Data is Nothing Without Empathy

A notable topic of discussion at the Edinburgh TV Festival this week has been the question of to what extent data should drive the creative process. This has been mostly discussed in the context of linear TV commissioning, however it’s a lens that can be overlaid on to all areas of the creative industries — from book publishing, to digital content right through to advertising and marketing.

With the wealth of data at hand from social platforms there can be a temptation to, as one of the sessions was titled, ‘commission by numbers’. The rationale often put forward by the ‘data-driven creative’, a term I have used to describe myself in lofty moments of self-aggrandising, is that we’re listening to what the audience want and commissioning and creating on that basis. However, if we’re talking about social-listening alone we risk only striving to appeal to the loudest people in the room.

Take series three of Love Island. Yes, yes, I know, it is brilliantly made TV and was the shock hit of the summer™ but while its ratings were exceptional with an average of over 2.5m viewers on ITV2, they don’t match up to schedule stalwarts like Coronation Street which regularly draws in in excess of 7 million viewers on ITV.

However, where Love Island blew everyone else out of the water was in social conversation. Kantar Twitter stats in the UK were an embarrassment of riches for Love Island — for a number of weeks this summer taking not just the top spot in terms of Twitter conversation around TV shows, but spots 1 to 5! Corrie, by contrast, rarely made it into the top 10.

Now, there’s obvious reasons for this in terms of demographics and genre which I needn’t go into. You’re a smart bunch. And re-commissioning Love Island is a no-brainer (as would be Love Island: The Movie, I Can’t Believe It’s Not Love Island and an actual Love Island island theme-park of hedonistic debauchery) but it’s interesting to see just how mismatched viewership and social conversation can be and thus how social media data alone cannot be the basis of a content strategy, even in digital-first. Indeed, this is true of all content creation, not just TV commissioning.

David Wilding, Planning Director at Twitter, remarked in the aforementioned session that the sensible content strategist or commissioner should only “use Twitter as part of a balanced diet of insight”. Nail firmly hit on the head there. The ever-growing arsenal of social listening, affinity audience segmentation, trend analysis and TV ratings must be used in combination to guide your creative and strategic approaches. But even all these in synthesis can’t be the be-all and end-all.

Fundamentally, data is nothing without empathy. This is how you move from analytics to insight and from insight to creativity and why an AI creative, for instance, is some way off. You need a personal understanding of your audience based not just on quantitative but on qualitative sources. Indeed, this highlights why diversity is absolutely vital in our industry and the broader media, a key theme of Jon Snow’s stirring MacTaggart lecture.

So, if in future dealings you hear me referring to myself a ‘data-driven creative’ please do feel free to mock me and correct me in equal measure. Creativity should be guided by data, it shouldn’t be driven by it.

Leo Birch is a Content Strategist at Trailer Park London — we Make, Market and Move content for Entertaining Brands. Get in touch on




Strategist / Creative at ENGINE. Ex @BBCEarth & @BBC_TopGear. Informed opinion on TV and digital things. Ill-informed hyperbole on rugby and football.

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Leo Birch

Leo Birch

Strategist / Creative at ENGINE. Ex @BBCEarth & @BBC_TopGear. Informed opinion on TV and digital things. Ill-informed hyperbole on rugby and football.

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