At some point you recognize the tipping point. You know, when in just about every business conversation you have, someone eventually says the “magic word.” For a long time there it was “viral,” wasn’t it? You just knew at some point somebody would throw that out there. It was usually followed by enthusiastic head nodding by the others involved in the conversation. Now storytelling has become that magic word. Everyone loves to talk about the power of storytelling. It’s fascinating because neither the word, nor the concept, are particularly new to marketing communications. We’ve seen ourselves as storytellers for a very long time, and in fact we’ve been storytellers for a very long time. So, why now do we seem to be talking about storytelling with extra gusto?
There are probably several reasons for this. Perhaps it is in part a reaction to the metrics-driven approach that the marketing industry has been caught in for the last decade or so. Let’s face it, none of us — client-side or agency-side — got into this business because we loved taking statistics courses back in school. Maybe stories are our way of telling the bean counters to back off. Or could it be that the answer is more culturally-driven than that? Maybe this golden age of television we are in (Mad Men, Downton Abbey, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Breaking Bad…) has reminded us how compelling good storytelling can be. A third cause could be that the democratization of storytelling tools has made it easier for anyone, and everyone, to be storytellers. Virtually anyone can be an author, poet or filmmaker today, and share their stories with the world. As a reaction to that, maybe we feel the need to re-establish our role as cultural storytellers by flexing our narrative muscles.
And yet, if you were to watch an evening or two of primetime television, you wouldn’t see much storytelling happening during the commercial breaks. Why is that? At a time when people are less likely to watch commercials than ever, shouldn’t we be trying to make more compelling content? Why is it that T-Mobile spends millions of dollars on ads that feature the same character, yet those ads have absolutely no connection to each other? Why does Progressive feature Flo in every ad, yet we’ve seen no real narrative advancement? With YouTube available to everyone, it’s not as if having a narrative thread would make it impossible for people coming in late to catch up.
How many of you remember the Taster’s Choice (Gold Blend for UK readers) ads? Yeah, these ones. They first ran twenty years ago and I vividly remember them. They captured the imagination of the countries they ran in with their “will they / won’t they?” storyline that lasted for six or seven years and nearly a dozen spots. And they sold product as well.
Today, storytelling seems to be for online only, and then for extended length films rather than episodic storytelling. Sure, we all love Chipotle’s “Back to the Start” piece or Johnnie Walker’s amazing, do-it-all-in-one-take “The Man Who Walked Around The World” but those seem to be the exceptions.
With all the tools available to marketers, and all the channels through which people are consuming content, I think there is a greater opportunity available to us. But what do I know? I’m certainly no novelist. I don’t own an agency that specializes in innovative storytelling techniques. I don’t run a website that uses novels as a jumping off point for cultural discovery. That’s why I’ve reached out to Jim Othmer, Jeff Gomez and Richard Nash, who, respectively, are all those things. This Thursday, January 31st at 3pm, Othmer, Gomez and Nash will be my guests for IGNITE NYC, Y&R New York’s very own live talk show. Jim, a Global Creative Director at Y&R has written a number of books; Jeff is the CEO of Starlight Runner, a transmedia storytelling agency, and Richard works at Small Demons, a brilliant little website that no description would do justice, so go check it out.
But this show goes up to 11! We’ll also be joined by Y&R planner Matt Colangelo, who has recently put together a report on storytelling, aptly named, The Story Behind Storytelling. He also studied the role that early modernist authors (such as James Joyce and Ezra Pound) had in innovating traditional storytelling techniques while at Oxford. So,yeah, he’s got game.
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