In a week where data of various sizes is celebrated at Cannes, Dentsu’s Narayan Devanathan on why storytelling still holds sway
This is not a rant against Big Data. But I do have a point to make about why the art of advertising makes more sense than ever in the age of Big Data.
Let me tell you a bit about myself. I wake up any time between 4:45am and 5:15am daily to get ready for a workout beginning around 5:45am. In between, I use an Indian-made herbal toothpaste on an American-branded toothbrush, with a locally-manufactured unbranded tongue cleaner. I play a couple of word games on my phone. Catch some news on Twitter.
If my workout is a run outside, it’s usually without music, or with Pritam’s pirated music from Life In A Metro. If my workout is indoors, then my playlist may include Pandit Jasraj, MS Subbulakshmi, Jon Higgins, Music From The Novels of Haruki Murakami, and occasionally, The Alan Parsons Project.
My shower after is with a branded soap that varies — without any logic. Sometimes it’s a “men’s soap,” sometimes it’s Pears, and other times it’s Mysore Sandal Soap, Dove, FabIndia or Hamam.
My deodorant is Old Spice, and my cologne is Coach. Or Polo by Ralph Lauren, Musk by Body Shop, Wood Spice by Bath & Body Works, Salvatore by Ferragamo; whatever my wife has gifted me that is currently in the bathroom. My shoes are mostly Bata. My clothes are mostly unbranded, or at least ones where the brand is not conspicuous. On Fridays, I wear a Pathan suit to work, because why not? On other days, I think my attire depends entirely on the chemical imbalance in my brain. Not that there is much balance to begin with.
For breakfast, I’ll eat poha or eggs or idli or upma or uttappam or parantha. Because I’m a Tamilian born and brought up in Hyderabad, married to a Punjabi, living in a house run by a cook from outside Lucknow. In the background, shakti tracks play on the Carvaan. Social media on my phone – it’s not American, Chinese, Korean or Indian made—manages to stay in the background in the morning, except at the very beginning.
I then get into my diesel-powered Japanese-made SUV to make the 50km one-way trek into work. Sometimes I’ll take the Metro, once or twice a week. If I’m driving on my own, I listen to US-based NPR podcasts, mostly ad-free. If I’m being driven, then the radio is off and I prefer silence.
Except for flight tickets, I have never bought and never buy anything online. But I’m online practically all my waking hours. And I think 5 seconds is too long to wait to hit Skip Ad on YouTube.
I thoroughly enjoy the fruits of capitalism, and unabashedly peddle capitalism. Ideologically, I’m probably more liberal than conservative. I’ve written stories for children and young adults, dark fiction about crowd sourcing terrorism, a travelogue and essays on marketing and branding.
I love snakes. And dogs. Independently. And I can’t stand ants and mice. Other than those last two, I can probably like any other animal (I’m reserving judgment on humans as a species). If it doesn’t move, and is classified as edible, I’ll probably eat it (shh, don’t tell my mom). But my choice is always to be vegetarian. Because, as Anthony Bourdain discovered in ‘Kesar da Dhaba’ in Amritsar, when vegetarian food can be this yummy, why wouldn’t you want to eat it all your life?
I’ll read anything, but I love re-reading Enid Blyton, PG Wodehouse, Louis L’Amour, Oliver Strange, Bill Watterson, Goscinny & Uderzo, Hergé, Lee Falk, Ruskin Bond, and books edited lovingly by Anant Pai. Oh, and I like to hold a printed book. One gadget I lost and never missed is my e-book reader.
What does all of this make me?
It makes me an individual, just like — and just unlike — practically every other person on this planet. I — as you — have idiosyncrasies that are my own and nobody else’s. And because I’m the sum of my irrationalities, the best a business or brand can do is lob a story out there and see if I’ll be hooked by it. And then go out and seek more information, if I want to.
That seems like an awfully big risk, like casting an ocean-wide net, hoping to trap a minnow. But I can tell you with certainty what will happen with the alternative in the age of Big Data.
My reaction when Big Data leads a brand to me is to shun it instantly. If possible, I’d like to block it too. At the least, I’ll ignore it. Because I don’t want someone else — in this case the Big Brother called Big Data — telling me what’s right for me. Big Data makes businesses believe they can find the most opportune moment and medium to bombard me with their message. Here’s a secret: I am not waiting for your message. Ever.
So, is all Big Data inimical and / or useless? As new and old adversaries in business and marketing gather at Cannes, the odds seem stacked in favor of those backing Big Data right now. I’ll say this: the best use you can put Big Data to is to give yourself an inspiring starting point, a startling insight that gives you the beginning of the thread with which to weave the ocean-wide net. Not to treat me as a sniper’s individual target.
Oh, and here’s the other thing: once you attract one minnow with the right story, others will come too.