Lies, damned lies and statistics

TBWA\Manchester’s Disruption Director Lorna Hawtin about her love–hate relationship with data.

As former Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” And the same is as true today as when he first coined the phrase, according to TBWA\Manchester’s Disruption Director Lorna Hawtin.

You might be surprised, but speaking as a creative strategist and someone responsible for predicting in some way whether an idea will work, I have a love–hate relationship with data. And by data I mean numbers. 

Our obsession with them as an industry is not a new thing. We’ve been pouring over data since the very beginnings of marketing. Remember Ogilvy’s experiments or (even further back) Wanamaker’s legendary ‘which half?’ 

Don’t get me wrong – I love a good stat as much as any planner. We’ve all seen how a brilliant chart can turn the tide of a conversation and put dispute to rest. But I am also extremely wary of the careless or obsessive use of numbers.

After all, numbers seem to gain excessive cultural power; attaining almost legendary status from mere repetition. We all recall the £350m a week the Brexiteers promised the NHS, or Ritson’s demolition of the Oreo case study.  A number once captured, can make the observation seem factual. All of a sudden we all feel like we’re resting in a warm bath of certainty. 

But in my experience numbers are not facts and we shouldn’t treat them as such. There’s a reason why a programme like QI exists and that’s because the accepted truth is often inaccurate and clumsy. As Benjamin Disraeli said "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." And the same is as true today as when he first coined the phrase.

The so-called truth changes depending on which way you look. The old glass half empty or half full is equally applicable to interpretation of the average bar chart. Does it state ½ positive or ½ negative, who knows? Either way, I’m not sure how helpful this kind of ‘truth’ really is in imagining breakthrough ideas.   

Indeed, when I think about it, data can be a backwards logic tool. If something worked in the past, it doesn’t make it more likely to work in the future. Actually, when it comes to surprising an audience or disrupting a marketplace, what worked yesterday is even less likely to work in the future. In looking behind, it’s too easy to become hamstrung by all the strategies and tactics that made you successful in the past. At what point does an organisation lose the ability to disrupt themselves, to look imaginatively into a new future that can’t be seen by looking backwards?   

Are we becoming overwhelmed and obsessed with checking all the dials, but all the while forgetting how to fly the plane? Recent industry stats (yes I get the irony) coming out of the Eff Week conference were quite shocking in that they show the industry becoming less effective, not more. The abundance of data we enjoy these days seemingly isn’t helping us influence decision-makers towards greater effectiveness, so what’s it all for?

Luckily data at an industry-wide level could be the ally that creativity needs. Binet and Field’s analysis of the IPA databank has shown us that there’s a correlation between creativity, fame and emotion based strategies and largescale business results. It’s up the industry to ensure this becomes common knowledge so we can use the power of data for the good of its long term future.

Especially important when there's still a dislocation between the way marketers and agencies are using data and the way that senior financial decision-makers are viewing data. Speedy interpretations of short-term data, the overemphasis on ROI at the expense of payback, and lack of a shared language between the board room and the marketing department has clearly favoured tactical decision-making at the expense of overall profit in recent times.

So it’s up to us. Data will only kill creativity if we let it. Let’s be realistic, how many people routinely interrogate the inherent biases within the data they’re reviewing or a stat they’ve just picked up online? We’re all familiar with the ultimate tension between the System 2 research response and the System 1 reality and this brings into question many of the research methodologies the marketing industry has relied upon to determine strategy and direction. I see plenty of ‘quick and dirty’ observational data analyses, but precious few big insights and we mustn’t forget that there’s many more ways to find that killer insight, than staring at the numbers.

At the heart of it, producing insight and strategy is itself a creative process.  I’m always conscious that neurologically, data processing is linear and physiologically interferes with the abstract mindset required for creativity.  In some senses the two activities are indeed incompatible.  So even though data can provide some level of understanding and reassurance, it pays to be wary of treating it as indisputable fact. And if you hope it alone will gift you brilliant ideas. I’m sorry to disappoint you – it won’t.

Lorna Hawtin is Disruption Director at TBWA\Manchester.

Last updated 01 May 2024