Barrie Seppings, Digital Creative Director, now available for freelance and consulting projects.

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Surgery is no joke. I get that. But when I found myself confined to quarters for a couple of weeks last year while recovering from (completely scheduled and non-life-threatening) hip surgery, I couldn’t immediately work out why. After all, I’m just a copywriter. My day job really doesn’t require much action from the waist down. Still, I wasn’t about to look at a few weeks off work, say “No thanks” and hand it back, was I?

Losing interest in your work is the start of a slippery slope.

Losing interest in your work is the start of a slippery slope.

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And that was the problem. Work had become an optional extra for me. I struggled to recall the last time I just couldn’t be bothered going there and doing that. Sure, there are plenty of times when work is really inconvenient (like when the swell is running, or your kids want to go for a ride or the love of your life has plans to take you out to dinner), but that’s different. I had arrived at a place (and it was a new place for me) where work wasn’t holding my attention. Trouble was, I had spent so long giving all my attention to the job that, when it wasn’t reciprocating, I felt a bit lost. I’d forgotten to build something that was, creatively, just for me.

“If you really are a writer, you really should write”

That there was the voice of the love of my life. I was hoping she was going to invite me out for dinner, but she was telling me that while I was on my literal arse, recovering from surgery, it was the perfect time to get off my metaphorical arse and start writing that book. This is not the book that I was always threatening to write. This is the book that I had given up even bothering to threaten to write. It had been so long, I had forgotten it was the thing I really wanted to do all along. Crazy, huh? Truthfully, I hadn’t forgotten, I’d just constructed an elaborate excuse: I’m an advertising copywriter, when you boil it right down and so I had (mistakenly) assumed writing fiction was fundamentally the same as my day job. Why would I want to come home from a day of writing to do more writing? Now that I wasn’t writing all day at work, the excuse didn’t hold much water.

“Work on a computer that is disconnected from the ­internet.”

 

Rojak, Singapore, fiction

Looking for more words to read?

That’s one of Zadie Smith’s 10 tips for writing and there are times when it makes sense. For me, however, the internet helped me find The Singapore Writers Group and also online fiction writing courses offered by Gotham Writers Workshop and UCLA Extension writers’ program. All three of these gave me the structure that simply steamrollered any ennui or procrastination or fear that might have been lurking at the heart of my inability to write anything other than marketing copy or powerpoint decks. Once you sign up to come to a meetup or be part of a class, the commitment starts to drive you. It’s a task like any other and, provided laziness is not your issue, you find yourself automatically responding. You do the work.

It’s been about a year since I limped out of hospital and now my side project is starting to bear fruit. The first visible sign is my contribution to a book called Rojak: Short Stories from The Singapore Writers Group. Inspired by a gift given to the group by award-winning New Zealand author Andrew Fiu, we’ve written, edited, designed and now published the group’s first annual short story anthology. My story contribution is titled New Guinea Gold, in which a student lets his ambitious girlfriend talk him into smuggling guns and drugs. Rojak became available this week on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle editions.

Also coming out in a few weeks is another short story, this time in Cuttings, which bills itself as an interactive journal of new Australian writing. Available only on iPad, it takes a more inclusive approach to writing by pairing the words with photography, sound and animation. Issue One was as much fun to navigate as it was to read. My story submission included images and time-lapse film created by friend and amazing photographer Martin Ollman. His side project is now his vocation but, with images this good, you’d have to call it a calling.

 

Martin Ollman has a knack for finding otherwordly images literally beneath your feet.

Martin Ollman has a knack for finding otherworldly images literally beneath your feet.

 

I also dabbled with a startup, inspired by a collaboration that occurred in the UCLA writing class I was taking, that aimed to match genre fiction writers with specific experts from certain technical fields. Crime writers could get anecdotes and procedures from a street cop, for example. Historical fiction writers could find professors, erotic novelists could find BDSM mistresses and so on. The service was slated to be called The Fictional Bureau of Investigation and would begin as a simple matching service, progressing all the way to full-blown for-fee manuscript reviews. In between the difficulties of remote managing web development and the growing importance of my own actual writing, I put this project on hold. Besides, you can probably find what you need on Quora or LinkedIn, if you’re willing to put in the effort.

