Big Data + Creative Industries = Slim Pickings?

Knowledge is the engine of our creative economy, and Big Data is its fuel. Are our creative companies getting enough?

slim4“The IT revolution is evident all around us, but the emphasis has mostly been on the T, the technology. It is time to recast our gaze to focus on the I, the information”, (Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Kenneth Cukier)
In order to be successful the Creative Industries need to be able to connect to their users, audience or clients. The best clothes, videos, books, plays, or computer games are not successful unless someone further down the line wants those products enough to make an economic decision to recompense the creator.

In the skills arena, if we want to see our industries grow and prosper, we need to look after two components of this process- a) enable the creative talent to emerge, and then b)  give it the tools to find and connect to the market.

It’s fair to say traditionally we have rightly put more emphasis on the first section- building new creative talent. This makes absolute sense; we trust great talent will find an audience or willing users of their skills and services, or a market. The assumption is also that most people will take their skills into existing companies and organisations, where their skills are performed in roles very demarcated and separated from marketing or selling and leveraging the tangible or intangible goods and services they generate.

The picture I have presented above, of companies composed of the two species of creatives and marketers each performing their functions works only if there are such companies to house this symbiosis. Think again; if we examine this through the perspective of nurturing an economy of entrepreneurs, start-ups, freelancers and micro-traders then a different picture emerges. The second component of selling your wares gains in importance. No matter how great the creative talent, if it lacks the skills to sell itself, to find and exploit markets, then that creative talent is eventually lost to the economy. So maybe we need to recalibrate the attention we spend on these two elements- skills for creating talent and skills for selling that talent.

Discoverability may become a major factor in the survival story of our industry’s lurch towards an atomised constellation of entrepreneurial start-ups. Lower entries to market are one thing, but being discovered by the consumer when you are there in the marketplace is another. It’s like you are just one star in a galaxy of products, or one line in a giant unalphabeticised Yellow Pages. If you can’t connect to an audience or user, or even gradually grow that base, then you are not going to survive long.slim11



Discoverability, targeting the right demographic, starting productive conversations with customers, finding your specialist niche, these are all the new black arts of marketing yourself.

Big Data might just be the key factor in enabling our star talent to shine. The more data you can obtain on the market conditions and more importantly your potential customers the more intelligent and focused your marketing can be.

So what is Big Data and why is it so important to this new start-up ecosystem that is forming in key sectors? The same driver of digitisation that caused the high-tech start-up boom is enabling Big Data too.

Huge amounts of data are starting to be generated automatically. The everyday data vapour-trails each one of us leaves behind as we traverse the net – the likes, friends, endorsements, click-throughs and logins we create, the products we browse or buy, combined with the increasingly ubiquitous sensors that record us throughout our perambulations in supermarkets and transport hubs, and the geotemporal information that is collected creates an unparalleled granularity of behavioural detail that  is emerging on all of us. This is complemented with low cost computer memory, faster processing and the multiplying of networks into a meta-network that means whole datasets can now be mined and interrogated. Whilst much of this data is anonymised, its value is that correlations can often be drawn and invaluable conclusions on what users or customers do can be harvested with the right tools.

slim2The acceleration of processing power means whereas it took scientists a decade of work to decode the three billion pairs in the human genome in 2003, today, only a decade later, it would take around a day.

How big is ‘big data’? “Scratch the surface and the figures will blow your mind” says EE’s CEO Olaf Swantee “A study at the end of 2012 by IDC predicts the ‘digital universe’ will reach 40 zettabytes – that’s around 45 trillion gigabytes – by 2020, a 50-fold growth in a decade”. Of course, not all this is about people, or even publicly available, but you get the picture. Big data analytics are revolutionizing the way we see and process the world in an economy increasingly predicated on data flow. 90 percent of the data in the world today was created in the last two years alone.

In Brussels, May 2013, Neelie Kroes, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the Digital Agenda stated “the world is generating 1.7 million billion bytes of data per minute. That’s over 6 Megabytes per day for every man woman and child on the planet…. Quite simply, knowledge is the engine of our economy. And data is its fuel”.slim3

We can “extract new insights or create new forms of value in ways that change markets, organisations, the relationship between citizens and governments, and more” exclaim Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier in the landmark text “Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think” This can change the way we make decisions and run our businesses.

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier's book charts the explosion of information that digitisation has sparked

Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier’s book charts the explosion of information that digitisation has sparked

Big Data is about applying math to huge quantities of data to infer probabilities. The real revolution is how we interpret it. We can discover patterns and correlations in the data that offer new insights and conclusions. In previous eras, we had to choose a small sample of say, the tv watching public if we wanted to construct a ratings system. Now, we can interrogate the whole dataset- by unprecedented number crunching we soon will not only know exactly how many watched a certain programme, but also how many tweeted and commented on facebook too. We could probably also correlate sales of fashion or food the next day that related to the adverts during the show. If we were a production company we could apply the knowledge of audience behaviour to improve the next show (“we know one fifth of our audience turned off after the car chase- so let’s ensure the main action always happens after the ads, not before”). If we were an advertiser we might appreciate the chance to offer a reward to those that purchased in-show products.

Let’s not get sentimental about a previous age of unsullied artistic expression despoiled by predictive maths- it has always been this way, except now we are nearer to solving the apocryphal conundrum of “I know half of my advertising budget is wasted, but I don’t know which half”.

