How Agencies Tell Stories | Adweek How Agencies Tell Stories | Adweek
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How Agencies Tell Stories

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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.

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