A novel idea.

My ‘real’ side project is a novel of contemporary literary fiction. The idea for it kind of snuck up on me and tapped me on my shoulder while I was exploring these side projects and looking for ways to bring the energy back to my profession. As of this writing, I am midway through the second draft, having spent a fair bit of time studying the art of story structure. I won’t give you the synopsis just yet, except to say the pitch is “Twighlight Zone for the sharing economy”. I am currently looking for serious beta readers for a round of feedback and constructive criticism. If you’d like to offer your time and energy to help me with this side project, I’d love to hear from you.

 What she said

I came to it late, but I revisited Tina Roth Eisenberg’s talk a couple of years back about “The importance of side projects”. Her advice boils down to: Love what you do. Don’t be a complainer. Trust your intuition. If an opportunity scares you, take it. Find like-minded people. Collaborate. Ignore haters. Inspire others with what you do. I feel reassured that I’m following most of this advice as I pursue writing in a setting outside of advertising.

And it’s working. These various project kept me creatively alive and engaged, driven and interested in the world around me while I walked through a fairly unsatisfying mid-career valley. I realised that I had outsourced ‘creative satisfaction’ to my career for (what is now very clear to me) far too long. I also realised that no one is managing your career except you, so if you aren’t doing it, no-one is. I’ve brought the craft of writing back into the office and am currently working on some new training and facilitation programs that help teams build genuinely engaging Branded Stories and to uncover the possibilities of Data Storytelling.

Which is a roundabout way of saying this post marks my last day with Ogilvy & Mather, my last day working on the IBM account and my last day working in Singapore. All three of these things have been important to me (and they’ve occupied 13, 6 and 2 years of my life respectively), but they are not important enough to allow you to forget what it is that you love doing.

I love writing, communicating and persuading. Now that I’m back in the groove, I’m looking forward to new challenges, in new locations, with new partners.

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He was recently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

The talk behind content marketing is turning into cash as brands start to build the physical infrastructure and hire the talent to go ‘fully operational’ with in-house newsrooms. The potential for audience boredom is incredibly high.

newsroom, branded content

In a universe of stories, brands risk focusing only on themselves.

 

I’ve seen at least three brands recently unveil corporate plans for dedicated space of anything up to a couple of thousand square feet, complete with green-screen video studios, sound recording booths, video edit bays, press conference areas, interview booths – and all spare walls upholstered with plasma screens displaying real-time, data-and-analytics-driven content marketing dashboards. And the technology’s the affordable bit.

All newsrooms need warm bodies

All those very specialist chairs will need to be warmed by very specialist bottoms – journalists, community managers, producers, project managers, editors, sound mixers, social media strategists, graphic designers, public relations experts and more. None of these roles are traditionally considered part of a company’s marketing department, so they’ll be new hires, along with a shift of internal resources in the form of brand and product managers and other marketing co-ordinators, legal and corporate comms people who will also need to be stationed in these always-on newsrooms.

All newsroom, all the time.

Operationally, these plans also lay out rigorous daily schedules, including early morning ‘editorial meetings’, rapid-response content team huddles, mid-afternoon social scan reports and overnight ‘graveyard shift’ monitoring teams that look for spikes and opportunities in other timezones. Many of these newsrooms are slated to cover multiple markets (efficiencies of scale), which will stretch the news day even longer and also add in the issue of language and cultural relevance adaptations for the content as well.

Running a newsroom isn’t cheap – until you add up the alternative

newrooms, branded content

Newsrooms: lots of moving pieces.

As an economic response to the challenge of producing more content more cost-effectively, the in-house newsroom makes sense on paper. Lots of brands have spent the last couple of years adding up the bills they’re getting from various ad agencies, PR houses, design studios, video production shops and even the new crop of specialist white-label content marketing outfits and have been shocked by the grand total. In many cases, they’re paying for the inefficiency of making a high-concept, production-perfect, risk-minimised production model adapt to a fast-response, relevance-trumps-perfection world of news-based content. So the ops guys have got that part of right.

