Three Advantages to Emphasizing Story over Strategy

To a cynic—and yes, everyone in the advertising business does get cynical from time to time—the difference between ‘strategy’ and ‘story’ may seem a matter of semantics.  As a writer who earns a living on words, that makes a good argument right there.  But adopting a story-centric mindset opens up marketing in many powerful ways.  Because ‘many’ is a bit nebulous, here are three reasons to start thinking story.

1.  Strategies Centralize, Stories Travel. Any media expert will tell you that the biggest upset of our advertising applecart has been Web 2.0 and the emergence of social media.  This game-changing development changed the way consumers gather and share information.  Moreover, it is frequently mistaken for ‘free media,’ which intrigues resource-strapped clients.

People use social media to share stories, about their lives, their interest, their opinions.  A traditional strategy-driven ad only goes as far as the media plan, and then it disappears.  A story starts with that same media plan but when defined correctly, extends far beyond those finite GRP’s, riding the waves of social media and word of mouth as people spread their own versions of your brand’s story.  We don’t need consumers to create the story, but simply build on them and pass them along.  In an increasingly advertising-resistant society, using story to further recommendation is good business.

We should work brand stories to spread virally, but viral is not a tactic: it’s an outcome.

Clearly, There's a Story Here...

2.  Stories Serve Integration Better than Strategy. Because strategies are centralized, one agency inevitably takes responsibility for it.  They ‘own’ the strategy.  But in a social media-powered world, no marketer really owns how people consider their brands, we can only influence it.  Because consumers have such a hand in defining and sharing brand stories, no one marketing entity can claim dominion: everyone has a hand in defining the story.

A story is not owned, it’s shared.  And that simplifies everything.  For years, each discipline brought separate planning resources to interpret the strategy for their particular specialty, a divisive exercise which more often than not, really amounts to defining tactics.  When everyone knows a brand’s story, the integration process simplifies tremendously.  A promotion either reflects the story or it doesn’t.  A user experience either fits or not.  Instead of an intellectual exercise, integration becomes simpler, more human, more obvious.

3.  Stories Reflect Brands Better than Strategies. Both strategies and stories define their audience.  Both use conflict to build drama.  And both communicate a POV.  But stories go further to embrace tone.  In a parity marketplace, an emotional perspective, a tone, can be a big differentiator and make the story far more compelling.

Strategies largely avoid tone or consign it to a bullet-point at the base.  But the right tone is fundamental to a story’s success: Poe didn’t crack jokes and Hemingway never asked for a hug.  Powerful feelings can drive sales just as much as rational reasons to believe.  In fact, I would argue they are more compelling.  Logic and reason do not trump passion and emotion: we don’t get married or go to war for logic.  This may not hold up to quantitative analysis, but if the ultimate goal is predicting in-market success, consumer research is a rather suspect science at best.

So there you go—three thought starters for the first workweek of the new year.  I will be working with this thought and how it applies to the advertising business over the next few weeks.  If you have any additional points—or counterpoints—I’d welcome them.  Because I have a feeling we share a similar story: advertising professionals seeking answers in a changing industry to help our brands thrive.

Oh, and our careers too.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Happy New Decade! Here’s One Prediction for Advertising in The Teens…

Not a list or a look back of any kind; just one prediction regarding all this industry convergence and confusion about how the advertising business we knew will evolve in the decade ahead…

#1.  The Days of Strategy Are Over.

The Age of Stories Is Upon Us.


That’s not a quote from The Lord of the Rings; that’s a truth that’s become increasingly obvious as we’ve dealt with seismic changes within both our industry and the culture as a whole.  We live in times when great masses of people can organize without organizations (good point Clay Shirky).  We live in times when recommendation drives sales more than any other factor (good business plan Zocalo Group).  We live in times when the way people can experience a brand–has never been more diverse (good luck with integration there, Bub).

Today’s reality renders the notion of a centralized advertising ‘strategy’ quaint.  The conceit that any advertiser controls their message is both dated and dangerous.  Strategies assume centralized authority which no longer exists in an empowered-public forum.  Strategies come from people with a vested interest, but these days, those people are only a part of the in-market dialogue.  Today, consumers have loud voices: socially-networked, extraordinarily powerful and digitally-amplified via Web 2.0 voices.  And their voices will be heard

All of which means that if we want to learn, we will have to unlearn–it’s not about just what we advocate, it’s about what consumers accept.  To lead we will also have to listen–not just to clients but to consumers whose voices are stronger than ever.

