Everybody Is Not a Storyteller

Photo by  Charlene N. Simmons , used by permission under  Creative Commons License . 

Photo by Charlene N. Simmons, used by permission under Creative Commons License

This post, which originally was published on June 6, 2011, has been updated three times as interest in brand storytelling continues to rise.


Lately, everyone in advertising has become a “storyteller” specializing in "engaging content."

This isn’t true, of course. But I understand why everyone’s making the claim: Digital is the only part of advertising that’s growing or even working; social media has been the red-hot center of digital for nearly a decade now. To make social work, you need conversation-starting (and sustaining), share-worthy stories and story-driven content. (Now that we have chatbots, of course, you also need conversation-sustaining dialog and scripts for the bots, which also must convey stories.)

So content creation now is the biggest challenge of 21st century marketing in business and politics. It’s time-consuming and complicated. Most startling to ad people and political consultants, it requires a creative and strategic mindset that is alien to life-long inhabitants of traditional media. I still find myself explaining to agency people, for example, that good content must be ownable and original. Re-running content from well known magazines doesn’t build your brand, it spreads the magazines’ brands. Imitating others’ great content will sell about as well as Karaoke versions of classic hit songs. “Native advertising” that’s really just offensively self-serving advertorial has both failed and embarrassed those who try to spread it. (For more on “native,” look at Native advertising will fail if it means "Let’s lie to the natives.")

how to separate the wannabes from the real storytellers

Get content wrong and you can generate incredible damage for your cause. (Ask Fleet Laboratories’ Summer’s Eve “feminine wash,” Nestlé’s Kit Kat brand and many, many others.) But get it right and you generate legions of fans who promote you with more credibility, less cost and far greater effectiveness than you could ever muster with traditional ads. This is the enormous pot of gold at the end of the content rainbow. (Ask Ford Fiesta or a host of Story clients, including Unilever's Country Crock, and others.)

With so many claiming storytelling expertise, how does a marketer figure out who’s competent to lead a brand to the correct end of that rainbow? How do you ensure that you head toward greater effectiveness and away from being (literally) a douche? Let me suggest an approach.

I’ve been mixed up in storytelling work—photography, music, the movies, newspapers, magazines, books and online—since I quit high school, which I confess was quite a while ago.

My Story colleagues and I predicted some 15 years ago that the world, driven by digital technology, was entering a post-advertising age. CMOs, we said, would quit searching for the perfect 30-second spot to interrupt well-loved TV programs; instead, adland would have to focus on making rich, original content — content good enough, smart enough, involving and valuable enough to attract and hold an audience on its own.

The predictions have come true. From academia, the Wharton School’s prestigious SEI Center for Advanced Management Studies has declared, through its Future of Advertising Project, “Classical advertising has gone the way of black-and-white television.” The new marketing gospel preaches that “every brand is a publisher” that must create its own media. But even that mantra is now out of date because creating and spreading brand content is not about publishing; rather, it is replacing advertising.

This simple, true dogma has caught most marketers unprepared, struggling to figure out which stories to tell and how to get original content created that the brand’s targeted audiences will value.

Back in 2010, the Advertising Club of New York invited five top marketers from big brands to debate the future of advertising. I sat in the audience and heard Kimberly Kadlec, Worldwide Vice President of Johnson & Johnson’s Global Marketing Group, say, "Content is the biggest opportunity in front of us and probably the most complex."

Kadlec was representing the prevailing sentiment. Many others have identified the problems associated with creating good content as among their biggest marketing challenges. Kadlec told the Ad Club that the quality of brand content is far more critical than the channel used to convey it. "Content—it isn't going to be about where it is, but what it is," she emphasized.

traditional ads are failing to deliver, but the power of narrative remains strong

I’m pretty sure we all know what’s driving the great switch to original brand content: It’s partly traditional advertising’s continued slide down the slippery slope of ineffectiveness; partly the ascendancy of social media, which demands and devours interesting content to spark conversations; partly the fact that brand storytelling is now old enough to have a track record which proves stories can drive purchase behavior quickly and profoundly.

Just as importantly, we’ve seen a renaissance of the cultural acknowledgement that stories are the best way to communicate an idea in a persuasive way. Here’s the literary glorification of storytelling that I encountered most recently. It is, of course, one among thousands of such passages permeating our literature. This one is from Middlesex, the Pulitzer-winning novel (2003) by Jeffrey Eugenides. The passage describes a Greek Orthodox seminarian’s response to another character’s cynical comments about Bible stories.

“That’s how people live…by telling stories. What’s the first thing a kid says when he learns how to talk? ‘Tell me a story.’ That’s how we understand who we are, where we come from. Stories are everything. And what story does the Church have to tell? That’s easy. It’s the greatest story ever told.”

With experts from Eugenides to old-fashioned management guru Tom Peters now saying stories are everything, what’s a beleaguered CMO to do with that information?

