a creative agency that takes care of healthcare brands
Dr Ryan Wallman
05 Mar, 2013

I have a problem with big data.

To be more specific, I have a problem with the apparently ubiquitous acceptance of big data as the Next Big Thing to Change Everything.

My first objection is to the terminology. It’s pretty awful, frankly. The term ‘big data’ actually refers to big sets of data, rather than the bigness or otherwise of the data themselves, so technically it’s something of a misnomer. Yes, sure, it’s an abbreviation and is kind of trendy-sounding, but would it be that much of a stretch to say ‘big data sets’? And don’t even get me started on the use of data as a singular noun.

But these semantics are trifling matters, in the scheme of things.

My principal objection to the discussion about big data is the purported extent of their utility to marketing (and marketing communications in particular).

There’s no question that the unprecedented quantities of data now becoming available represent an enormous opportunity in science and research – and, indeed, in business. But marketers should be very wary of hitching their wagons to the increasingly popular notion that data hold all of the answers.

To be clear, this is not to say that you should ignore data if you’re in marketing.

Far from it, in fact. As one of the professors from my time at business school used to put it: ‘if you’re a marketer and you don’t have a number, you don’t deserve to speak’. Decent marketers understand that they are accountable to their broader businesses and must be able to justify their decisions with metrics.

So, yes, data are important.


Data can also be seductive. The more we measure, the more tempting it is to think that everything is measurable. I’ve seen the insidious effects of this temptation in medicine, and now I’m seeing it in marketing.

The point is that there are limits to the use of data. To paraphrase another of my business school professors: collect the data first, decide on your positioning, and then ‘let the creatives go’.

In other words, the creative process can’t be reduced to a matter of numbers. By all means ensure that your creative output exactly fits your strategy, but don’t analyse it to death. A great creative idea is rarely the product of a committee looking at a spreadsheet.

I’ll finish with an example from Apple (yes, I know, hardly creative, so please excuse the irony): the famous ‘1984’ TV ad.

The story goes that this ad almost didn’t happen because an executive consensus deemed the concept too ‘different’. Steve Jobs reportedly overrode the decision, knowing it was a great creative idea that was also entirely consistent with the brand’s positioning.

So when it comes to creativity, there’s not always safety in numbers. Big data may be here, but that doesn’t mean marketers should acquiesce to an Orwellian future.

By Ryan Wallman, Head of Copy at Wellmark.

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Dr Ryan Wallman, Creative Director at Wellmark. Connect with me on LinkedIn