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Published July 11th 2019

Interview: FleishmanHillard Fishburn’s Ben Levine on the Much Needed Truce Between Data and Creative

“Often, when a campaign fails or is widely criticised, it’s because the creative idea lacked an insight,” wrote Ben Levine on the FleishmanHillard Fishburn blog. We were intrigued, so we got him in for a chat.

The relationship between data and creative feels intuitively grating.

The former, associated with numbers, objectivity, and rigour, feels at odds with the latter, which connotes pictures, subjectivity, and the abstract.

But Ben Levine, Director and Head of Research, Analytics and Measurement at FleishmanHillard Fishburn, takes a very different view.

In fact, as we catch up in the days following the publication of his blog post (entitled ‘Data-driven creative is not the ideal, it is the norm’), he tells me that:

“Creativity has always, in my view, been empowered by data, research, and information. Ideas don’t come out of thin air. They’re based on the world we live in and the facts and information that we either consciously or subconsciously obtain with our experiences.”

Can research and creativity really be part of the same process? And can they do it harmoniously?

A change in attitude

Ben has worked in research and insights for over a decade, first at Ketchum and now at award-winning communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn in London. During that time he’s seen a shift in the way his peers perceive data.

Especially on the creative side, suspicion around ‘big data’ was once commonplace.

“Thinking about the emergence of the term ‘big data’ when it came on the scene, when everyone rushed to embrace it, use it, talk about it – I think for some on the agency side there was a level of, ‘well, surely if it’s too focused on the data then you lose out on the creative aspect, and the two things don’t marry’.”

But things have begun to change.

“The pursuit of insight has always existed. What’s changed, certainly looking at the last couple of years compared to five or seven years ago, is that there’s more of a comfort level with data and information.”

It’s something he’s noticed key clients discussing, too. Chatting to comms directors and CMOs, he’s found that there’s a growing interest in and need for campaigns that are based on solid research.

It’s this shift, which he’s been a long-time advocate for, that prompted him to write about how creative shouldn’t just ideally be informed by insights, it should always be informed by insights.

How does that work in practice?

How can researchers and creatives work together?

Ben has helped foster a team that raves for insights – something he’s always encouraged with a simple approach: “Blending big data with big ideas.”

“Where I sit now, everyone on the planning and creative side are thirsty and hungry for data and information and working with people like myself and my team who go out there and find it. We translate it into something that is insightful and leads to what all of our clients want, which is campaigns that are based on fact and illuminate something that is true in all of us.”

The key to success here is distilling a brief into core research questions that need to be answered in order for the team to fully deliver for the client.

But there’s an important balance to maintain here – the easiest thing for a data-driven team to do, he says, is to continue looking for more evidence, to keep doing more research in the pursuit of new answers.

“I think the basis of a great collaboration or partnership between an insight person and a creative is to know to be focused on the questions that are critical to answering the brief. If you’re focused in that way you shouldn’t fall into the trap of never ending research and research that’s just research for research’s sake.”

Too much data probably can kill creativity, but the right insight can be the difference between a big campaign success and a total flop.

Connecting dots

It’s easy to talk about finding the balance and pulling out a key insight, but the reality can be harder. Relying on a single source of data probably won’t get you the golden nugget you’re looking for.

“I can’t stress enough the importance of never relying on a single source of truth when it comes to research. If you just focus on one aspect of that you’re probably going to miss the whole picture of what is really happening in a market, what is happening with an audience.”

Time and budget constraints can make it tempting to take shortcuts on using multiple data sources, but starting from a strong place can make the whole process more efficient.

“The key is asking the right questions and being selective in what is the most salient and critical thing to answer. It just saves you time.”

Once you’ve got your questions, you can look at the best sources or methods to get the answers, and his team doesn’t favor any one way of finding insights over another.

“Where you can, it’s about using primary research combined with social listening, combined with search data. I truly believe that when you commit to doing it that way you get such better insights into what’s happening,” he says.

Better research, happier clients

Combining a healthy organization-wide attitude towards data and insights with an efficient, methodological research process helps Ben and his team achieve great results.

“I think when we land on an insight that’s based on fact, which started with smart research questions that led you to the right sources of information, that we just do better work and see happier clients at the end of it.”

Big thanks to Ben for chatting to the Brandwatch blog. You can find him on LinkedIn here.

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