We will have to put aside the older ways and accept that to move forward, we will have to embrace one of the most primal and fundamental assets of our humanity: storytelling.  We will not only need to tell stories on our brands’ behalf in the future, we also must shape those stories, enhance those stories, make them more pertinent, more relevant, and more impactful to the people we want to buy our brands.  Sparking stories, guiding stories, monitoring and brightening stories–that will define the advertising business in the coming decade.

And so that will become our daily work.  Identifying the story.  Shaping the story.  Refining the story.  And most of all, spreading the story in a way that others pick up our narrative and spread it themselves.

We are no longer in the advertising business.  We are now in the oldest profession known to man: no, not that–the storytelling business. And it just may be the most antediluvian business at work today–telling stories for the entertainment and edification of others.  But at least it’s honest work.

Come to think of it, the years ahead should be a really good time.  A Happy Decade Ahead to All!

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

A New Retirement Opportunity for Copywriters: Big Businesses Hiring Professional Tweeters

This recent Yahoo! news item tells the story of Alecia Dantico, a professional Tweeter who is part of a growing trend of large corporations hiring talent to send out messages on that social network.  

Like most creative endeavors, this could be a very smart thing or a small distraction: the results depend upon strategy and even more importantly, execution.  

Strategically, this initiative needs a clear purpose and goals: brandbuilding?  Outreach for direct consumer connection?  A modern update of the old consumer complaint department?  Whatever the reason, this and any marketing endeavor needs to have a clearly-defined goal, otherwise it’s simply another distracting tactic.

The execution must then work to execute this strategy, mindful of the strengths and weaknesses of the platform.  For Twitter, one of those strengths is the immediacy and topicality of a group conversation; the best tweets are often helpful and always engaging.  Comedy, surprise, discovery; the best Twitter feeds deliver those on a dependably regular basis.  In other words, if the brand personality doesn’t engage or worse, if corporate concerns over legal and control issues sanitize and stifle the 140 character executions, the result more likely will be a “Bland Personality.”

Picture 2Which is why this platform provides the perfect retirement opportunity for copywriters.  Office location, 9-5, assignment flowcharts: none of these agency realities matter in the world of corporate micro-blogging.  All that matters is the need to create relevant engagement that serves a strategy.  Our creative enterprise has a well-earned reputation for eating it’s young; here at last could be a way to make good with an ongoing freelance gig that serves both brands and creatives.

It also serves the newer offerings of Word-of-Mouth PR agencies, most of whom already follow this sort of ‘create a strategy and outsource the execution’ type of model.  

It doesn’t however, serve large agency structures.  Considering this article in relation to yesterday’s post which took Weber Shandwick’s Chris Perry to task for laying the blame for Social Media’s slow development as a brand platform squarely at the feet of traditional agencies, perhaps I should rethink.  Particularly after posting yesterday’s blog to LinkedIn’s AdPro group to solicit other points of view and receiving some very thoughtful responses.

Corporations need results from their tactics.  They also need something else: responsibility from their marketing partners.  The cost structure of a traditional agency makes this kind of initiative rather challenging from a creative execution standpoint.  However, the benefits of insuring an integrated strategy and established results expectations make this an easily-adopted new tactic…

Once you outsource to a few talented, interesting, retired writers.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

Al Gore: Advertising Visionary or Greenhouse Gasbag?

Ex-Vice President Al Gore delivered the keynote address at Digitas’ Digital Content Newfront this past Wednesday in a speech Adweek characterized as ‘putting agency creatives on notice.’  Speaking as one of the co-founders of Current Media, Mr. Gore used the theme of sustainability to outline how he sees the media landscape changing radically and a new form of advertising emerging, powered by user generated content.

