Robots can't tell stories (yet): The ongoing need for creative professionals

Oct 16, 2018

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Will robots steal our jobs as creative professions (in my case, as a brand storyteller)? It’s a strange question, but one that popped into my head recently when I attended a marketing technology conference in Boston.

Many vendors displaying at the conference seek to automate marketing. They can help you “engage” with visitors to your website with a friendly chatbot (a robot that asks and answers questions); they can help you reach out to old prospects with automated emails that use artificial intelligence to customize messages and responses (again, robot-driven engagement); a few vendors even used artificial intelligence to set up meetings with potential customers, leading me to ask, “Mr. Robot, can you connect me with your human boss?”

AI conquers the world (or does it?)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, martech (marketing technology) vendors are in love with automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, algorithms, and robots. I get it, and I’m not against technology at all. In fact, I constantly use digital tools in my brand storytelling work.

I use them judiciously, thinking deeply about what I need to do manually and what I can do more effectively with technology. I think of myself as a “human + machine” blender, trying to get the best out of each.
If you want to exasperate a martech vendor, ask them, “How should a creative professional analyze what functions they should automate versus which ones they should do manually?” Not one vendor was able to provide a coherent answer, or had even considered this basic question. They wanted me to automate everything, including the research, writing, and editing of my stories.

Well, I’m not surrendering my livelihood to a bot.

The complexities of crafting human stories

I described to one martech vendor how I craft brand stories for my B2B clients. I explained how I work to understand a client’s strategic goals, asking what the client wants the audience to feel and then do after reading the story.

Next, I carefully collect and assemble information/data sources and story materials (interviewing experts, researching online, etc.), then look at each component to decide how they might be optimally integrated into a story that meets the client’s goals. Then I build the story and analyze whether it’s "working" or not, and then I tweak and revise (and sleep on it) and collaborate with my client until we’re happy with the whole thing.

The vendor listened carefully, surprised by the complexity and subjective nature of each step in the creative process. “I’m the filter, the one making these tough calls as creative choices emerge,” I told him, “and every story is different because every storyteller has a different filter created by his or her life experience.”

He paused for a moment, and I think (or hope) he learned something about crafting brand stories.

The limits of automation/AI

You can’t automate everything, at least not yet. You can’t allow an algorithm, however brilliantly designed, to make the most important creative decisions in marketing. People matter, because they bring surprise, emotion, deep human connection, and the mysteries of creative expression.

Every story represents a mystery, a puzzle, a long journey to find meaning, resonance, beauty and purpose. Every story’s goal is human connection (as novelist E.M. Forster advised, “Only connect”). Hard stuff to automate, all of that.

I don’t want to read a story assembled, structured, and crafted by a robot that’s been designed by a team of engineers and mathematicians, no matter how brilliant those scientists. Stories are the most deeply human interactions we have, not just as the storyteller confronts the material and expresses meaning through his or her own filter, but also the mysterious interaction between the “finished” story and the reader who interacts with that story.

I heard none of these thoughts at the marketing technology conference, except when hearing my own voice speaking into a wilderness of vendors handing out keychains. Perhaps I am being too harsh on these tech vendors—they are obviously brilliant, cutting-edge technical minds, but some things can’t be hacked or automated or made subject to an algorithm, including the magic of story.

Sorry, robots: You're not ready for primetime

I am a deeply human and emotional person and, by the way, a brand storyteller. I have only one function as a marketer, crafting stories that connect.

That may sound simple but it’s actually the most complicated job in the world. After my three hours roaming around the martech conference, I’m not worried that a robot or algorithm will steal my storytelling job. Quite the opposite, I now view my job as more important, vital, and deeply-human than ever.

And I apologize to my robot readers who may have been offended reading this: you’re not quite human enough for me, at least not yet.

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is a freelance B2B Brand Storyteller who connects brands and customers through engaging stories. His clients include Sojourn Solutions, The Boston Globe's BG Brand Lab, MITx, abas USA, and The National Center for the Middle Market. His website is