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Ad Tech’s Real Talent Gap: Storytellers


martinkihnData-Driven Thinking” is written by members of the media community and contains fresh ideas on the digital revolution in media.

Today’s column is written by Martin Kihn, research director at Gartner.

There is an acute and growing skills gap that threatens the success of many otherwise admirable ad tech companies. Worse than the well-known shortage of developers and data scientists, there is a dangerous lack of good storytellers.

Yes, storytellers. I do not mean fast talkers. The last thing this industry needs is more mystery. “There is a lot of smoke and mirrors in this business,” a well-known consultant told me recently.

What we need are more people who are capable of providing to a cold and bewildering business the element that is most critical for any good story: a clear and engaging message.

The problem is obvious. Potential clients – the marketers who endure the pitiless conga line of vendor pitches – are hurting. Surveys in the past few years show that at least two-thirds of marketers are confused, and their CMOs feel worse.

Channeling Avinash Kaushik

Some of this stress is due to poor training and the pace of change. But a big culprit turns out to be vendors themselves. Another recent study showed that fewer than 25% of tech buyers thought the pitches they sat through were “effective in communicating differentiation.”

The ad tech industry hears the rattles. A number of different people, from a digital agency CMO to the founder of a well-regarded startup, have told me recently that they’re creating a new, still-undefined role to address the challenge. The position would be “quite senior,” the CMO said, “and able to explain what we do, create intellectual capital, tell the story of the brand, get out there.”

The startup founder was more blunt: “We need our own Avinash Kaushik.”

Before becoming Google’s resident evangelist, Kaushik was an analytics director at Intuit and well-known blogger. He had the rare ability to explain technical topics with passion, clarity, narrative drive and an absolute refusal to blather. He is a born storyteller.


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What both sides of the table – the vendors and the marketers – are groping for is a definition of a missing function. This is what I’m calling the storyteller. There is no reason the CEO or CMO could not fill this role, if they knew what it was, but there is good precedent for defining it as a new and distinct talent category.

An ‘Account Planning Moment’

Ad tech is at a turning point similar to that faced by the advertising industry itself in the 1970s. After the era of “Mad Men,” advertising endured declining media margins and uppity clients demanding accountability in their campaigns. Sound familiar?

Visionaries such as Stanley Pollitt at PWP in London responded with a new focus on science, customer research, deep insight, measurement and, above all, walking the client step-by-step through the technical details of the campaign. Overnight, a new role was born: account planner.

Ad tech now faces its own “account planning moment.” There is a real need for somebody to take the product – whether it’s the data-management platform, demand-side platform, supply-side platform, private marketplace, ad network, predictive cloud, whatever – and tell its true story. Imagine if some agency evangelist explained exactly how he or she bills for services. Clouds would part and hearts would (maybe) open.

None of this is to deny the need for technical talent, data scientists and public relations specialists. Everybody knows the industry needs engineers and sales people. The trouble is, many seem to think that is all we need. But most marketers in a recent survey – 93% – admitted they lacked skills, particularly analytics. At least one-third said they weren’t very good at recognizing what they didn’t have.

Real Storytelling Needed

There are good reasons to think an injection of classic storytelling could help. Narratives provide exactly the things frustrated marketers seem to want: clarity, engagement and a point of view.

Our brains are meaning-making machines. Yet we are naturally distracted. We have hundreds of daydreams a day and spend at least one-third of our waking lives somewhere other than where we are. So-called multiscreen “reality” increases distraction. Clear narratives – ones that we can follow and find interesting – are proven to stop this distraction.

Stories engage more of our brain more deeply than, say, a list of requirements or an hour of cliché. Athletes who visualize a race fire many of the same neurons as they do on race day, and likewise, people immersed in a storyline live it with their senses. Words matter. One study at the aptly-named Laboratory of Language Dynamics in France found that a sentence like “Paul kicked the ball” activated the brain’s motor cortex related to our feet.

Curing mental clutter and engaging the audience are reasons to ask yourself, “What is my story?” But good storytellers have always brought something more fundamental: respect for the audience. Behind closed doors, marketers admit they are tired of vague promises about “predictive models,” “machine learning,” “Hadoop clusters,” “real-time decisioning engines” and “personalized messaging.”

Just tell me the story: Who are you? Why do you exist? How do you help me?

Imagine you are sitting around a campfire in the High Sierras and somebody asks you, “So what does your product do, anyway?”


Follow Martin Kihn (@martykihn), Gartner (@Gartner_inc) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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