Honesty Sells

Storytelling is advertising’s darling. But telling a real story, especially one with more than a single chapter, still escapes most agencies’ grasp. David Verklin, ex-head of media-buying behemoth Carat Americas, was known to complain that he couldn’t get his clients’ ad agencies to produce anything longer than a few seconds. “If I ask for six minutes of video, they’re lost,” he once said.

It’s certainly true that the problems with bad storytelling increase exponentially as the length of the story increases. But it’s equally true that even very short stories can be absolutely terrible.

It is now beyond debate that marketing not only has to build brands and sell, it also has to attract and hold audiences just as well as a good TV show, a tightly written novel or a news-breaking magazine piece. Marketing, in short, has to do what successful fiction and nonfiction have to do — inform and entertain with engaging, authentic stories.
But telling stories requires different training, experience and sensibilities than producing 30-second spots. To take one simple difference, advertising creatives are socialized to devote the bulk of their attention to worrying about what the brand needs to say. Storytelling journalists, on the other hand, have been trained in daily deadline meetings to focus on what the audience needs and wants to know at 7 a.m. tomorrow (for a daily) or next week (for a weekly) or four months from now (for most monthly magazines).

Wouldn’t it be nice to have one of those people in the room the next time you claim you’re going to tell a brand’s story? The answer (if you’re hesitating) is yes, by the way. It is past time for serious marketers to go out and hire serious storytellers. Hire journalists. Hire scriptwriters. Hire fiction writers. But hire them only if you can organize them into editorial departments led by experienced editors who know how to shape stories that perfectly embody brands, attract the right audiences, improve sales and help create loyalty.

This year’s first Microsoft spot (by Alex Bogusky of Crispin Porter + Bogusky) featuring Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Gates was a fine example of a very high-profile (very short) storytelling disaster that any decent journalist would have prevented. Adweek quickly rendered its judgment on the merit of the excellent adventure of Jerry and Bill. The verdict: “permanently grossed out” and “beyond bizarre,” in part. Other commentators were equally harsh.

Crispin’s Seinfeld ads, which dominated TV ad space in September, are a vivid example of why ad guys would do well to get some good reporters on staff in this new era of storytelling and consumer control of media. We all immediately get it that Microsoft needs to tell people that it’s going to own the future because it’s a cool, if not downright hip, brand. But from the audience’s viewpoint, what is the narrative thread of the Seinfeld/Gates ad? What is the story that’s getting told? The world’s richest man, once a computer software genius but now retired, is shopping for discount shoes made of pleather. He is joined by the world’s richest comedian, also retired (sort of). These two fabulously rich and famous middle-aged white guys saunter across a parking lot and the richer of the two shakes his ass to indicate that computers of the future will be edible, like cake. End of story.

So, is this the stuff of best-selling books and hit TV shows? Of course not. Try that plot synopsis on a Hollywood mogul and you’ll get thrown out of the Ivy forever. If Crispin had an editorial department, the first thing one of the editors would have pointed out is that the story is not true, not believable, not credible and not authentic. It fails because it contradicts what the audience feels to be true. It makes promises it can’t keep. (Cake?) It was almost certain to be rejected before the first spot even aired.

Journalists, however well or badly they ply their trade, are taught to care about the truth. The good ones care a lot. So, on that basis alone, the Gates/Seinfeld fiasco would never have passed muster. An editor also would have pointed out that in addition to being not true, the story was not funny; mostly because great comedy, like great drama and great journalism, is all about the hard-to-confront truth.

Finally, any good reporter would have asked, “What does this have to do with Microsoft?” Good reporters ask inconvenient questions. Based on the story line, the inconvenient answer might be that Gates is filthy rich partly because he’s so cheap and, thus, may have cut corners on products, which could explain why Vista didn’t work so well. All in all, it’s a bad story, particularly for Microsoft.

It isn’t much of a leap to contrast Crispin’s effort with TBWA Media Lab’s highly successful — and enduring — series of Mac and PC tales. Using personification, a time-honored narrative technique, TBWA tells a multi-chapter story about two friends. One is self-important, stodgy, slightly bloated, often wrong and highly competitive to the point of being a bore. The other is a smart, romantic tech nerd who is sweet, tolerant and almost always right. TBWA’s stories reveal weaknesses and strengths about the competing brands that precisely resonate with things the audience deeply perceive to be true. The stories are seen to be accurate, relevant, funny in a whimsical way and entertaining. Equally important, the narrative frames the story so we are compelled to share Apple’s values as our own. (Who would identify with a stuffy blowhard?) The story line encourages Mac loyalty.

Caring about the audience’s desire and needs. Caring about accuracy of character and voice. Caring about the brand’s real core story. Caring about the truth. These are just a few of the advantages that journalists can bring to advertising if advertising will only transform its culture to include such concerns and talents. The transformation better begin quickly if agencies are to survive in the post-advertising age.

Kirk Cheyfitz is the CEO of Story Worldwide, which he likes to point out is the only ad agency with an editorial department. He can be contacted at kirk.cheyfitz@storyworldwide.com.