Last week I got back from running our second Google Firestarters in Sydney, and our first ever event in Auckland. Our theme for both events was Digital Storytelling, which is one of those multifaceted subjects that elicits lots of opinion, but we were particularly interested in the theme from the point of view of the intersection between data and creativity - aspects including effectiveness, process, content, how one informs the other. As always with Firestarters we had some exceptional speakers who all came at the topic from different angles which across the two events made for a nicely protean, many-sided view on the state of digital storytelling.
First up at our inaugural Auckland event was James Hurman, author of The Case for Creativity (an updated version of which is being launched in Cannes in June) and Principal at Previously Unavailable. James talked about his reflections on the campaigns that have won both a gold Cannes Lion for creativity and a gold Effie award for effectiveness. One of the big themes from over 30 campaigns analysed was that ideas that win in terms of both effectiveness and creativity tend to be the ones that get well-shared. This echoes Peter Field's work in merging the IPA and Gunn Report databanks which demonstrated the correlation between campaigns that drive 'fame' and resultant marketing and business impact. James went further to ask what kind of campaigns tend to be shared and there were two distinct groups: those that position the brand in the service of a cause, a clear purpose or addressing social issues (P & G's #LikeAGirl, Under Armour's 'I Will What I Want', AMEX Small Business Saturday or a lovely example he showed from Intermarché about tackling food waste), and those that involve more 'doing' and less 'saying'. This latter group he spoke of in terms of the value of 'storydoing' rather than 'storytelling' in driving commercial success.
Jane Stanley, MD of Resolution and Accuen (Omnicom) in New Zealand, added to this with her own perspective based on a personal journey coming from a data background which was more characterised by sub-segmentation, predictive modelling, attribution and correlation analysis, to a creative agency (M & C Saatchi) where it was more about creativity as the lead, the brutal simplicity of truth, and claimed data being everything. Why, asked Jane, is data such a dirty word in the world of creativity? Particularly when it can inform both innovation and experience (she referenced a lovely example of the development of the Blase laser light, which came from data demonstrating that 79% of cycling incidents happen when drivers manoeuvre into the rider’s path). We should stop thinking of data as a success or failure metric, and put more value to it’s ability to optimise creative, drive significant results from relatively small changes (through UX optimisation: ‘Forget big data, just think smart data’) and as a reason to change the way in which we work as agencies. She finished with this great quote from John Cleese:
“Data can be used in a variety of ways to help you operate creatively. So long as you look at creativity as something to be facilitated rather than engineered. Data opens up spaces for invention and exploration, rather than as part of closed-mode analysis”
Nathan Cooper (author for many years of the brilliant Rubbishcorp, and now the creator of Radioblog) spoke of the inherent tension between the subjective nature of creativity and the objective nature of business, and of the changing way in which we need to tell stories in a world of digital ubiquity and shifting consumption (I loved: ‘brains hoover images’). Content, he said, is the bastard love child of advertising and digital. In its truest sense the word is defined as a receptacle that holds other things (whether that be ideas, concepts, values, calls to action) and so the industry needs to embrace a different way of thinking about content that doesn't shackle us to traditional outputs.