You think brands are self-centered now? Just wait till they build a newsroom!

I’m predicting a lot of these newsroom investments will result in a wave of incredibly tedious brand-centric content. Not because of the way they’re set up, but because of how they’ll be funded.

If they’re paid for with traditional marketing dollars, they are going to be measured by traditional marketing metrics. So the content produced by newsrooms is going to have to demonstrate that it can sell, almost directly, if the newsroom wants to stay in business. Simply put, whoever is paying of the production of the news (the brand) is going to demand that the news be all about them. Get ready for an onslaught of branded content, created by branded newsrooms, talking about the brand (and why & where you should buy it), all the branded time. Insert branded yawn.

newsrooms, branded content

Branded or not, news still needs to appeal to people who aren’t really paying attention.

 

Measure what’s important, not what’s measurable.

The one way I can see to keep the editorial shackles off these in-house newsrooms, (and, therefore, keeping them relevant to consumers), lies in the clever use of data & analytics to define and justify their role in the marketing mix. And plenty of firms are springing up to offer exactly this kind of data and analytics (Kissmetrics, Hubspot, SimplyCast, Salesforce and others), offering sophisticated metrics that uncover the ‘hidden effectiveness’ of content during all phases of the influence and purchase process.

For marketers that stick with simple ‘likes’ and ‘re-tweets’ as a measure of their content marketing effectiveness, I predict their in-house newsrooms, (one careful owner, very low miles, showroom condition), will end up getting auctioned off for cents on the dollar.

 

This post originally appeared on the Firebrand Talent blog.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

 

 

Cannes jury reveals the impossible truth about winning a lion.

Many people come to Cannes for the superstar keynote speakers. Sarah Jessica Parker and Kanye West made appearances this year while, crushingly, Aaron Sorkin cancelled at the last minute. Quite a few come to drink pink wine and trade gossip. And then there is a dedicated contingent who come for the awards, which is the reason Cannes exists in the first place.

This year, the organisers have provided a real treat specifically for people interested in trophies: a series of talks called “Jury Insights”.  Each day, the jury from the previous night’s ceremony open up and talk about how they chose the work they did and (crucially) why some very, very good work that teams spent months working very, very hard to bring to life, simply didn’t make the cut.

First cab off the awards rank was the Promo and Activation Jury, who revealed probably more than they should have about the grueling (at 3200 entries this year, you better believe it was grueling), task of sorting the storytelling wheat from the in-store sampling chaff.

Here’s their advice on the all-important case study video:

  • You’ve got 30, maybe 40 seconds to capture interest or you’re out.
  • Put the insight and idea in the first half, demonstrate craft and results in the second (or you’re out)
  • Don’t let your VO say: “And it worked!” (or you’re out)
  • Don’t let your VO say:  “Our brilliantly creative idea was…” (or you’re out) That’s for the jury to decide, not you.
  • Spend more time refining the clarity of the case study narrative before you worry about making it pretty.
  • But then spend plenty of time making it pretty (or you’re out)

The other thing that emerged from the session was the feeling that the thing that is really being judged are the judges themselves. They talked a lot about the scrutiny they felt their choices were under and even talked about the task as one of ‘curation’.

Judging the judges

The results for one category tend to get looked at as a whole and, because people are so interested in trends and patterns (shortcuts to meaning). As a result, the make-up of the group of awards can tend to skew individual decisions. If there are too many gongs going to tech-led ideas, for example, the judges felt it was important to balance it out with some decidedly analogue executions. Similarly with the mix of charity clients to big, corporate brands. And regions (can’t have too much from Brazil, for example). Not to mention holding companies or individual agency networks. And if your idea is an absolute screamer but happens to be very similar to another, completely unrelated piece of work from somewhere else on the globe (happens more than we care to admit), then both pieces cancel each other out and neither of you get a shiny statue.