But when we think of Big Data we often think of the mighty gatekeepers like Google, Facebook, Amazon and LinkedIn- the sites that have global and seemingly complete footfall. This may prove the biggest challenge- big data is here to transform business but access seems denied to the small companies in the creative industries to harness.

Lanier argues that today's information economy can ruin markets for the rest of us.

Lanier argues that today’s information economy can ruin markets for the rest of us.

Jaron Lanier’s “Who Owns The Future?” makes the point that the danger is that those who own the fastest servers create an imperious and unassailable position for themselves. There’s an arms race escalating, where we digital subjects give our information for free to what Lanier calls the ‘Siren Servers’. He points to a world where “data is analysed using the most powerful available computers, run by the very best available technical people. The results of the analysis are kept secret, but are used to manipulate the world to advantage” Lanier suggests “Great fortunes are being made on shrinking the economy instead of growing it” and “We aren’t creating enough opportunity for enough people online…the wide adoption of transformative connecting technology should create a middle class wealth boom…Instead we’ve seen recession, unemployment and austerity”.

To prove the point, Lanier gives the example of WalMart, an early adopter of big data. Their servers gathered information about logistics, and both buyer and supplier behaviour. “The company gradually became the sculptor of its own environment” and was able to process this information to dictate price and delivery targets even to the suppliers of its suppliers. The customers got cheap prices, but small suppliers were forced to reduce to as near to the bone as possible. The advantage is always with whoever has the information in this new world. If you don’t want to get steamrollered you need to make big data’s possibilities work for you.slim6



Translate this scenario to the creative industries. How will our fragmented and atomised start-ups prosper in this one-sided battle against the Siren Servers? How do we ensure a more level playing field of access to customer information so our innovative new companies can grow by interpreting and leveraging smart info on their customers and the market they find themselves in? Well, you can ensure you ‘data-ify’ what you already do.

Big data is already being used to tailor games. After trawling the data on its players Zynga, makers of Farmville discovered that people bought more translucent fish than any other type in the game Fishville. So, it offered more translucent varieties, making a bigger profit. This might sound trite, but this approach propelled Zynga from 45 staffers in June 2008 to 600 by the end of 2009 with its 100 million players. By 2010, Zynga had more active users than Twitter. “We are an analytics company masquerading as a gaming company. Everything is run by numbers” said Ken Rudin, Zynga’s analytics chief.

Even relatively ‘hunch based’ creative industries are starting to become data driven. gives film executives data on budget, cast, crew, revenues, overseas rights, but it’s more than a repository of 30 million items. It will analyse and correlate data as a service. It can tell you that romantic comedies gross on average 3 million more than other comedy but have 18% less market share. It can advise if a project at the planning stage should be changed. Famously, founder Bruce Nash advised an IMAX movie to cut its budget from 12 to 8 million since the analysis showed this is how it would make a profit in the difficult and specialist documentary marketplace.slim7

But if anyone can help level the playing field, the Government can. After all, the information economy sector contributed around £58bn to Gross Value Added in 2011. In the Government’s new Information Economy Strategy (June 2013) big data is only mentioned 6 times in 53 pages, but any assumption that it is not a concern is mistaken. The Government knows it needs to empower small businesses to be data-driven. It wants to see “…small and medium enterprises (SMEs), confidently using technology, able to trade online, seizing technological opportunities and increasing revenues in domestic and international markets”. It’s aware currently only a third of SMEs currently sell products and services online.

The Big Data is there, available to be analysed and used by the creative industries. The UK is leading the world on open data, through its portal which brings together over 9,000 datasets into one searchable website.

Other support is available to the small creative business through the Technology Strategy Board’s Connected Digital Economy Catapult which promises to be “a new force to accelerate the success of UK digital innovators and SME entrepreneurs realise the commercial opportunities in the growth areas of the connected digital economy”. The Government is targeting small companies who are either already online and looking to scale up, or yet to commit. The intention is to reach 1.6 businesses in the next 5 years.

slim5Part of the problem is that companies don’t know what data is out there, but also they don’t know how to exploit it. There are analytic tools available- tools like Hadoop, an open source data distributing and processing software that is very good at reducing processing times of very big data. Visa used it to reduce the time to process 73 billion credit card transactions (over a mere two years) from one month to 13 minutes. It’s a truly disruptive technology. It’s also an accessible tool for the creative industries.

Big Data won’t replace creativity, inspiration, guesswork, creative hunches, but it will support them. It will enable our small companies to find their customers, to improve their products, and to adapt to be seen and experienced in the creative universe. It’s not something just for the large Telcos or IT companies. Our start-ups have a secret weapon in Big Data- and the kind of creativity they bring to bear on their products now needs to be applied to numbers.

As Dug Campbell say on his Digital Thinking blog “The digital world has afforded us all with an unparalleled opportunity to research, monitor, analyse and improve every aspect of our businesses. As a result, the businesses that will succeed are those which are able to maintain high quality and relevant data and use this vital information as the foundation for designing the content of the business”.

We know how to train great creative talent quite well in the UK. Now, because of start-up culture, we need to examine how big data can help the creative industries connect and grow. We’ve got to learn to love