Building on this idea of ubiquity Gavin Becker, Head of Digital, Technology & Innovation at Colenso BBDO, took this into the realm of connected objects/devices. With Gartner predicting that 5.5m new things will be connected every single day this year and that by 2020 we'll witness a total of 20-30Bn connected devices, Gavin asked the question what happens when everything tells stories? As physical objects become increasingly aware and autonomous does everything become more actionable? As technology empowers things to become authors, agents, partners, customers (and even spies) does this mean more transactional relationships and less persuasion (as in usability trumps persuasion perhaps)? Could improved discovery mean a lesser need for imagination? Will this result in a need for more meaning and less marketing (or maybe marketing but not as we know it?). Gavin's appropriation of this Kurzweil quote about how ultimately stories are what makes us human captured nicely a key theme that ran through all of the talks:
Our speakers at our second ever Sydney event a few days later complemented these angles with those of their own. Firestarters veteran Faris Yakob began by using Camille Henrof's Grosse Fatigue artwork as a way to describe a way of telling stories that is informationally highly dense, with content forms smashed into others to create a new form, echoing one of the defining characteristics of digital - this ability to remix, re-appropriate and redefine. Humans are hard wired to enjoy stories since they can make sense of complexity and the inherently unpredictable ('stories are models of action in the world'), and there is comfort in simplification and understanding. Drawing from the themes discussed in his excellent book, Faris spoke of how the job of stories is to hold attention ('we remember the anecdote of the experience rather than the thing itself') but attention has value, and as so many things now call on our finite supply of this precious resource gaining attention gets progressively more expensive ('there are no easy pockets of attention left'). Nicely illustrated by this video clip he used:
So we've invented ways to hack attention. In a typically wide ranging but super-insightful talk he spoke about why the current state of VR feels a bit like Wall-E because the story has already been told but we don't yet have the grammar to explain it, and why we're in danger of creating stories with the 'Swayze effect' (like the character in Ghost, frustrating because we can't actually touch anything), and the balance between quality and duration of attention on the 'axes of attention':
Angela Morris, Exec Planning Director of JWT Australia echoed some of these themes around how the abundance of information has broken the model of attention that we've so long relied upon. A seven country Asia/Pacific survey that JWT conducted last year confirmed that people are not as interested in brand marketing in the digital space as marketers and advertisers would all like them to be (I liked: "The idea that the same consumer who was frantically clicking her TV remote to escape from advertising was going to merrily click her mouse to interact with it is going to go down as one of the great advertising delusions of all time.”).
There is a growing fallacy that consumers really trust what brands say, want to participate, have a conversation with brands, to be retargeted, to do the work of the brand for them, and yet storytelling has stood the test of time as being one of the most effective ways to communicate information from one person to another in a way that is understandable, memorable and actionable. It encourages the processing of information, stimulates the brain and is a driver of emotional value (she used the Significant Objects project, which took a number of thrift store objects and used stories about them to show how people would pay more for them on ebay, as an example of this). Perhaps it is storytelling that will really be the saviour for digital marketing. So what if we rethought our role not as conversation starters or digital disruptors or advertisers but as modern storytellers in a digital medium?
Graeme Wood talked about how (in media agencies especially) data is often confused with automation, and programmatic trading models. We've all heard the meme about how 'data is the new oil':
And yet equating data to oil, said Graeme, is a confusion of basic economics since oil derives value through being scarce and hard to access. So the value in data is not inherent, it is in what you do with it. Marketing and advertising are based on the commercial value of ideas and so data and creativity should not be a new polarising force for the industry, but we are in danger of making it so by thinking about what we CAN do with it rather than what we SHOULD do with it. He used a quote from Byron Sharp to emphasise that whilst science might use data to make gradual improvements it can also be the springboard for transformation shifts:
'Empirical laws explain the way the world is. Newton's laws are purely descriptive: they don't tell you how to make a rocket. There is plenty of room for creativity and engineering'
As James mentioned in Auckland, data from the IPA databank shows that emotive, fame driving effects in campaigns correlates strongly with profitability. Graeme drew a distinction between demand generation and creating desire - demand is short term, and creates growth in incremental evolution, yet desire is long term. Long term impact can also create short term demand but by chasing incremental growth we rarely have a long term impact on the brand. Creativity is the biggest factor that we can control in this, yet we are driven often by short-term focus (ignoring the long-term impact of growth in brand equity). We're pretty bad at learning from the past, but predicting success based on past data is getting ever harder.
Markets aren’t based on advertising – there are stronger forces at work, yet we need to be able to better quantify the options we put in front of clients (as the risk/reward is largely theirs) so the opportunity is to think about how we use data to reduce complexity and reduce the risk. So campaigns might be thought of more as 'a linear series of non-linear events' populated by 'catalysts and staged amplification' (I really liked this idea, and there was an interesting tale that Graeme told about how the Arab spring happened to illustrate it). Graeme paraphrased the old forest fire analogy, saying:
'It isn’t enough to drop lots of matches, you also need the right conditions for fire – creativity gives us the matches, data tells us where to drop them...If you put data at the heart of what you do, you will get gradual change. If you use data to create, to revolutionise, to zig when everyone else zags, to hit a target no-one else can see, it can change the world.'
It was a fitting quote to capture a broad theme echoed throughout seven exceptional talks across two excellent events. My thanks to Google in Australia and New Zealand for hosting, to our brilliant speakers, and to all those who came and joined in the lively debate. All being well we're looking to do more events down under later this year and so suggestions forexceptional speakers and themes that we might cover are, as ever, welcome.