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.