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Why We Need Storytelling in a Data-Driven World

4 min read

I'm Jeremy Carson, and this is everything I wish I knew about the advertising and creative industry when I got started. And everything I'm discovering as a Creative Director today.
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Storytelling is the backbone of creative. It's what makes people feel, because they can't just think. It's what makes people love a brand, not justify its existence. But it does that for people, not a person. We don't only need to tell a good story, but we need to tell each person the right story.

That's where data comes in.

The problem with data is, most of the industry sucks at using it. Because they see it as the enemy of creative. And because of that, a line's been drawn. On one side lies the heart: creative storytelling. And on the other is the head: data.

But data without a story is heartless and something interesting happens when heart meets head.

The Shift From Universal to Personal

See, data is just information, whether you get it from talking to people or measuring the behaviors of millions online. And if you talk to a strategist, like Mark Pollard, he'll tell you that "All insights are data-driven." I agree with him, and insights are the key to a good story, to good creative. (He also says it's a "crap term," which I agree with, and hope we get rid of some day, once we realize it's all data-driven.)

But when I talk about data-driven marketing, I'm talking about finding that insight, creating a story around it, and then (now this is where the shift happens) crafting that story differently for different people. It's something we've never been able to do before and, for some reason, are resistant to now.

Some examples of this are W+K's Spotify Playlist campaign or Saatchi's Camry Emoji Test Drive. Okay, I may be biased on that one.

This shift from a single, universal story to many, personalized stories is the goal. But data is only a tool to do that. We need storytelling to make it happen.

The Pizza Principle

Recently, I realized that, when data and creative are combined correctly, it's kinda like making pizza.

Anyone that's ever brought pizza to a party knows what kind to bring: cheese. It's a crowd pleaser. Dough, sauce, cheese. Now, good creative, it's just like delicious cheese pizza. And just like any creative, there's good and bad cheese pizza.

But you know what's even better than good cheese pizza? Hawaiian pizza. Yeah, some people think I'm insane for loving the tango of tangy sauce with sweet pineapple. And those people probably like pepperoni. Or maybe a veggie pizza. Margherita, perhaps. Or the dreaded sardine.

You personalize a pizza with the right toppings and a person will love it even more. That's what data can do: personalize a great piece of creative.

You can't personalize a story if there's no story.

But instead, what agencies use data for is throwing handfuls of toppings at people, over and over, without any pizza. Yeah, we looked at the mushrooms once, that doesn't mean we want you to pelt us with mushrooms for a month until we eat them.

Or they stick to cheese pizza. Mayyyybe pepperoni. What's the point of personalizing a pizza if everyone loves cheese?

Without the pizza, the toppings are pointless. But without the toppings, the pizza is generic. But you can't personalize a pizza if there's no pizza. And you can't personalize a story if there's no story.

Using Data to Tell a Brand's Story

The early days of being data-driven meant analytics, optimizations, A/B testing, changing the button to red if people clicked on it more than the blue one, or retargeting people with that thing they thought about buying. It was all about sales.

Brand, that was something different. You had to figure out exactly what the brand wanted to say and then say THAT to everyone.

But what we're realizing is that we can use data-driven marketing to build brand, as well. To tell their story. Because a brand means something different to each person. And, when we use data to find out what it means to them, we can use it to tell that story.

Smart brands use data to understand the different ways to tell their story.

For instance, I may dig Nike's message about stopping procrastination. Others may love Nike's view on pushing yourself past your limits. Some focus on Nike's desire to champion the idea of sport connecting people in the world.

All of them are Nike, but we all connect with that brand in our own way. A smart brand will tell different stories to different groups in ways that's not just relevant to the brand, but is relevant to the viewer, as well.

Stories Define Success, Data Drives It

Facebook did a study (which they won't give to me!), which showed that the creative determined 80% of a social campaign's success. Meaning that, if the creative was bad, or if it didn't connect with the audience, then it had an 80% chance of failing.

So, not only do we need to tell a great story, but we need to tell the right story to the right people. Data is essential in knowing who we're talking to. Creative storytelling is essential in talking to them well. The two aren't enemies. Neither is going anywhere, so it's time for us to find how they can work together.

That is the next generation of advertising.

Thanks for reading!

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