Jul 31, 2007


I recently stumbled upon the Talentworks section of AdAge.com, whereupon I came across this story about R/GA’s newest Executive Creative Director. And I decided to share it with you because it’s significant for so many reasons.

First and foremost is that it makes use of my new favorite buzzword: Storytelling. Now a few weeks ago, I noticed that an acquaintance had taken a new job as “Director of Storytelling” for a company I’d never heard of. Foolishly, I assumed he was working for some kiddie web site, where his job would be to somehow get Johnny Tremaine, Misty of Chincoteague, The Phantom Tollbooth and other childhood classics onto the internet.

But no, it turns out “storytelling” is something completely different. It’s what “media agnostic” agencies do for their clients: they tell the brand’s “story” over a variety of media.


It’s such a perfect buzzword too, because it sounds so warm and fuzzy, not to mention sort of classy. Storytelling. I mean who could be against something so positively “engaging”?

It’s also a great term because you can apply it to just about anything. The “storytelling” experience in the article, for instance, was “a JetBlue campaign that integrated traditional storytelling with interactive media in the form of a traveling "story booth," where travelers could videotape their stories about experiences with the airline. The videos became the basis for the campaign's work online and on TV.” (emphasis added)

Now call me crazy, but “traditional storytelling” to me is a children’s librarian sitting in a chair surrounded by a couple dozen kids as she acts out some fable about a Lithuanian ox. It’s certainly not about a clever way to gather customer testimonials.

You can be sure to see “storytelling” cropping up all the time now as a way of describing pretty much anything having to do with advertising or marketing, especially anything untraditional. Clients all think their brands have an interesting story to tell, and agencies will only be too happy to tell it for them.

What’s baffling, however, is that where I come from, advertising is supposed to be about news. You know, tell me something I didn’t know about the product, something I might actually care about, because that’s the only reason I’m going to take the time to listen to you. Now “storytelling” sounds dangerously like “tell the consumer what I, the brand, want to say” rather than “tell the consumer what s/he wants to hear.” It makes that deadly assumption that I actually want to sit down and hear some long drawn out story from your brand, and as we all know Your Brand Is Not My Friend. So I don’t really care to hear its story. Unless, of course, there’s some news in there for me.

Now there are two other things of note in this TalentWorks story. The first of which is yet another example of lazy, reprint-the-press-release journalism. The ECD in question, Robert Rasmussen, is going to be running the Nike account at R/GA. And the article plays up his whole JetBlue “storytelling” experience, while failing to even once mention that he spent 10 years (1994 – 2004) working on Nike at Wieden and Kennedy, doing all sorts of award-winning work and no doubt greatly endearing himself to the Nike client. A fact that I, no brilliant journo myself, was able to quickly glean from his public LinkedIn Profile.

Finally, there’s this gem: the article, as so many do in this 2.0 world of ours, allows for unedited commentary. And the one comment (as of today) is this vituperative screed from a “Jennifer A. of Norwalk, CT”
Can we be honest here? Anyone who has worked with Robert knows he is arrogant, rude and a hack who lucked out with this job. This is one reader who will happily watch his demise. JWT Forever! –NORWALK, CT
Wow. That is nasty, public, raw, inappropriate and leaves you wondering WTF? Is Jennifer his ex-wife? A friend with a PoMo sense of humor? A jealous rival for the JetBlue account? A young assistant whose advances he spurned? I mean I assume Rasmussen and his friends won’t have too much trouble figuring out who “Jennifer A. of Norwalk, CT” is.

The whole thing is rather fascinating in a People magazine sort of way. And if we were to somehow find out the actual history behind this post, that, my friends, would be storytelling.


HighJive said...

one man's storyteller is another's bullshit artist.

Anonymous said...

Agreed that its inappropriate, but assuming it's a genuine comment from a real person, I have to admit that it's also kind of refreshing. I mean, am I the only one who thinks it's kind of silly that so many ad pros who blog (and spend hours and hours doing so) do it anonymously?

Sure, it's easy for me to say as an annonymous commenter myself, but something tells me that if the anonymous ad bloggers put half the effort into putting their arguments into the public forum under their own names (with their own resumes and experiences to back their arguments up) well, might we all be that much further along in actually SOLVING some of these pesky problems? One thing's for sure, it certainly wouldn't hurt.

I'd love to see Your Brand Is Not My Friend attributed to a real person and then discussed on a broader scale. But until the anonymity goes away, the "Storytellers" and "Media Agnostics" of the world will continue to have the main media stage all to themselves, if for no other reason than the simple fact that they're the only ones who aren't wearing masks.

Not saying I don't understand why its easier to shout at the world from behind a rock. Just that it's kind of sad that so many smart people whose ideas should be heard have decided to settle for it.

Anonymous said...

i disagree fatc. anonymity allows the blogger (and the commenter) relief from everyday life. your personal "brand" is not on the line. and so it allows for a genuine exchange of opinion and ideas you simply wouldn't get if, for example, my real identity was revealed. i'm lee clow. but don't let that intimidate you.

"storytelling" is just digital agencies attempt to get into the cooler end of the market.

turns out they want to direct too. just like everybody else ;-)

Anonymous said...

