Data-driven. We see this phrase absolutely everywhere in the marketing world today. On agency websites, on job descriptions, in people’s bios, on LinkedIn, and on resumes. I’ve got a problem with that.
There’s a concerted push to making sure everything is data-driven. But it’s not fully understood how narrow that statement really is. Making sure something is ‘data-driven’, is actually the best way to ensure you’re making a decision with less data, rather than more.
Illogical right? Let me explain.
Everything Is Data
Literally, everything is data. Nothing isn’t data. Data isn’t in a spreadsheet. It’s around us, all the time. An invisible, infinitely complicated never-ending ticker tape of information. And there’s no computer in the world that can process all of the nuances of it as well as a squidgy pink 3lb ball of fat and sinew between your ears.
What’s the output of your brain processing unimaginable amounts of data? Intuition.
I recently read an article that stated in no ambiguous terms that ‘intuition is dead’ and how ‘data-driven strategy is the future of marketing’. Now, those two statements are not only absolute but paradoxical. Here’s my argument.
When making a decision on intuition, you’re making an incredibly ‘data-driven’ decision.
In fact, you’re making a decision with so much data, you can’t consciously comprehend how much data you’re processing and the calculations you’ve just made, so your brain manifests as a ‘gut feeling.’ It’s our innate supercomputer, the likes of which humanity has never come close to replicating. A supercomputer that processes data in a more sophisticated manner than anything else we know of.
It’s true, we do have supercomputers with more ‘processing power’ than a brain, but the machines process data within a set of rules. Your brain can think laterally, connect unconnected stimulus, hold several viewpoints and opinions simultaneously. That’s remarkable. Really remarkable.
The most advanced Artificial Intelligence in the world is a crude hammer compared to your 3lb squidgy fat ball. AI processes more data, sure, but when it comes to true intelligence, nothing comes close.
How Intuition Improves Strategy
As we grow in our strategic or creative roles, we gather, stress-test, and process more data. More experience means more tests run, more connections made, more conclusions arrived at. Over more iterations.
As any good psychologist will tell you, your unconscious is far smarter than your conscious. This means the data you gather, and process unconsciously will get you far closer to a real answer than research you do consciously. You simply have more (and better) processing power that way.
When you read widely, follow rabbit holes, approach new things with curiosity, work hard to understand things you didn’t before, and routinely change your mind – you’re training your (non) artificial intelligence.
If what I’m saying sounds like sacrilege in the age of evidence, and there’s one thing I should make unambiguously clear. Using your intuition is not the same as ‘winging it’. Intuition is a shortcut that gets you to better places, but you’ve still got to plug the gaps.
All creative work is a leap of faith, and good strategy narrows the gap you must clear.
A Technique for Producing Ideas
My gut feeling about the need for intuition is not theoretical. It’s practical. In fact, here is a favorite example of the case for intuition from a copywriter named James Webb Young.
He understood the nature of how the mind worked very well – and in 1942 (before the supercomputer) he published his five-step creative process in A Technique for Producing Ideas. It’s as useful now as it was then, and it goes something like this:
Step 1 – Gather raw materials
There are two kinds of raw materials. Specific materials relate to the product or the target audience. General materials are not directly related at all. Gather both. There is no subject that a really good creative person cannot be interested in.
Step 2 – Digest said material
Chew the materials over. Look at the facts from different angles. Bring them together and see how they fit. Two things will happen. First, partial ideas will come to mind. Second, you will get very tired of trying to piece together the puzzle.
Step 3 – Turn it over to your unconscious
Make absolutely no effort of a direct nature. Drop the whole subject. Turn the problem over to your unconscious. Stimulate your creative mind. Listen to music. Read poetry. Go to the theatre. Let your mind work on the problem while you sleep. Distract yourself.
Step 4 – The spark of an idea
If you’ve done your part in the first three stages, you’ll almost certainly experience the fourth. Out of nowhere, the idea will appear. It will come when you least expect it. Ideas appear when you stop searching for them.
Step 5 – Develop the idea
It requires a lot of work to make ideas work. Don’t hold them too close. Take them out into the world. Submit them to the criticism. Good ideas are self-expanding. They stimulate others to add to them. Possibilities you may have overlooked will come to light. Ideas are like eggs, they need to be cooked.
Enter the Zone
When Tiger Woods plays that perfect shot, he’s not running the numbers, he’s entering the zone. Andrea Pirlo has never lined up a free kick with a protractor. Jimmy Hendrix couldn’t even read music.
Performers, including those of us in the Marcom arena, learn to feel it and know it in our bones. We let our unconscious supercomputers run the numbers of countless data points of experience. We are not machines. We’re much better.