Becca Colbaugh: 7 Minute Smarketer

Earlier this week, our very own VP of Production and Operations Becca Colbaugh appeared on the 7 Minute Smarketer podcast to discuss JESS3, storytelling, and the future of data visualization. Listen or read the full transcript below:

[audio:|titles=Becca Colbaugh]

Bobby Lehew: Well, hello everyone. Welcome to the 7-Minute Smarketer. Whether you are a small business, a solo entrepreneur, or manage a large marketing communications department, this is the fastest place to get caught up on tools and techniques to make you a smarter marketer. I’m your host, Bobby Lehew. I’m here with my co-host Brian Blake and today our guest is Becca Colbaugh, Vice President of Production and Operations for JESS3. If you’re not familiar with JESS3, I guarantee you, you are familiar with the incredible work of JESS3. If you’ve seen the Google Gmail stop-motion animation or the State of Influencers, or the JESS3 State of the Internet or the recent ESPN puppet show.

Becca Colbaugh: That’s right.

Bobby: You’ve witnessed the wonderful data visualization and creative storytelling of JESS3. Becca, welcome to the 7-Minute Smarketer.

Becca: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s really a pleasure and an honor. I hope that people listening to us have taken a look at JESS3. We are kind of an insurgent agency. We’re all over the place. We’re headquartered in Washington, D.C.

Our tagline is that we are a creative interactive agency that specializes in data visualization. It’s a lot of buzz words, so hopefully what I can do here today is break that down and talk about what data visualization is, how we interpret it, what we are doing to take it to the next level and our process behind some of the ways that we provide meaning and context to data that just keeps on infiltrating our world.

Bobby: In the spirit of 7-Minute Smarketer, we have this limited time. But we’ve enjoyed a great dialogue about your office and it sounds like you have such an incredible team. You guys just had a recent meeting together, but you’re scattered all over the globe, right?

Becca: We are. Like I said, we’re headquartered in D.C., but we’ve got offices here in Oklahoma City, Orlando, L.A., New York, the U.K., and we’re just growing by the minute. It’s very exciting.

Bobby: It is very exciting. You guys have produced such great work. Well, let’s get right into it. You basically know the drill, Becca, right? You have seven minutes to make us smarter about your topic or you owe us a beer. It’s just because we’re thirsty guys, for the most part.

Becca: Sure.

Bobby: But I have a feeling… This always ends where it’s almost like we owe you by the end of this thing. What we’re going to talk about today, for those that are listening, is today we’re going to talk about best practices in data visualization and I have a few questions to get us started. We want to help folks understand and unpack this and demystify the idea of data visualization. Is it data or data?

Becca: Ooh, that’s a good one.

Bobby: Is that a million-dollar question?

Becca: That’s a million-dollar question and I cannot answer it today. I cannot give you the answer.

Bobby: That’s not even on my list. OK, so what’s the difference between data visualization and an infographic? Are we talking about the same thing?

Becca: We are talking about the same thing. When you think of data visualization, the reason why it’s even a word or something that we’re focused on is that we’re living in a data-driven economy. We’re living in data-driven businesses. That creates a start to thinking in data forms and that creates a data-driven society. So what data visualization is how do we just take all the data that’s flying around, whether it’s financial data or social data. Think about everything that’s flying out through Twitter, Facebook, Vimeo, YouTube. How do we make sense of all of this? How do we, basically, tune out the noise and make something a clear message?

One way of doing that is infographics. It is a hot-word. I think a lot of people don’t understand what infographic means. I think a lot of our clients that come to us, they just say, “Hey, we want an infographic because we know that you make them and they look cool.” They do look cool.

Bobby: They do look cool.

Becca: But the thing is is that there’s a way to determine… Is infographic the right way to visualize your data?

Bobby: Right.

Becca: There’s lots of ways to do it. You can do it through motion, through a video. A great example of that would be something we did for “The Economist.” It was the “Women’s Economic Opportunity Index.” It was a 150-page white paper full of data about the opportunities for women in the economies across the globe, or the lack thereof. Who’s going to sit down and read a 150-page white paper?

Bobby: Right.

Becca: Now, maybe some of “The Economist” fans because those are the geeks who like to geek out about these types of things, but for the average-day person or consumer or even brands, or someone like Amnesty International or the United Nations who have come to us and are using this motion piece that we did for “The Economist,” we need to dumb-down or… In other words, it needs to be snackable.

Bobby: Yeah, that’s really good.

Becca: In this instance, we did a motion piece where we took the rich data points out of this 150-page white paper and we told a story. So along with data visualization comes this fact that we are visual storytellers. What’s the story that this data is telling us and how can we best tell that story?

Bobby: Not to put words in your mouth at all, so correct me if I’m wrong here… But it looks as though, if you’re trying to communicate a very complex story, something that has a lot of moving parts, then this might be the right angle to go down. If I’m a marketing department or maybe I’m even an entrepreneur, a small business person, what are some best practices? What’s the work look like with you and a client as you start unpacking this big idea and you try to channel that into a very simple communication piece?