I love that the word story has seeped into branding over the years.

Never mind that it's been turned into a buzzword, its meaning is golden - that your brand has a foundation, a reason to be on a shelf or in my face. It puts the onus on you the marketer to dig down and tell me why I should care about you or your stupid cause.

THinking about a brand as a story means uncovering a protagonist and an antagonist, and finding out what they're made of.

Nike. Harley. The Economist. All great stories.

And the greatest thing about using the word is that, if your story's bad or untrue or irrelevant, not even preschoolers will stick around to hear it.

Alan Wolk said...

@FATC & Anonymous #1: It's a small business and anonymity allows people to offer opinions that might otherwise affect their careers and/or friendships.

It's also a business of star-fuckers and if say, someone worked at a lesser agency or in a smaller market, than people would be likely to dismiss their opinion, no matter how valid that opinion is.

To wit, I kind of feel that, in a comic book superhero-like way, people are more prone to listen to the ramblings of "The Tangerine Toad" than they are to the real me.

But that said, FATC, take heart. The plan is to eventually "de-cloak" (as my South African friend Jaffe called it) and make "Your Brand Is Not My Friend™" into some sort of business, details to be revealed over the next few months.

I wish the various anonymous posters (and I've said this before) would choose some sort of nom-de-blog so, if nothing else, I could tell you guys apart.

@Anonymous #2: You're drinking the Kool-Aid. Markerters and their ad agencies think every brand has a story and want to tell it. Consumers on the other hand, don't really care enough about ANY brand to want to hear the story. You may have a hard core group of 5% (more if, say, you are Apple) who care enough to hear your story. But everyone else just wants to know "what news do you have for me?"
Tell the consumer something s/he wants to know and be gone. People have better things to do than listen to you. "Storytelling" is poisonous because it assumes a level of involvement and time commitment far greater than consumers are willing to give. You'll bore them to tears long before you get the relevant message out.

Anonymous said...

@TT: OK, thanks. I'll keep the faith. Was also worried about your copyright and ownership rights since you've let the idea (YBINMF) out of the bag anonymously. Was wondering how you'd protect it if someone nabbed the name and/or basic gist of it before your plan is in full effect.

@anonymous#1: Who's Lee Clow? (Only kidding. But I'm also open/experienced enough to not really care where smart thinking comes from. I've worked with real rock stars. The ad biz ones don't intimidate me. But I get your point. I don't really like it, but I get it.)

Anonymous said...

Every brand has a story worth telling, you just have to dig deep enough. If you can't, you're either not up to the task, the brand has no business existing, or...

If you have to admit that your brand has no story worth telling, then your ads better make people laugh till they crap their pants. Bud Light did it. Geico does it. That's fine, but know that your brand's only point of differentiation is its advertising.

I think you're using the word news in the absolute wrongest context. Is Cutwater's work for Ray-Ban news (the Never Hide stuff, not the YouTube videos)? For me, they've unearthed a great story. They've staked a truth only Ray-Ban can claim (and I don't even think the executions are all that great). But that's exactly the kind of Kool-Aid agencies need to be drinking.

Alan Wolk said...

First off, please give yourself some sort of handle, so I don't have to keep calling you Anonymous #1 (if indeed that is who you are.)

Second off, if you think the "Never Hide" work is good, I can see where our differences arise. I think it's really, really unnoticeable. Looks like some fashion agency did it. And I wear and like Ray-Bans. It's been getting a lot of negative response in the ad community, fwiw. Nor do I see how that's "a truth only Ray Ban can claim." Say "sunglasses" and half of America says "Foster Grant" The upper tenth says "Maui Jim" Ray Ban is seen as very 1980s.

Third off, "Every brand has a story worth telling, you just have to dig deep enough."

You're confusing the issue: many brands DO indeed have stories worth telling. It's consumers who could gave a rats ass about hearing them. Time being precious and all that.

Alan Wolk said...

@Anonymous #1: I dashed that last comment off, so let me elaborate:

The term "storytelling" bugs me because it's a meaningless buzz word. Telling a brand's "story" is not a new invention by any means. It's the part of the creative brief that has read "Why should I (the consumer) care?" Right under "what's the one key thing you want the advertising to convey?"

Now as for Never Hide: can you help me out with what the story there is?

Because I think consumers will have either one of two reactions to this:

1. "Oh an ad for Ray-Ban that uses arty photography similar to the other fashion ads here in Vanity Fair. Now where's the Table of Contents?"

2. "Never Hide? Never hide behind your sunglasses? But they're selling sunglasses. Do they not want me to buy them? I don't get it. Now where's the Table of Contents?"

Certain brands- Apple, Harley- will have enthusiasts and people who really love the brand and want to talk about it. But those are two of thousands if not millions of brands. There's so much pull on my time these days- so much enjoyable, non-marketing stuff to see and hear and read - that the time I have available for brands is even more limited. And as I've said time and again, Your Brand Is Not My Friend™. When I have free time I don't want to hear a whole megillah from it. Just the facts and be done with it.

