Shake the Trees: Skip the Ads and Start Telling Stories

I hate to break it to you: the days where great advertising made the conversational rounds at cocktail parties are long gone.

Go on, ask anyone outside our industry about the latest campaigns making a splash on the awards circuit. A decade and more ago what ad executive Jeff Goodby called cab creative was such a hot topic, that it shared space with supercar pinups on bedroom walls.

So, what’s changed?

I have a theory. We, as an industry, have forgotten a thing or two about what it really means to be an ad professional. Like, for example, the undeniable fact that first and foremost:

“We are storytellers in service of brands.”
– Rick Boyko, director at VCU Brandcenter.

Whether you’re a copywriter, an art director, editor, or filmmaker it’s our job to get our brand stories into national conversation, and if they’re good enough, into the firmament of popular culture where they become immortalised.

Think this ad from Cremora, or this one from Vodacom, or even this one from KFC.

Pretty unforgettable, right?

But here’s the rub: people generally don’t talk about brands when we feed them product benefits from a sales brochure –– even the ones we try to cleverly disguise as content. I spend a lot of time online every day reading news, doing research, looking for inspiration, or buying stuff. And in all that time, I have never searched for content, spent time with content, or recommended content to a friend. I don’t know anyone else who has, and I’m pretty sure you don’t either.

“Nobody covets content. Nobody waits in line to see content. Nobody dreams of growing up and accepting an award for Best Content. And nobody tattoos content on their body. That’s because content and messages are very different things.”
 – Josh Weltman, Seducing Strangers, 2015

The fact is that people like to speak in stories and so must we if we want a snowball’s chance of getting them to stick.

Creative writing instructor Robert McKee makes a pretty convincing argument that the human mind is wired to hunger for stories –– and that a structure of three acts, taking us from problem to unexpected solution, is how we decode information and remember things. Simply put: story is something our brains crave and everything else is just background noise we have to consciously make an effort to remember.

The way we combat that is by looking for the stories behind our brands and telling them in ways that get attention.

“Told well, and they stick in our minds forever.”
– Alex Bogusky & John Windsor, Baked In, 2010


What’s interesting is that even with the rise of digital, the classic outline of a story not only works, it’s narrative power is amplified. New digital platforms, including everything from virtual reality to live video, are transforming the way our stories are distributed, consumed and shared.

In a recent interview with James Cameron, when asked what permanent changes digital technology has made in filmmaking, he replied:

“I think the simple answer is that filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It’s about storytelling. It’s about humans playing humans. It’s about close-ups of actors. It’s about those actors somehow saying the words and playing the moment in a way that gets in contact with the audience’s hearts. I don’t think that changes. I don’t think that’s changed in the last century.”
– James Cameron, director

But while digital has changed the way we receive and interact with stories, it’s also drastically changed the marketing and advertising landscape. It’s also changed consumer expectations for the type of communications they receive from their favourite brands.

As a result, traditional advertising is being challenged like never before.

So much so, that brands and agencies have to start thinking beyond the ad if they’re going to stand out amongst all the noise in digital.

“Storytelling is the key to meeting consumer demands in advertising. When you stop interrupting the content people are interested in and adopt a multichannel storytelling approach , the content you produce is entertaining. Storytelling wins every time.”
– Jeremy Jones, ECD, J. Walter Thompson (Atlanta)


It’s true: the best of us in the business are always looking for great stories to share while the best brands are sticking to their guns about where they came from and how and why they came to be. Not because it’s a clever way of penetrating the market but because it’s authentic to them. They tell their story and then tell it over and over again in new, surprising and creative ways. The pace might get more dramatic, the plot might take a turn, but it’s still the same story.

At the end of the day, great advertising isn’t about a potluck ad or a piece of content being bounced around online. It’s sure as heck about more than data, digital, and technology. What it’s really about is a long-lasting commitment to telling brand stories and relishing the opportunity to help pen their next chapter.

There’s definitely a place in the future of advertising for anyone willing to make the all-important leap beyond the traditional in-your-face-buy-this-now style of communication still getting put out there.

Especially for the relentless storytellers among us.

Auryn Hiscock is the Editor of Fort Review.