Becca: Sure. The first thing that we like to hear out is just… What are your goals? What do you have in mind? Who are the key people that will be involved in this type of project? From there, we try to start to digest it. We route it through both our creative team and our strategy team. Because, even though you think that you might have something that might be a good infographic, you might not have the data that’s going to meet the goal that you just expressed to us.

Bobby: Right.

Becca: If you don’t have that data, we can help you find the right data, or we can help change the story a little bit so it matches the data that you have or it matches the data that we’re going out and we’re finding.

Bobby: It’s OK if I come to you with just a concept?

Becca: Sure.

Bobby: I don’t have to have my ducks in a row in terms of exactly what I want. You guys are the experts anyways.

Becca: Right. Right.

Bobby: You would take that and say, “No, here’s what you want.”

Becca: Right. We have clients that run the gamut. Sometimes they come to us and they think that they know everything and sometimes they’re right. Sometimes they come to us, they think that they know everything and they’re totally wrong. We can help you from either/or situation. You can come with a concept and we can make it happen. You can come with an idea and we can say, “Hey, that sounds great. But let’s actually think about it from this angle.”

One challenge that we have with a lot of clients is that, and rightly so, they’re focused on their mission, their marketing, their product. But we know that, as consumers, we’re not interested in just learning about some product. We want to hear how that fits into the larger story. That’s what we really bring to the table is how does this fit into the larger story?

We actually call it Mr. Burns-ing it. I don’t know if you’ve seen “The Simpsons,” but when Mr. Burns starts to take over the sun, we call it Mr. Burns-ing it. What is the state of? What is the future of? How does your brand fit into the larger story? That’s how you’re going to get people excited and interested.

Added on that, you’ve got to make it look good. People are just missing this idea that something can be beautiful. You don’t have to have a standard web template or a standard graphic design. Make it hot. Make it look cool.

Bobby: These days, it has to be because the channels are so noisy.

Becca: So noisy. It’s overcrowded and you’ve got to find a way to stand out, not only in the story that you’re telling, the message and the data, but also in how it looks. That’s what we really pride ourselves on.

Bobby: I have a question from an operations perspective. What’s the creative thrashing process like at JESS3? I mean marketing teams are typically used to this thrashing process of creating ideas and doing the work.

Becca: Right. Well, there’s several different angles to that. From my perspective as head of production, I love the way that Tina Fey put it in her recent book, “Bossypants.” She said that producing is about discouraging creativity. You’re grateful to work for people who are talented and enthusiastic about their jobs, and you would think that, as a producer, your job would be to turn up creativity. But mostly, your job is to police enthusiasm.

That’s how I feel. I feel like the wet blanket that has to come in and say, “Hey, guys. We’ve got a budget here. We’ve got a deadline.” That’s one kind of source of contingency.

Then you have the creatives who just want to do what they want to do and they want to let it marinate. Creative takes time. You can’t rush the process. Then you’ve got strategy. Those guys could just think about this forever and ever.

Yeah, exactly. You’ve got the grass-tops and you’ve got the grassroots, and we’ve got to find somewhere in the middle where you have a nice pretty blue sky and some clouds. Those are the three areas where the thrashing happens.

But at the end of the day, we all know that we’ve got to get something out for our clients and we want to make it look awesome, so we tap in to each other’s roots and passions and what we’re good at and we come together to make something awesome.

Bobby: What’s been your favorite JESS3 project so far?

Becca: Oh, I knew you were going to ask that and, man, it’s such a difficult question. I do have to say that the ESPN project with the puppet show, Breaking down the rating process for national TV, it’s a really complex process. As someone who’s studied broadcast journalism, I didn’t understand it at school. Now, “X” amount of years later…

Bobby: Thanks to JESS3. There you go.

Becca: …Thanks to JESS3 and thanks to some puppets, I now understand it.

Bobby: I love that. We’re going to quote that. “Thanks to JESS3, thanks to some puppets, I got it.”

Becca: Yep.

Bobby: I know we could talk for half an hour. Isn’t that crazy?

Becca: I know. Where did the time go?

Bobby: Is there anything else you want to add, though? There may be something else that you wanted to mention that I don’t want to leave off, because this is great information.

Becca: Yeah. I do want to say that this isn’t just something that JESS3 thinks that is popular. I do want to quote Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian. He says, “I keep saying the sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians.” What does that mean? That’s crazy. He goes on to say that the ability to take data, to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualize it, to communicate it is going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades. I feel like JESS3, we’re already ahead of the game.

Bobby: Yeah, you are.

Becca: We’re already understanding it. We’re doing it and we’re doing it better than anyone else.

Bobby: Absolutely. Rebecca Colbaugh, you have been a fantastic guest.

Becca: Thank you so much.

Bobby: We owe you the beer now so we need to right away. Thanks for all the great information. Thanks for being willing to do this with us today. I admire JESS3 so much. What a creative agency.

Becca: Thank you so much.

Bobby: I was even at the New Media Expo and I saw a JESS3 black T-shirt there that I just had to have, they’re so awesome.

Becca: Oh, my gosh, that’s awesome. Yeah. I should have brought you some. I have a million!

Bobby: Oh, there you go!

Becca: I should have brought you some.

Bobby: Well, thank you again.

Becca Colbaugh is JESS3’s Vice President of Production & Operations. Follow her @Becca_Colbaugh.

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