Here’s my latest column for Market Leader magazine.
As per last quarter if you’re a WARC subscriber you can read it on their website but they allow me to stick the ‘original submitted version’ on here, as long as it carries the disclaimer “Unedited Version” and the credit “Reproduced with permission of Market Leader, the strategic marketing journal for business leaders. To subscribe visit www.warc.com/bookstore © Copyright Warc and The Marketing Society.”
So, caveats having been caveated here it is:
Advertising people seem to have fallen in love with the idea that what they make are ‘stories’. Often, of course, they’re not. Or not good ones anyway.
Let’s examine that. I want to tell you a story...
1 The story is the frame, not the point
The best presentation I’ve ever seen was given by a radio producer called Piers Plowright. He walked onto the stage and said: “When I was a boy, I was playing on the beach near our house and I found this marvellous pebble.” Or something like that, I can’t remember the details, the actual story wasn’t important. We were all spellbound because he just started telling a story. He didn’t do any of that preliminary hoo-ha about thanking the organisers or saying how delighted he was to be there, he just started telling a personal, human story. Stories are powerful, but the act of telling one, and the way it’s done, is often more powerful. Most stories are, in themselves, pretty banal and predictable. A competent storyteller uses that to relax us and manage our attention, using the story as a framework. We know where it’s going, we’re looking forward to the ride, to the flavour the storyteller brings and the way they do it. The best example: the legendary vaudeville joke The Aristocrats. Do not Google that unless you’re prepared for the worst, most offensive language you have ever heard.
2 Real stories are hard
When it is the story itself that grips us, that’s normally because you’re in the hands of a real professional, someone who has studied Billy Wilder: “If you see a man coming through a doorway, it means nothing. If you see him coming through a window, that is at once interesting.” Someone who has thought about John le Carré: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.” Someone who knows about Chekhov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” Real, compelling stories that understand these principles are not just flung together. The narrative scientists at Pixar spend years developing the stories behind their movies. The twists, turns and switchbacks that will grip us and illuminate their characters, that will keep us watching and keep us caring are pored over in intense detail. And this is where the very best advertising people are worth their money; they can compress all that science into 30 seconds. That is a special craft and one which will keep an elite and tiny cadre of people employed long after the algorithms have taken the rest of our jobs.
3 No sadness, no story
As you’ll see above from Messrs Wilder, le Carré and Chekov, a good story normally includes something going wrong. This is where most advertising stories fail. I was once asked to provide help with a script for a male facial skincare product. The creative idea was that your life showed in the lines on your face and that therefore they should be cherished, not erased. Not a bad thought. It’s just that the script – a montage of scenes from a long life – was falling rather flat. You’ve probably guessed why. Every single vignette was of something positive and uplifting. It was a life full to the brim with celebration, achievement and air punches. So it was boring. There was no shade, no contrast, no tension to be released. You can tell an advertiser knows how to tell a story when they’re prepared to let some sadness in.
4 Not everything is a story
Street Fighter II is one of the all-time great video games. It’s also a great example of how you don’t need a story to hold attention. There’s no story, just action. The Marvel movies, similarly, aren’t gripping us with their narrative science, they’re doing it with moments – moments of spectacle, awe, dumb humour or speed. No one recommends a Marvel movie based on the story. It’s all about “that bit when...”. Artier movies or books are based on character rather than story, or atmosphere. Great console games are often about world-building. They imagine a different set of rules and possibilities and extrapolate from there. The best advertising does that too. It imagines a world where your brand is important and follows the logic from there. And then, of course, there are jokes. Most of the most successful advertising ever has just been good jokes. And great jokes are defiantly not stories: they work by actively resisting and subverting the structures and expectations of stories. Maybe more agency bosses should describe themselves as joke-tellers. That would be a better story.
Russell Davies is chief strategy officer at BETC, a contributing editor for Wired, and a relentless mucker-about on the internet. Follow @fourthingsabout on Twitter for a stream of links and articles related to this quarter’s topic.