Escaping the Noose of Big Data

Contagious managing editor Emily Hare explores how Big Data is being used as a creative tool.

Sometimes it feels like we’re on a quest to amass more and more data, filling graphs and spreadsheets like there’s no tomorrow. We know that it’s increasingly possible to track people, and we’re told that arranging and rearranging information might just help in the elusive hunt for killer insights.

But, at Contagious, we’re hearing far more people ask: ‘What if data wasn’t just used as a way to gain understanding of demographics or to more accurately target someone, but as a starting point for creativity?’ Some of the major winners at this year’s Cannes Lions festival, as well as a few other brands, have already put this approach into practice and are developing pieces of work that take data to the next level. We’re seeing tangible projects that use ones and zeros as a creative spark to give people a way of grasping a complex idea in an emotional way, so that they can feel and experience as well as understand.

From graphs to art

One staggering way that data was brought to life recently was on behalf of Australia’s Transport Accident Commission. Graham is an interactive sculpture, showing how a human body would need to be built to withstand a crash. Clemenger BBDO in Melbourne worked with a trauma surgeon, a car crash expert and artist Patricia Piccinini to create the work.

But gathering the information was just a starting point: its power comes in the way it was visually represented through the sculpture, offering people an unusual starting point to discover the information. Matt Pearce, planner at Clemenger BBDO, told Contagious: ‘It was important for us to find a new way to talk about vulnerability and make people notice it again without relying on the old shock tactics and fear.’ The way that the sculpture brings the data to life offers a new take on the hard hitting facts and stats that it’s all too easy to become numb to.

As the field of behavioural economics has made clear, people use heuristics to make quick decisions rather than weighing up all pieces of data and making a rational and informed choice. So a shocking sculpture such as Graham should provide an easy shortcut to decide that your fragile human body is not equipped to survive car accidents, and have an impact on people’s driving, while the data that the project is based on can be explored through the website and unveiled by interacting with the sculpture.

Building with data

Last year, property listings site Hemnet used data from its website impressions to create Sweden’s ideal home, shifting perception of the brand from a property website to a company that genuinely understands house buyers. Prime PR in Stockholm worked with an architecture firm to construct the home, based on 200 million clicks on its website. The House of Clicks brought to life the things that top Swedish property buyers’ wish lists, such as a wooden façade and a private roof terrace, affirming buyers’ dreams and allowing them to explore the house in the real world rather than just through a website.

Marcus Wenner, head of planning at Prime PR said: ‘Sometimes [the industry] tends to be a little restricted in the partners we would use, but here we needed data scientists to crunch the numbers, and we needed the architects to build the actual house and create real blueprints.’ Starting the creative process with data and then inviting in partners to enhance the insights and actually make something ensures the information is clear and allows people to imagine the house of their dreams in a much more hands-on way than by viewing photos and floorplans online.

House of Clicks generated a total reach of over 218 million people, with over 600 actually singing up to buy the house when it hits the market.

Understanding with AI

When the data you’re dealing with gets increasingly complex, it becomes more and more tricky for humans to crunch it for insights and anomalies. But artificial intelligence enables us to overcome this hurdle by helping us learn from the data and then use it in creative ways.

This is exactly the approach that Cannes double Grands Prix winner The Next Rembrandt took to create a ‘new’ masterpiece by famed Dutch artist Rembrandt for ING Bank. The team at J. Walter Thompson Amsterdam and Microsoft used 3D scans of Rembrandt’s existing paintings, machine learning algorithms and a paint-based 3D printer to create the digitally-engineered painting.

Due to the huge amounts of data in play, the project simply wouldn’t have been possible without using artificial intelligence. AI allowed ING to process the 168,263 painting fragments taken from the artist’s body of work and compose a totally new painting based on that.

Chair of Cannes’ Cyber jury, Chloe Gottlieb praised the work, saying, ‘the data is a source for creativity, something that’s coming from the digital world and then creating a physical thing in the real world, so in a sense it’s the opposite trajectory from the work that we were judging in Cyber even a few years ago.’

In this case, machine learning not only makes sense of the information, but enables the creation of a new piece of art, helping to show ING Bank as a company that not only understands vast amounts of information, but one that is creative and involved in culture as well.

When I spoke to Tash Whitmey, head of the Creative Data jury at this year’s Cannes Lions, she spoke about the variety of new data sources available: ‘In the past we had survey data, phone data, digital data, but now we’ve got facial recognition, we’ve got geo-location, we’ve got virtual reality.’ The challenge to creative teams is how to use this information to create pieces of work that can bring the data to life in meaningful, emotional and clear ways with a message, action point or benefit for customers.

As, Saul Berman, VP and global chief strategist at IBM Global Services told us last year: ‘A lot of people see Big Data as a noose as opposed to a success story. Now we are starting to see cognitive computing use that data to take industries to the next level.’ Finally, we’re starting to use Big Data not just as something we need to collect and store in spreadsheets and follow to make enhancements to business processes. It’s also being used as the springboard for some of the most inspiring and forward-thinking pieces of marketing communications. Rather than seeing it as a threatening noose, Big Data can be used as the thread that runs through a piece of work, starting the creative process and binding it together.

Next Practice is Contagious’ home for thinking on the future of creativity in marketing. It features original essays from the advertising industry and beyond, and the editors and strategists of Contagious. Read more about Next Practice and how to submit your own op-ed here.

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