Data and technology buzzwords have been creeping into agency language more and more over the past few years. Years spent honing the art of putting science behind planning principles have had something of a transformative effect on an industry that was initially built on storytelling. However, there is a growing fear that somewhere along this journey, tech-based thinking and algorithmic optimization have distracted us from seeking meaningful human interactions – stalling the creative process. With this in mind, is it time for us to take a long hard look in the mirror?

The first thing to consider is data and content as opposing forces. The power of narrative is undeniable, but if we consider that data is essentially a repository of stored facts and our brains are the most powerful computer on the planet, we can argue that data has always had an influence on the stories that we tell. Although our brain can process this data with ease, technology is still evolving and learning to interpret data in the same way to deliver stronger stories. The more powerful the technology, the better this process will get, and it is only by seamlessly merging creativity and science that we can we truly create meaningful, tailored content that will speak truthfully to audiences.

Mike Cooper recently highlighted at Cannes that finely tuned data and tech are certainly a part of optimizing campaign performance, however, the real transformational drivers of ROI are creativity and innovation. The key is to find a way of using data as the platform to successfully unlock this potential.

To create powerful and human content by permeating data with emotion, or that ‘gut-feeling’, we can turn it into something much more. If we were able to improve our data interpretation and use it to trigger these gut emotions, we could move forward to telling data-informed stories, rather than data-driven ones. Fluently reading data will allow us to draw out meaningful insights and combine them with human emotional input, to create the kind of substance required for high-quality content. Keep in mind that the science behind creating good content is harnessing relevant data in such a way that it provides the best possible springboard for ideation.

Think, for instance, how content giants such as the BBC have turned to partners like Parrot Analytics to gather data about what people want to see next. By being informed in this way, they can create relevant and meaningful content in response. We can’t rely on a single content team’s judgment on what may or may not resonate with audiences in the right way; it’s both unrealistic and unfair to levy this much responsibility on any given group.

Data provides the platform for both success and failure, and we must be willing to be agnostic about our findings. It’s easy to fall into the trap of bending data to fit a story we have already settled on, instead of allowing the results to power our thinking further. A fantastic example of a campaign that drew great insight from data was the #likeagirl movement by Always. The brand needed a way to gain traction with the next generation of consumers and was able to turn a phrase, generally considered as an insult, into an empowering message. Their campaign hinged on a key statistic (at puberty, 49% of girls feel paralyzed by fear of failure, diminishing their confidence to try new things) which paved the way for the creative team to empower these females, with relevant and purposeful content. By merging insight and creativity in this way, 76% of the people exposed to the campaign said they no longer considered the phrase as negative.

However, as great as an insight like this can be, we need to exercise a note of caution as well. There is a temptation for marketers to jump on a data point and blindly making it our guide, effectively dogmatizing it. For example, data may show that men like sports and women like shopping, but if you take that as your absolute truth, you will be throwing away budgets on generic content that doesn’t make an impression on anyone. We must allow our common sense and human input to prevail, so we can recognize rabbit holes that should not be explored.

It’s clear that data is not killing creativity, merely changing how we tell stories, giving them more relevance and endowing them greater meaning. Yes, there is a concern about using data blindly, however, this is where the importance of human input cannot be underestimated. We must pass data through a very thin sieve of human understanding before applying it to our creative concepts. Only by doing this can we transform information into stories worth telling.