How Agencies Tell Stories

Conventional wisdom tells us much of the best advertising consists of short stories, well told. If ads are often stories, then copywriters and art directors can be seen as modern day storytellers of a sort. But the storytelling doesn’t stop there.
Ad agencies themselves are collective storytellers as well. The tales they tell, however, don’t take place within an advertisement. These stories take place within meeting rooms as agencies present their work to a client.

They don’t simply present work and then plead with clients to buy the recommended campaign. Agencies sell work by telling a series of interrelated stories that are often largely conjecture. The effectiveness of these stories ultimately comes down to how plausible, coherent and credible they are, and how passionately they’re presented — not how true they are.

Of course, agencies would like to think what they do is construct well-reasoned and well-supported arguments in favor of whatever they’re selling. Sometimes they do. But very often their arguments are built on loads of speculation, guesstimation and best-case scenario building. The guesswork may be grounded in some combination of data, intuition, judgment, probability and experience, but it’s still guesswork.

I call this “persuasive speculation” — the ability of an agency to tell clients stories that effectively sell ads and then, once the ads are running, stories that credibly credit success in the marketplace to that advertising. There’s nothing wrong with this, per se. But there is something wrong when agencies feel compelled to characterize their stories as more true than they actually are because the client needs this illusion of certainty in order to buy the work. There is something wrong when methodology dresses up as science or when correlation parades as cause.

So what kinds of stories do agencies tell clients? Stories about how their customers think and feel and behave; what they do and don’t care about; how target audiences break out into nice, neat, discrete demographic segments; about cluttered environments and which words and pictures, presented via which media, will affect their customers and in what ways; brand equities and how to leverage them; how “look at” equals “engage with” or “pay attention to”; the dynamics of surfing and zapping, and about how people who tend to do such and such are also likely to do so and so.

Because these stories are speculative, an infinite number of them can be generated. Genuine knowledge and true understanding seldom constrain them. Of course, the agency can’t really know ahead of time whether these stories are true, because they are merely predictions, speculations, guesses, hypotheses. Only consumers’ actions over time will tell if they’re true. And most of the time there’s no clean, unambiguous, unspeculative way to measure the effectiveness of the ad, so that truth is never clearly revealed.

The illusion ad agencies and clients often mutually agree to sustain is that they’re working together to plot out courses of advertising action based on information, facts, insights, solid research, hard numbers, etc. The reality is that, very often, both parties agree to accept as true and real this or that highly speculative, educated guesswork and the hypotheses that such guesswork spawns. Ad agencies and clients enable each others’ rationalizations. It becomes, collectively, their story and they’re sticking to it.

This is not surprising. The client is looking for some kind of assurance, an emotional comfort level that the campaign they’re about to sink a large piece of their budget into is going to work. This is an assurance that both parties know perfectly well can’t be given. But the need remains. And the agency is eager to meet their clients’ needs — even the irrational, emotional ones.

Think how much healthier the process would be if clients and agencies recognized that advertising is inherently trial and error, every time out. That it’s the collective best guess of a group of smart people with limited information and a willingness to rely on experience, judgment and intuition. This kind of intellectual honesty would make for more realistic expectations and less need to dress guesses up as gospel.

So tell the client a story if you must. But try having the guts to recognize — out loud, to the client — that it remains to be seen whether this story will wind up being true or false, and that, with so many potential causal variables out there, you may never know for sure what the truth is. In doing this, you will contain client expectations, while at the same time limiting your own tendency to take undue credit for successes and to deflect responsibility for failures.

Jim Morris, The Communicaterer, is a freelance ideator and copywriter. He can be reached at