed with a large corporation where proposals and ideas need to be backed with data. So, is there anything you can do beyond quoting Steve Jobs or wringing your hands in frustration or cribbing about the invertebrates in your organization?

One solution may lie in going upstream. For instance, if your organization takes decisions on advertising creatives based on research alone, go upstream to your advertising agency.  Work with the Creative team as they hash out ideas, help them ‘sell’ ideas that excite them the most and be their trusted client partner. By moving upstream, you would have given vent to your creative energies and any of the winning options from research would be one of the “co-created” concepts.

Or for example, if your organization’s data dashboard seems to hold you hostage, go upstream to the raw data, work on redesigning the dashboard to offer insights and nuanced interpretation.

Every aspect of business has steps where stuff actually gets created, where multiple solutions are explored and where creativity and ingenuity is called for.

So, if you find yourself hostage to data terrorism, keep going upstream, in doing so you may find your freedom.



Categories: Of Marketing, brands etc.

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