Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Logic and magic

Published in Jan-Feb 2015

Why the Head of Design, Google NACE, is in love with Big Data.

Cannes Lions has just announced that there is to be a Creative Data Award in 2015. This is to be a part of a new Innovation Festival, which is a separate two-day event in the middle of the seven-day thrash.

So, the sunny side up way of looking at it is that delegates this year will get two festivals for the price of one. The more cynical view is that this is an attempt to get all the media types who flock down to the South of France, but who don’t buy passes for the Festival, to take a small part in it at least.

Big data sounds serious. It sounds focused. It sounds business-y in a way that ‘Best Savoury Foods TV Commercial up to 180 seconds’ does not.

Big data is also a hot topic. Google the phrase and you get 878 million results. The most frequently asked question is:

Big Data, what is it?

It seems that pretty much everybody who is somebody has an answer. For a year, at a string of conferences, Sir John Hegarty has been saying words to the effect of, ‘big data is nonsense.’

Actually, he has been using slightly ruder words than that because big data really does seem to upset him. At the Advertising Week Conference he said: “Data has never created wealth, never. Creativity has, all the time. Because it imagines something. And people go, ‘I like that. I respond to that.’”

Two years ago, I would have been egging him on.

Two years ago I was saying the same sort of things myself. At one conference, I showed the data surrounding a football match. If you looked at the numbers, one player on the pitch was covering less ground than any others, expending less effort, committing himself less than his team mates. His name was Lionel Messi and in the game I was looking at, Barcelona versus Real Madrid, he scored the goal that gave Barca the championship.

My point was, data cannot reveal a moment of genius.

Two years ago I was an ignoramus.

So, what has happened in between and why am I pleased that Cannes are creating yet another category – as if 17 isn’t enough already?

I started work at Google.

I was hired as the Creative Director for Northern & Central Europe of The Zoo, Google’s client-facing creative resource. To try to understand the company’s products and platforms I thought it would be interesting to take one of my old TV ads and re-imagine it for the digital era.

This is when I fell in love with data.

Back in 1989, the ‘Accrington Stanley’ spot I wrote did not win awards but it did become a big favourite in school playgrounds with kids.

The key take-out is that milk is good for growing boys. And is a darn sight better for you as a sports recovery drink than most of the sugary carbonated drinks on the market.

The idea was to invite dads to shoot videos of their sons demonstrating their football skills. The best would be invited to ‘boot camps’, where we would film them being coached by current Liverpool stars, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard. Then we would create a piece of ‘hero’ content to drive traffic to YouTube to watch the game live.

From 40-seconds of advertising back in 1989, today we would be curating and creating content for our ‘hub’ of three or four hours.

Where, in 1989, I changed one life – the boy in the ad decided to become an actor – today by using digital media, creative people can change the behaviour of thousands, of tens of thousands. At a time when obesity is a major issue in first world countries, here we would have milk fighting the good fight for sport and a healthy lifestyle.

So, I was pretty pleased with myself.

Which is when Parmita said to me, “I have been studying the data…”

Still in my John Hegarty mindset, I rolled my eyes.

“No, seriously, this is interesting.”

And it was. Seriously interesting.

Interrogating the data, Parmita had discovered that interest in football is declining among kids in the UK. Even in Liverpool which was Football Central for so many years.

The sports that interest kids now, she told me, are swimming and cycling.

Now, that is an insight. And, personally, I define an insight as a revelation of something so obvious you wonder why you had never seen it yourself before. Of course kids in the UK are more interested in swimming and cycling. Our girls had won swimming medals at the Beijing and London Olympics and for 10 years British cyclists have been dominating the velodromes of the world, as well as winning the Tour de France.

But then Parmita really blew me away.

Guess what the trending sport in Britain is?


Yes, dance.

And the evidence of this is to be found on TV (with dance group Diversity winning Britain’s Got Talent), on stage (with Billy Elliott running in all the provinces as well as in London) and in community centres around the country, where there are regular dance competitions.

As a result of the data, I had to set to work again – this time creating a campaign that reached out to girls as well as boys.

As a result of this epiphany,

I started hiring data-centric planners, and now that is where we start on every project. Looking at the numbers. Seeing what the analytics tell us. Testing our hypotheses against the data.

And almost every time, we arrive at an insight, which changes the creative approach entirely. For instance, what do you think young mothers search for when they first go online having had their first baby? How to remove stains.

They have discovered motherhood is messy. And not a single laundry brand was there when they searched.

How about this? A condom manufacturer in Italy asked for our help. Looking at the data, we noticed that Italian men go online to ask about matters of sex massively more in August. That is the month they are on holiday. For 11 months of the year, they are working too hard. The insight sets up a whole string of creative ideas. One of them was to try to get Italians to turn every month of the year into August. There were many others, all made possible by an insight, driven by data.

Not only own personal experience, but the work I am sent as the editor of Directory ( reflects the growing influence of data on creativity.

R/GA London will almost certainly win awards with Search-Based Realtime Newsroom for Google.

To raise awareness of Google Trends, during the World Cup, details of search trends were published, revealing the strange quirks of different footballing nations. For instance, the Dutch were much more interested in Wesley Snieder’s wife than they were in their team. The Australians searched more for Roos than for their team, the Socceroos.

Here is another potential winner in 2015.

The Sun newspaper wanted to get more people to pay to access their online content. Wunderman London thought the best way to entice readers over the paywall was through The Sun’s Fantasy Football Game. The data revealed that despite their lifelong allegiances to a single team, fans chose players from even their most despised rivals when building their Dream Team. Seventy-six percent of Chelsea fans had chosen one or more Spurs players, their sworn enemies. Ninety-two percent Crystal Palace fans had not selected a single Crystal Palace player.

Not only did the data provide the platform for a very funny idea, it led to 630,000 people signing up to The Sun online.

Data informs ideas which lead to marketplace success.

For me, data provides left-brain thinking to complement the creative agency’s right-brain. Together they lead to communications which are both enjoyable and effective.

If Cannes wants to celebrate this meeting point between art and science, that’s alright with me.

Patrick Collister is Head of Design, Google NACE.