John Brown founds Don't Cry Wolf

Opinion: How creatives can stand out in a data-driven world

John Brown, founder of Don’t Cry Wolf, passionately defends the need for creativity in comms and argues that data will never trump instinct when it comes to producing PR campaigns with cut-through.


“I’m more of a creative scientist than just a creative”. This was a phrase I overheard being belched out at a recent industry drinks reception. Ignoring the unctuous tone for a moment, this statement summarises the way the industry views creative work.

It’s no longer adequate to have a great idea. Now, to be taken seriously, your creative idea should have a platform of rich and delicious data. As you express your idea, your face must show the wrinkles of someone who’s devoted an unreasonable amount of their life undertaking impossible mathematic equations.

All this, so that you can tell your client or boss that it might be worth sailing something down the Thames.

Now, before I’m served a cease and desist from whoever is banging the data-led drum, allow me to first lay out my stall.

Data is meaningless. Insight is valuable.


Most sentient beings can find data, fewer can identify (or even define) insight. Creative ideas built on insight are clever. The kind of clever that makes me look for a way to see if I can tenuously claim some involvement in the idea to impress my wife.

The problem the industry has is that it cannot work out whether it’s championing data, which would be a bit of a naff quest, or insight, a far nobler endeavour. In this pursuit to sound intelligent, the industry also neglects one of the finest assets a practitioner in the creative industry has. Their gut.

Ladies and gentlemen of the communications industry jury I put it to you; there’s nothing wrong with a campaign built around a creative idea that just feels really cool.

Yet in this hyper-informed world where a Google search can spurt out data that 40 years ago would have cost most agencies their lunch money for the year, people can have their ideas dismissed for not being based on ‘evidence’ (another wonderful word that means different things to different people).

So, to end, I thought I’d provide a quick guide to navigating your way around this new frontier of creative scrutiny, which I hope will prove useful in both preserving sanity as well as creativity.

  • Know the difference – knowing the difference between data (raw numbers), information (data that’s been organised to provide more meaning) and insight (the eureka moment when information is overlaid on context). Once you can tell the difference it’s far easier to know what you’re working with and also to help explain to the new age boffin in the room that what they have is a number, not an insight
  • Hypothesise first – while undoubtedly one of the biggest opportunities lies in the perfect marriage between insight and creative ideas, starting from the perspective of ‘I must find data’ can quickly snuff out any spark of creativity. Instead start from the perspective of ‘wouldn’t it be amazing if we did this’ and see if you can find the insight to support it. If you can’t it still might be a great idea!
  • Go for the heart – there’s one thing that will trump data, information and insight. Emotion. If you know you’re onto something magical, but just don’t have the evidence to prove it, focus on capturing the heart. If your CMO is emotionally bought into an idea, the need for a scientific approach suddenly becomes far less important.
  • Be brave – If you feel you have that killer concept, go with it, it might just be the winner you’ve been looking for.

To discover more about the delicate balance needed between creativity and data in communications, download Combining art and science in creative communications by filling in the form below.

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