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At school we were taught to plan stories with a beginning, a middle and an end.

Stories had a clearly defined structure.

They were linear, finite and proprietary, in that the author exercised complete control.

Many advertisers still plan their stories in this structured way. It suits their annual planning cycles and their rigid definitions of success for their stories to be linear, finite and message-controlled.

The clear message from last night’s Firestarters session was that this traditional approach to the planning of commercial stories is at best sub-optimal and at worst no longer fit for purpose.

In turn each speaker eloquently dissed one of the fundamental tenets of old school story planning.

(They each did more than that but I expect the fullness of their topics will be better captured by others elsewhere).

Effective modern stories are non-linear, non-finite (infinite sounds too hyperbolic), and non-proprietary in that they are jointly owned by teller and audience.

These are quite stressful concepts for advertisers because they have implications not just for downstream execution but also for upstream process and culture.

1) Ajaz Ahmed – The best brand stories are never ending.

That sounds interesting but how does it work in practice?

It means looking beyond your product.

The most enduring brands, those with “never ending stories”, are those (argued Ajaz) that have meaning beyond that which they produce.

It could be some kind of higher purpose (like Nike).

It could also be a story to do with the mechanism of production.

Disney made films, but also put in place the first creative department as we’d recognise it.

Edison made light bulbs, but also put in place the first R&D programme as we’d recognise it.

Plan for your stories to endure. Plan for something with a greater legacy value than a single campaign.

2) Matt Locke – The most effective stories are non-linear.

I say again, Matt covered so much more than this. But anyway…

Why should the beginning come before the middle?

At Channel 4 the digital game was seen as “merchandise” on  the back of the historical documentary that was broadcast on TV.

The game came after the programme.

But the game attracted a much bigger audience than the programme.

So next time round the game came first.

It stopped being merchandise and became a mechanism to generate an audience for the programme. In the example Matt gave the game delivered roughly a third of the eventual broadcast audience. A third of a pie that was considerably bigger than it would have been had the programme been treated as the beginning rather than the middle.

The moral of this non-linear story is that digital channels have moved way beyond a secondary support role to broadcast advertising.

Advertisers should reconsider their approach to campaign storytelling.

Yes you’ve spent the lion’s share of your production budget on your shiny new TV commercial. But that doesn’t necessarily make it the most effective beginning for your story.

3) Matt Heiman (and Matt Locke) – The best stories are not “yours”.

This went beyond Cluetrain. It’s not just markets that are conversations. The best modern stories are conversations too.

A linear approach to planning stories no longer cuts it.

Nor does a traditional, closed story planning and storytelling process.

You need to plan to listen and change your story in realtime in response to audience feedback and contribution. And your process needs to be set up to make this happen.

More importantly your culture needs to be set up to want to make this happen.

Done right, you plan for and embrace the fact that the feedback is an integral part of the story. The conversation is fundamental to the content.

You need a planned plan.

And you need a plan and a process for how you will respond when (not if) the plan deviates from the planned plan.

And you need to see this loss of control as a good and natural thing.

Transgression is good. A truly modern story is not worthy of the name until it has been retold by someone else in a weird, unexpected way.

I think this willful ceding of control is the most stressful aspect of modern storytelling to the traditional advertising mindset.

But these are great speakers, who are telling great modern stories, to huge receptive and responsive (not captive) audiences.

We need to learn from them.

Thanks as ever to Google and Neil Perkin. It was great.

One Response to “Google Firestarters #6 – Storytelling”

  1. […] Matt L addressed Phil‘s question on balancing this need for both story structure and adaptability he gave perhaps […]

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