Matt Williams: who’s right about advertising and ‘big data’ – Professor Brian Cox or Sir John Hegarty?

“I don’t know who this Sir John Hegarty is – he might be very famous in your industry – but he’s just wrong.”

It seems in Cannes, no-one is safe from criticism. Professor Brian Cox (below), poster boy for science, was the man brave enough to take on the advertising legend in his talk yesterday on the relationship between data and creativity.

Cox was responding to a quote uttered last year by the BBH founder, who said that “an overuse of data can lead to wind-tunnel marketing.”

Indeed Hegarty has spoken regularly about the “nonsense” of big data, and how advertising is “not a fucking science.”

Now I’m as infatuated by advertising creative legends as anyone. I love the idea of these mavericks trusting their gut instincts and pushing through industry-defining work.

And I hate hearing these stories that a great idea got canned because it didn’t make it through research, or because it wasn’t quite what a focus group had in mind.

But this year more than ever there feels a shift in attitude at Cannes towards big data. Whilst it’s not about ditching traditional creative principles, it’s about using them in conjunction with data to create even more interesting campaigns. Data can and should make people more creative, not less.

In fact Cox took that point one step further in his talk, stating: “look, if your answer doesn’t reflect the data you have then it’s wrong, simple as that.”

“And like in science, every bit of creative genius requires data to stimulate it and bring it to life…and vice versa.”

I’m sure the debate will run and run. But the amount of sessions and panels at Cannes this year dedicated to being more creative with data and getting the best out of it without stunting ideas suggests that more and more in the industry are accepting Cox’s way of thinking.

As Cox’s stage partner for the session Sean Healy (ZenithOptimedia’s global planning director) concluded: “Data and creativity is the perfect marriage…so we’ve never had a better opportunity to rethink the creative process.”

I wonder whether Hegarty will agree?


  1. I’m sorry but I wouldn’t got to a sodding physics conference and dare to tell them about the best ways to work, so Dr Cox should probably keep his nose out. Oh and what does the planning director of a media company know about creativity?!

    I’ll trust Hegarty, the man who’s work has changed the fortunes of hundreds of brands with groundbreaking creative work.

  2. I think it was Bob Hoffman who said companies already have tons of data laying around. But nobody sits down and goes through it. On the contrary: people scream for more data and hope that the answer will pop up like a mircale if they have more data. Which is not the case: you need to go through the data, think, think, think, think and think again. And then you might come up with an idea. The act of collecting endless amounts of data will not deliver the solution to any problem.

  3. Don’t know about anyone else but I find the whole data-or-creative-have-to-choose-one thing quite boring.

    One day we will probably be able to point to a scientific, data-driven method for illiciting the types of responses that currently ‘creativity’ intuits its way towards. It won’t make either method less or more viable, it will just make things less exciting perhaps.

  4. All I can say about data is – look at the predictions for the UK General Election where not one research company predicted the outcome. If Winston Churchill had paid attention to the data available after Dunkirk, he’d have simply conceded defeat. But he didn’t. I am ex-CDP by the way, and virtually every campaign we won Gold for everywhere failed in research.

  5. @Mark… As I am posting on “AdScam” on Friday… US polls now show Donald Trump as the number two fucking contender for the GOP nomination. That’s all you need to know about research. Oh, wait a minute… We did elect George Bush… Twice. I’ll shut up now.
    Cheers/George “AdScam” Parker

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