Can we start with the history? Please? Like any discipline worth mastering, storytelling has a history that needs to be understood and a set of skills that can only be acquired through long experience and maintained through constant practice.

Treating an old and tested idea as if it were new and revolutionary is never very helpful. In the case of brand content, it’s really important for CMOs and their teams to understand that content marketing is actually a very old idea that is being driven to ascendancy by the rise of digital media.

not knowing history is the same as knowing nothing

Mitch Joel, a thoughtful marketer whose blog we read regularly, once posted “Will a Brand’s Next Big Move Be A Journalism Department?” It seems an interesting question, especially now that “brand newsrooms” are all the rage. But it becomes somewhat less revolutionary if you happen to know about all the brands over the past century that created journalism departments to reach, involve and influence their audiences.

I have to assume that Joel’s post would have been more valuable had he known something of modern brand journalism’s rich 117-year history. I tend to date brand journalism from the exquisitely factual and deeply reported travel stories first published in 1900 by a little French auto tire outfit called Michelin. The Michelin Guides, of course, still flourish.

Since 1900, brand journalism has recorded numerous milestones. Two of my old favorites include fashion brand Benetton’s launch in July, 1991, of Colors magazine, an experiment in crusading international journalism—pro-integration; anti-discrimination—that captured the imagination of the brand’s young audience. Another great milestone is the first publication in 1986 of a Dutch technology firm’s brand magazine, Language Technology (later, Electric Word). The content proved a lot more exciting than the original title and the magazine eventually morphed into Wired. (I first reported this story at length in my business book, Thinking Inside the Box, published by Simon & Schuster’s Free Press in 2003.)

I tell these tales only to suggest that random thoughts about storytelling—a discipline as old as humankind—are likely not worth much. With all this in mind, let me quickly sketch the things a CMO ought to look for to make sure the agency that’s claiming storytelling expertise actually is content-focused:

the 5 things to demand when choosing a content agency

1. The agency has got to know content marketing is not a new idea.

The first step toward being a storyteller—including a brand storyteller—is to know what’s been done in the past so you can imitate the best, avoid repeating the worst and constantly move the craft forward. Knowledge of the history and heritage of content, in other words, is the first critical component needed to answer the central pragmatic question confronting marketers: How do we DO this? (For example, if your potential agency partner brags that it’ll build you a “brand newsroom,” don’t let them do it unless they can explain the process by which the Associated Press cranks out its regional wire editions.)

2. The agency must have people who know how to hold an audience— journalists, animators, writers, filmmakers, artists and others with real experience as storytellers.

Recognizing and crafting a good, authentic, persuasive and original story is both an inborn talent and a learned skill. Make sure your agency puts people in front of you who have deep experience at a very high level with all kinds of stories. A great content-focused agency will have award-winning journalists, screenwriters, playwrights, comedy writers, filmmakers, novelists and so on. These are people who have spent their professional lives working to engage audiences. Since the point of marketing content is to attract and hold an audience, these are the people you want in the room as your brand stories are crafted.

3. The agency has to understand that there are three ways to tell a brand story and two of them are wrong.

I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating. Most traditional ad agencies and digital agencies try to tell stories about a brand, which is just traditional advertising with a longer runtime and a new label. Or they present stories unrelated to the brand and tell the audience it’s "brought to you by" Brand X. This approach, which rarely works anymore, should be familiar from TV's earliest days. The right way is to tell compelling stories that embody the brand, its attitudes and its promises. Brands must literally turn themselves into stories--creating original media that their customers actively choose to engage with, explore and then share with others.

4. The agency must have a repeatable, proven, understandable, results-oriented process for locating a brand’s core narrative and turning it into executions. Hunches won’t cut it.

A consistent narrative is really the only way to create effective multi-channel integration. It also is the only way to insure that a global brand will maintain the power of consistency while being crafted into different local stories that will resonate across cultures and countries. So branding has to begin by locating the core narrative of a brand. That means your agency must have a proven process for finding a brand’s core narrative, for explaining the narrative and its creative implications to the brand team (including other agencies) and for setting brand strategy to achieve your marketing goals. Make sure your agency has such a process and that you aren’t the guinea pig for it.

5. The agency must understand audiences and the stories of their lives.

Your content-focused agency is not there is broadcast the “messages” your brand “needs” to broadcast. Nor do they exist to agree with you about how important and compelling you and your brand’s attributes are. Your agency is there is understand what drives your audience, what role your brand can best play in their lives and how to narrate that relationship between brand and audience in convincing and entertaining ways that build the most powerful connections and most profoundly affect purchase behavior. Your agency needs to understand that the best brand story is the one the audience wants to be a part of. As we say at Story, we sell by respecting the audience.

There are lots of other considerations, of course, in choosing an agency. Do you like the people? Can you work collaboratively with them? Do they understand your industry, your brand? Are they smart? And so on. But the five must-haves listed here can eliminate most pretenders and allow you to choose among tested, competent contenders.