As An Ad Pundit, He Makes A Strong Ex-Politician

As An Ad Pundit, He Makes A Fine Ex-Legislator

The crux of his thinking boils down to this quote: “In the 20th century, the advertising model was based on the same principles that the Industrial Revolution was based on: scale.  It was big, it was blunt, very expensive, and very intrusive, and audiences have now begun to resist that old advertising model even as the environment in which it is presented changes a great deal. The new model is very different because the media landscape is completely different.”  Few advertising professionals would bother arguing that thinking.  The arguments begin with Mr. Gore’s assumptions that ‘a new model’ even exists.

Advertising’s ‘new models’–and there are plenty of them–are all in beta.  And will probably remain there for the rest of my career.  The rate of technological change is just waaaay too fast for anyone to declare they’ve solved it and put their pencils–or cell phones–down.

Mr. Gore cites Current Media’s reliance on “VCAMs” (Viewer-Created Ad Messages) that users generate for brands that advertise on the network.  Everything is spec, the advertiser compensates the ad creators directly, and the payment increases dramatically if they choose to use the ad somewhere else.  This is a decidedly cost-effective solution; video crowdsourcing if you will.  Those inclined to think positively of this notion will compare it to the Threadless model, which it clearly resembles.

But as a ‘new ad model’ it fails on the very ‘sustainability’ issue Mr. Gore thumps so relentlessly.  Is such a model sustainable for a less sexy packaged good?  Is it sustainable when the novelty wears off and users catch on to the strong economic bias for Current’s self-interest over their own?  And how can this model’s basic assumption that “strategy is meaningless, prevalence is everything” make sense with video, when the assumption of some sort of ubiquity advantage has been proven so blatantly wrong for internet banner advertising?

He did make valid points and Mr. Gore’s adoption of a new model is laudable.  The fact is that his ‘new model’ will be far from the last one he–or any of us–adopts.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79

An Environmental Imperative for Advertisers: Protect Our Fragile Social Network Ecosystems

It's Not Just a Social Network: It's A Natural Habitat    

It’s Not Just a Social Network: It’s A Natural Habitat

I don’t know Alan Schulman, the Chairman/Chief Creative Officer of U.DIG > The Digital Innovations Group.  In fact rather oddly, I couldn’t even find a website for U.DIG.  That said, I did find tons of leads into Alan because he’s one socially networked animal: LinkedIn, iMedia–he’s all over it. His considerable digital credentials and creative background nicely inform this incredibly insightful piece he posted today for Video Insider.  Alan takes our industry’s current fascination with social networks and makes one very simple, incredibly salient point: people don’t want advertisers mucking up their social networks with banners ads, contextual messages, and all sort of other sales pitches.

Analytics and insights? Fine.  Blog scrapings?  Sure.  But actually intruding on these conversations with our brand messages?  That’s like paving the Serengeti: it’s entirely possible, but you’d ruin it.  Sure, brands have created a couple of clever little distractions and pages here and there in FaceBook.  Advertisers have also leveraged YouTube and Flickr in a few interesting ways.  But the best of those creative platforms have been opt in–not forced viewings.  Buttons, banners and pop ups started polluting the MySpace platform years ago and now they’re creeping into Facebook.

Quite rightly, Alan identifies social network communities as fragile creations–easily spooked herds that our very presence threatens to destroy.

Given this, the best social networking strategy for brands and agencies is fact-finding.  Social networks provide unfiltered, real-world, twenty-four/seven activity for smart planners and research analysts to mine.  If we protect these habitats, we can listen and learn about authentic opinions and values in ways that will inform our selling efforts in other, more selling-appropriate environments.  After all, social networking activity makes for a lousy sales aperture: people just aren’t in a buying mindset at those times in those places; they are talking with friends, trading information with colleagues, playing and bonding and sharing. Intruding on their personal relationships with our brands and messages will only alienate them…and marketers tend to agree that alienating your audience is a pretty lousy idea.

Instead, much like a nature photographer who stalks big game in a wildlife preserve with her camera, we should limit our hunting in these rich human ecosystems to listening, note taking, clipping and cutting and pasting.  Let’s consider a social network a resource, not a platform. Compared to the hapless artificiality of the tired old focus group, social networks contain natural conversations between like-minded people.  These are organizations built solely on shared interests or common values where members freely share opinions, ideas, and simple conversation.  Adopting a ‘leave no trace‘ approach by advertisers guarantees our social networks will remain incredibly valuable.

And naturally sustainable.

By Dennis Ryan, CCO, Element 79