Data as Creativity

Recently, I saw a banner online for a debate at last weeks Cannes Lions titled ‘Is Data Killing Creativity?’. Reading the tweets and the blog posts following it, it seems there was a lot of ‘its great because it pisses me off’ and ‘I grudgingly accept it because it gives me the terms of engagement’. Looking at the arguments though, it seems that they all miss the flaw in the question.

Data is creativity, certainly for business. Perhaps there are a few too many frustrated artists in the ad industry (though personally this is something I have never come across…) but unless you are a lone wolf, out there, trying to substantiate the Vasarian myth (in which case you may want to hand back the 6-figure salary, Mister Chief Creative Officer), you ‘art’ is that of selling. And no matter how many Lions you may tame, the real measure is ROI, however indirect, long-term or circuitous. The best way to do this is very often through something art-like, and creativity often aligns closely with effectiveness. But lose sight of that effectiveness comms becomes and indulged art-student on an executives wage, leaving itself justly open to all the criticism it receives.

So how is data creativity? Data- be in quant, qual, cultural, psychological or commercial- is the map of the emotional and rational pressure points, a marketers reflexology diagram of where to push and it is also the ‘how’. In the numbers, or the verbatims or sector reports are the real building blocks for insight. Data is creativity as wine is grapes. The idea that data could kill creativity, to pose the two in opposition to each other is absurd

An Open Letter to Damien Hirst

Dear Damien Hirst

Could you please start an advertising agency?

Art has such a fundamental role in defining how people interpret society, in establishing norms, in tearing down idols and reinforcing status quos, an Ad agency wouldn’t even be something new. at the very moment when the idea of artist as lone genius was invented, the renaissance master was the head, the Creative Director, of great studios working on epic commissions – briefs – for their key clients. Think about Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. ‘So Mike, could you throw something together that reinforces the power of the Papacy against internal threats within the priesthood and Vatican, that glorifies God while terrifying the lay populace, and delivers verifiable ROI in the collection plates.’

More chillingly of course could be the Neo-Classical modernist architecture of Otto March’s Berlin Olympiastadion, or the films of Leni Riefehnstahl, or the sculpture of Arno Brecker, which embodied the classical yet timeless, powerful and pure ethos that the Third Reich was trying to spread. So much art is created to an agenda. Jumping back to the renaissance we can see it even in some of the more humble Florentine family portraits where contracts were drawn up to specify the exact amount of gld to be used and how much of which grades of blue were to be used in which areas and also what the purpose of the painting was- its audience and its use.

Why you, Mr. Hirst? Because better than any current artist, you understand this, and you use this. Many ‘get it’, but at the same time cling to the Vasarian myth around their creations. Your own factory set-up picks up from Warhol’s one good idea, playing with the nature of creation and celebrity, and crafts a far more fascinating, nuanced argument. You use your own brand, what people will pay for what they believe is created by you, at least conceptually. You elevate objects created by your army of  assistants to high art from near-commodity, through the personal  mythos in which you wrap them. It’s Warhol spliced with the renaissance for a post-Thatcher/Reagan world.

And just as the unipolar moment of the 90s and 00s begins to unravel, just as people start to question the value of things which you had been undermining with the sheer amount that you had people pay for you own work, as you took the money that through this strange personality cult you had created, as you managed to defy economics increasing the price and the value, giving an impression of scarcity as you flooded the market and washed away the very foundations that supported the fallacy, you sold out. And I don’t meant that in a bad way, I mean that in such a prescient fashion you cashed out the chips from that table, and sold the lot. New work at an auction. On the day that Lehman bros crashed. Now I don’t think you’re good enough to have got that down to the day, but that is a poetic piece of timing on your part that underlines how in touch you were with what was happening.

So you were quoted as saying you wanted to move to something more introspective. Why not apply your natural talent as an Executive Creative Director to advertising. People give you large cheques for you to tell them what to do to sell their brands. You want something a little more grown up, quieter. It’s so brilliantly subversive and would be yet another twist in the game of slight of hand that you have been playing with the art world, value and the market. You go from false prophet to Shamen.

Its genius, and For the Love of God, let me know where to send my CV….

Hamstrung by Language

I have been thinking about words recently. I have been thinking in words. Some people are visual thinkers, and I can visually sketch a conceptual, but the machines moving parts are always words. Verb-pistons heft adverbs onto a conveyor of nouns, carrying passive voices into hoppers of articles shifted by whirring cogs of participles.

I recently read an essay by Tony Judt titled If words fall into disrepair, what will substitute? They are all we have. Judt was a historian I read a lot at university. Lucid, intelligent and never overwrought. It is the kind of writing that I wish I could execute. ( In a vain attempt to do so I have just bought The Economist Style Guide and have been recommended by a Philosophy doctoral student The Elements of Style) His analysis of 20th century Europe was consistently engaging and I recommend picking up anything with his name on the cover if you have an excuse to do so.

What jumped out from this essay, though was the key thesis- that ‘when words lose their integrity so do the ideas they express’.

Ideas are bound to the language in which they are expressed. Working on a global piece of advertising business this becomes vastly apparent. Judt was writing about English as a language losing its ability to do this, its nebulous yet incisive nature, its ability to obfuscate and elucidate. The way people express themselves is becoming ever more sledgehammer-like, when to wield a complex idea it needs to be universally held as a scalpel so that we can all understand each incision. However, when you try and take a headline for a print ad crafted to those specification and take it into another language- a different yet equally precision engineered tool, we are working to another set of nuances, completely unrelated, generated by a separate culture and built upon further by the language itself. Languages catalyse the development of their own idiosyncrasies.

So it is hard to take a double meaning for a certain phrase in English and turn it into another language. In German, there are far fewer of those subtle plays on words available. It has the smallest, yet also probably best defined vocabulary of any European language. Unsurprisingly most of their popular comedy is physical, slapstick, rather than the verbal contortionists and bleak humorists we have in the UK. As a result though, German philosophy is generally much better at making you feel less confused about life than when you started it. English Philosophers often have the opposite result….

I would draw out a difference between American and English- people divided by a common language. They are two different languages, with a divergent development. One wrung dry of much of its joy-  rich veins of irony, understatement and bleak, black humour- by puritan exiles and earnest Scandinavian settlers. It would be an overstatement to say this was a universal rule, but when you see any of this kind of comedy in the American media, it is counter-cultural rather than the engrained culture.

Language is both a prism and prison, it is how we deal with the world, but it is also the only world (or worlds for the lucky multilingual out there) that we know.

This can create problems when we try to create global campaigns. The worst become lowest common denominators- bland, idea free wallpaper. The best take a global insight and roll it out as a local brief – Toyata’s latest campaign, post auto-reversing cars debacle, the ‘My Toyota, Your Toyota’ stuff has manifested itself in two very different ways in the US and Uk, but are clearly part of the same idea, or HSBC which has made a campaign out of the same crevasses between cultures that many try to traverse.

I quoted a popular modern commentator in an essay I wrote way back at university on Foucault and the Linguistic turn and what it meant for historians. Having not read the reading list, I wrote 1200 words of polemic on why Foucault was the thin end of the wedge for history ( a view which I have subsequently withdrawn, having actually read him, and about him). My tutor gave me a low 2.2 for the essay and also the best feedback I have ever had ‘Great journalism, but a poor academic effort’ I will close with the same quote I opened that essay with.

“It’s only words, and words are are I have to take your heart away”