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MBPT Spotlight: Is Big Data the Enemy of Creativity?

As a newbie to the New York advertising scene, this year marked my first dalliance with Advertising Week. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the four-day conference (okay, so they’re using the term ”week” a bit loosely) brings together 90,000 of the industry’s most intriguing minds to share ideas, do a little networking, drink an obscene amount of coffee and use buzzwords with complete abandon.

Of all these buzzwords, “native advertising” seemed to be one of the more popular this year. In fact, one panelist went so far as to refer to his content as “indigenous” which, even now, I struggle to type with a straight face. 

Other road-weary topics on the docket included branded content, mobile and the convergence of disciplines, but the lion’s share of attention went to the two words most prolifically addressed in every session: big data.

A wise person once said that information is power, and it seems that brands, agencies, consultants and, really, anyone with two arms and two legs, has become obsessed with the collection of as much information as possible. But while no one doubts the importance of data collection, it’s how it’s used that really inspired the most interesting conversations.

At the “Wired Innovators” panel, Dave Gwozdz, CEO of mobile advertising network Mojiva, warned of a future in which big data may become the enemy of creativity. As someone who has carefully followed the rise of this trend in recent years, I can’t say I disagree.

As we move towards programmatic buying, a greater focus is being placed on data that can target people more accurately than ever before.  Once we’ve managed to reach that consumer, though, we must not forget the role that creativity and human insight play in making a genuine impact and breaking through with something new, different and delightful.

Adam Pincus, head of content for MediaCom Beyond Advertising, echoed these sentiments during the agency’s panel on storytelling, “Who’s Story Is It Anyway?”

“People like what they’ve seen before, but they love what surprises them,” he said. “Data will never recommend a big surprise.”

Meanwhile, Durk Barnhill, CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi New York, talked about his own company’s mission to “turn big data into small data and then wrap it in big emotion.” It’s an admirable approach in a world where agencies too often go to clients recommending one or the other. Those who can strike the right balance of both will have the most success creating and selling ideas in the future.

So, after almost a whole week of actively listening to people with thick-rimmed glasses, I can heartily confirm that big data is, in fact, big, and something deserving of our respect.  Just remember that—no matter how much information we can collect and how far technology progresses—human interpretation and application of that data will remain the most important factor.

At least until machines can do that, too.