Anonymous said...

totally agree once more. storytelling? is that what the kids are calling it these days?

the grim reality is we no longer have the captive (TV) audience for our "storytelling".

i love how the ever-optimistic ad industry can't see it's actually getting the collective cold shoulder from everyone else.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the anonymous confusion. ANd for the record, I said I wasn't jeeped about the Ray-Ban executions (save the Times Square interactive ad), but I like the strategy. I like that it's inspirational, that it stands for something.

Sunglasses are a way of escaping, they're something you hide behind. Ray-Bans are the sunglasses you take the world by storm in. DIdn't MacArthur wear them? I don't want to die on this mountain, but I thought it represented a good bit of account planning.

That we don't have time for brands is a fallacy. As everything and everyone becomes more fragmented, people will spend less time with crap and more time with the things that resonate. That's the opportunity, to go deeper.

So my whole argument comes down to this. As a marketer, you have a choice: Are you going to give your audience a handjob or are you going to stand for something?

All IMHO, of course.

Alan Wolk said...

Hey Marvin and welcome.

But as Sixth Reader said "so that's what the kids are calling it these days"

Back in the Reagan Administration when I was in ad school, the first assignment I had was to go to the drug store, find a product and learn all about it- come back with a list of interesting facts. Then, and only were we to go write ads about it.

Now as for Ray Ban- do you, or someone close to you, work as a planner at Cutwater? Because I'm not sure how you would know the strategy behind that campaign otherwise. Not sure how how you get from Gen. MacArthur and bravery to "Never Hide"- even just as a tag line. Especially when the most famous ad campaign for sunglasses was "Who's That Hiding Behind Those Foster Grants"

But that aside, yes, facts like that are interesting. Far more so than arty black and white photographs.

As for your final comment, that people will "spend more time with the things that resonate." You've fallen into the Apple trap.

Apple- and maybe another dozen brands- have a fanatical fan base. People who care about the brand deeply. But those are just 10 brands. The other 999,990 brands are well liked, but don't command anywhere neaer the level of enthusiasm.

I like Dial soap, for instance, and have used it exclusively since I was a teenager. But I don't ever ee myself spending time with a Dial soap website reading interesting facts about Dial.

Anyway, I appreciate your enthusiasm and participation. Welcome aboard.

Anonymous said...

some great stories:

there once was this creepy old guy who would go up to women in stores and say "don't squeeze the charmin." the end.

once upon a time there were these locks that were so strong you could shoot them with a gun and they'd stay locked. even if matt damon shot them, they'd stay locked. the end.

there was a giant. he'd go ho ho ho. i'd cry and have to eat peas and carrots.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, and no, I don't know anyone at Cutwater.

I thought soaps and cleaners were a commodity too, part of that lowest of the low-interest categories.

Then I saw my wife reading a booklet inserted in her Real Simple. Actually spending her free time with a cleaning brand. Now our house is filled with Method products.

Alan Wolk said...

Marvin: That's an interesting story about your wife and Method. Do you notice a difference in the way the stuff works?

I'm also wondering if maybe what your wife was reading was, in fact, news. I mean the fact that there's a whole new line of green cleaning products that are made without toxic chemicals: that's pretty newsworthy, even in a low-interest category like soap.

And the insert she was reading-- was it any different than the kind of inserts advertisers have been running for years when they're introducing a whole new category?

I think we're saying the same thing; it's just what you call "storytelling" I call "news'

raafi said...

I'm not so sure that there's a way to say the word "storytelling" in a job title without provoking a "yeah right" in any thinking person's mind. That said, stories themselves are the most powerful tool we have for conveying information. Effectively told stories resonate. But if it is a prescriptive thing -- "hey, let's just put some more story in here," -- then, I agree, the whole thing sounds a bit ridiculous.

I say there's nothing like a humdinger told over the last pour of the night. Or Rashomon.

Anonymous said...

I had Robert as an instructor at adhouse/nyc. I’ve been around hacks in this business for a long time. He wasn’t one of them. You can tell when you're talking to someone and brainstorming with them if they can’t cut it because they bring nothing to the table. That dude knows his shit and is dialed into what's next.

I got my blog. My name's there for anyone who wants to call me on that, but that is one of the most creative dudes I've ever met. His work on the Beta-7 campaign launched in effect what would become the trend of the viral campaign.

The idea of storytelling as he explained it to me was simliar to a script, as that's how he approached it. People here are missing the intent behind this mindset. Don't think of story in the traditional way. The 'story' is the sequence of how the whole campaign would unfold initially, yes. This could include print, TV, radio, non-traditional, etc,.

But the key here is that the consumer could enter that story at any point in a non-linear way, not at the beginning or the end. (Think Pulp Fiction with its out-of-sequence non-linerar approach to scene juxtaposition.) So the consumer might see a website, which in turn may lead them back to a tv spot to be released later. Or a viral campaign drives them to search Google for more clues, and so on.

Just my 2¢.

Alan Wolk said...

@MTLB: Thanks for the insight into RR. I didn't realize he was a proponent of "storytelling" as much as victim of some PR person who'd been instructed to use the word as much as possible.

Bigger thanks for your description of "storytelling" which I now realize is a newfangled word for "promotion," a decidedly unsexy word.