Big Data, Big Careers: Alumni Find Inspiration and Creativity in Data Analytics Careers

Amy Sample, Kyle Andrews, Erica Tackett and Kjerstin Thorson hold a panel discussion for Data Day in WKAR Studios on Feb. 11, 2019. Photo by Dan Hartley.

As the advertising and media industries connect the dots between big data, creative storytelling and advertising, alumni are claiming a seat at the table, giving decision-makers the data they need to stay competitive.

Erica Tackett ’16 works as a content strategist for Weber Shandwick. She earned a B.A. in Advertising + Public Relations from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, and quickly advanced her career to find the sweet spot between creativity and data.

“Data’s amazing,” said Tackett. “It’s just really complicated. The word for data is ‘complicated.’”

Kyle Andrews ’09, who earned a Ph.D. in Communication from ComArtSci, used an understanding of data and communications theory to join one of the world’s most competitive social media companies: Instagram.

The alumni spoke on a panel of industry leaders for the second annual Data Day, joining Keynote Speaker Amy Sample, who serves as vice president for business intelligence at PBS. Their combined insights into the emerging field of data analytics introduced students to a world of creative and data-oriented career paths.

Behind the Instagram Experience

Andrews works as user experience researcher for Instagram, conducting qualitative and quantitative research to understand the perceptions of social media, use cases and reactions to new product features.

“I’m sort of the voice of the consumer inside the company,” said Andrews, who manages data for the social media platform. “The presentation is really important. Half my job is really figuring out how to disseminate the information.”

Andrews studied liberal arts at the University of Notre Dame and obtained a Master of Science in Public Relations from Syracuse University. He went on to earn his Ph.D., and worked in a variety of roles before joining the team that runs social media’s rising star.

“The company does really value academic collaborations, and pretty much every researcher has a Ph.D. at Facebook,” said Andrews. “At the core of what we do is basic social science research, looking at attitudes and behaviors and sort of the drivers of those.”

Andrews not only works for Instagram, a company owned by Facebook, but he also teaches courses in social marketing and research methods at George Washington University. His work is enhanced by the social sciences and communication theory.

“One of the great things about academia is being able to research topics of interest to you,” said Andrews. “Being at the company I’m at—and I think this goes for a lot of companies—the range of questions you’re able to ask and dig into is really broad, especially at a social media company that’s about communication and connection.”

Looking back at his career path, Andrews credits the Communication Ph.D. program and his research with much of his success.

“There’s really nothing that I learned here that I can’t apply in some way, in terms of all the theories around interpersonal communication, organizational communication, behavior change, relationship initiation,” he said. “Persuasion, social support, all of these things are what we do every day. I think I’m only made better at the job because of that theory that underlies that.”

While theory isn’t the first topic of discussion at Instagram, Andrews said there are constantly opportunities to use communication theory to answer real-world questions.

“It’s super relevant to what we do,” said Andrews.

Where Creativity and Data Intersect

“I came to Michigan State and really focused on advertising,” said Tackett.

During her college experience, Tackett knew she wanted to work with digital and social media, but she didn’t know what such a career might look like. With advice from professors of practice in Advertising + Public Relations, Tackett discovered there was more to digital media than she realized.

“For me, I always wanted to be a content strategist, but you really can’t be a strategist and decide what type of content to create, unless you know what type of content works,” said Tackett. “The only way to understand what works is really with data.”

Now, Tackett ranks as a senior account executive, leading social media content strategy for the Chevy Trucks product group. She knows integrating data analytics into her work is key to the success of her clients’ social media campaigns.

Working with a large team, she considers both the creative and the data behind it to produce results that outperform the competition on social media. She comes prepared to strategize with clients about content, creative, data analysis and account management. Leveraging what she learned at ComArtSci, Tackett brings it all together.

“When you can really understand the other side of a conference room, whether that’s analytics, creative, whatever that is, you just have a little bit more edge,” said Tackett. “That just makes you a stronger practitioner.”

In Search of ‘Unicorns’

ComArtSci provides courses that draw upon the arts and sciences to introduce students to data analytics, such as Media Planning or Audience Analytics. With the Minor in Advertising Analytics, students in Advertising + Public Relations can build their resume with data analysis before graduation.

Kjerstin Thorson, Ph.D., associate professor of Advertising + Public Relations, encourages students to consider a career in data analytics.

“Data analytics is a growing field,” said Thorson. “A lot of these careers are positions that are fairly new. You are inventing and creating your own role. For students who are curious, energetic and creative, this is the place to be.”

Thorson said careers in the field fall on a spectrum from data scientists, who may be solely devoted to metrics, to creative digital storytelling, where data plays a role.

“What’s cool about our college is we prepare students for careers just about anywhere on the continuum,” said Thorson. “That’s pretty rare.”

Demand is high for communicators with an eye on data.

"That's the one thing that everybody's looking for," said Sample.

After gaining more than 20 years of experience analyzing consumer behavior in the digital realm, Sample said an interdisciplinary education is vital to success in big data. 

"If you read data analytics job descriptions, they describe the 'unicorn' of you need to know data science, and SQL, and R, and you need to be able to tell great stories, and you need to be able to put together awesome PowerPoint presentations," said Sample. "Bring those communication skills. We desperately need them. Those are the people that we can't find."

By Melissa Priebe

Minor in Advertising Analytics