Let me start this off by saying that data and creative, like a hammer, is a tool. It can be used to build or destroy. In the wrong hands and for the wrong purpose, data combined with creative minds can do some hefty damage.
Which is why, when all this news came out about how the research group Cambridge Analytica has been harvesting massive amounts of private user data from Facebook, I thought, "They're assholes."
And when it was revealed they used that data to sway voters towards Trump and the Brexit, I realized, "Oh, shit...they're really good."
Here's the deal, while they clearly put ethics aside, and have lied and cheated to sell data they don't own to people that have equally questionable ethics, there's one undeniable fact about the whole situation...
Their use of data was scary good. And we can't deny that combining data and creative is insanely powerful.
Long Story, Short
Abridged history of the whole thing:
Cambridge Analytica used the wild, early days of Facebook to capture a whole lot of data on unsuspecting users, and friends of those users. We're talking about around a hundred million or so different people.
They took the data, studied it, and (against Facebook's policies) rented it to the highest bidder. That was all before Facebook plugged the loopholes they exploited, in order to grab all that data.
Then, Mark Zuckerberg spoke in front of a Congressional committee about how the internet works. Then he revealed that everyone everywhere collects data on everyone everywhere, and uses it to target ads to pay for their free services.
Great, now let's get to the interesting part.
They Were Really Good At What They Did
I use data every day. And as a creative that focuses on how to bring creative and data together, my team is stepping into unfamiliar territory.
Honestly, we work as hard as we can to advertise products: getting people to buy cars, phones, candy bars, etc. But even with the best creative and the most sophisticated data available, it's a struggle.
So while Cambridge Analytica's use of data pissed me off, at the same time, I was in awe of what they were capable of. This company has helped sway the election of the most powerful nation on the planet. They aided in the separation of London from the European Union. They've affected the world to a degree that all us product-pushing, brand-building advertisers could only imagine.
Political campaigns have happened for centuries, before what we though of as advertising even existed. They took singular creative, brand messages and pushed them out amongst millions of people. Yet, this one did what many people...hell, most people in the world never thought was possible.
And it was by using data. In a horribly effective way.
They capitalized on the fears of people. Used the data to push the needle a little to the right of center. They saw how each person had a specific button that needed to be pressed, and then they pressed each one in a different way.
I'm always speaking about the effectiveness of combining data with creative. Yet, every time I open my mouth, I'm met with resistance. But those people are living in the same world I am. A world where all this has happened.
Creative makes data work.
Taking the information and technology we have, to speak to different people in different ways, is effective. It's undeniable. But we still need to know what to say. That means creative is what makes data work, not the other way around.
Use Creative and Data for Good
Now that we know how powerful data can be, when met with effective creative, what do we do? Well, that's what Zuckerberg is being asked: how can we make sure data is being handled responsibly?
It's our responsibility to consider what we're saying and doing. It's up to us as advertisers, and as people, to take this power and use it for good.
Sure, you can say that using it to advertise is a short hop away from the yellow brick road of ethical responsibility. But, it can bring the right message to the right person at the right time. Then we, as we always have before, need to be conscious of what message we're saying.
A hammer can build a table. It can destroy a window. It can hang a family photo. It can break bones. Or it can build a bridge between two places who have never been connected before.
Data can do the same thing. So how will you use it?