BA, Cannes, Grand PrixFor the agencies and creatives that expend sweat and cash to enter, this information is fascinating, but ultimately of no use. It’s tempting to try to plot a contrarian approach (make your work deliberately analogue, for example), to improve your chances of standing out, but you can’t possibly know in advance if the top-flight entries in a category are heavy on digital or analogue.

A Cannes Lion has always been a hard thing to win. With the scrutiny of the jury and the swelling number of entries every year, it’s not going to get any easier. Except if you’re the genii behind something as jaw-droppingly good as the #lookup work for British Airways. Six lions and a Grand Prix for the team at Ogilvy London, led on the suit side by a good mate of mine, Chris Slough, shows that it’s not impossible, just really, really hard.

 

Barrie Seppings covered the CannesLions Festival of Creativity for Ogilvydo.com where you can catch all of the #OgilvyCannes coverage

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

 

We’re more than halfway through the week at the #CanessLions advertising festival of creativity and we’ve been reporting the hell out of the place for #OgilvyCannes.  Here’s some of the coverage from the first few days:

Why are we reverse-engineering the creative process?

Simon Wylie, CEO, Contagious Communications speaks to the diffusion of categories at Cannes Lions, the blurring of agency competencies and how technology is forcing us to reverse engineer the creative process.

The revolution will definitely be (sort of) televised.

Eddy Moretti, CCO of Vice Magazine tells us how one online video kick-started Vice’s evolution from magazine publisher to $1.4 billion media empire.

Michael Lebowitz doesn’t want to kill creative people

The founder of Big Spaceship just wants to kill the structures they operate within.

 

 

 

It’s certainly my lucky year for festivals and conferences. In March I flew to Austin Texas for SXSW14, the world’s largest interactive and tech festival where I was deeply impressed by Chinese maker culture, the old rules for new media storytelling and, of course, Bruce Sterling’s closing keynote. In terms of inspiration and education, Southby is very hard to beat. Oh, and because tacos.

I filed stories and interviews every day from SXSW for Ogilvy’s own thought leadership program ogilvydo.com which is a brilliant example of in-house content marketing that takes advantage of a global network of really talented people while operating on the smell of an oily rag. They must have liked what I wrote, because they’ve asked me to be part of the team covering the world’s largest festival of creativity: Cannes Lions, in the south of France.

Winners, grinners & sinners.

Everyone who works in the biz knows of Cannes and the power of the (really quite ugly) trophies they hand out. But it has become much more than an awards show, with a full week of education sessions, keynotes, seminars and workshops to go along with, apparently, a staggering amount of drinking and handshaking.

Every year, the organisers bring a smattering of hollywood and entertainment types (we have the Hoff and SJP to look forward to this year), but personally, I’m looking forward to hearing from the likes of Jonathan Ives, Spike Jones and (my hero) Aaron Sorkin talk about how creativity works in their particular fields.

Advertising is still all about marketing.

I’m also planning on spending time with the big platforms and publishers – the googles, facebooks, twitters et al – who have really been ramping up their presence at Cannes and are now locked in a kind of beachfront creativity & hospitality deathmatch. Honestly, I can’t wait. The other interesting part for me will be taking our brand new Padcaster video rig for a spin – it’s a really clever piece of kit that turns a regular iPad into a super-portable ENG kit, allowing you to shoot, edit and publish directly on the iPad for near-instantaneous broadcasting. I love how it brings together a few pieces of pre-existing componentry to form a totally new machine.

For some of the most comprehensive coverage and insights, I really recommend ogilvydo.com and for a hilarious (and usually pretty accurate) forecast, you should check Ogilvy SA’s CCO Chris Gotz.

 

Last week saw the launch of a new piece of advertising technology, hailed by all involved as “a game changer”. It turned out to be a parody of advertising technology, that then turned out to be the launch of a new advertising conference called Creative Fuel, to be held in Sydney in a few weeks time.

Timed nicely to meet the run-up to awards season, the video takes Christopher Guest-esque aim at gimmicky, technology-driven stunts that many agencies use to create work, (sometimes for a client, but not always), to put in case study videos, to enter into industry award shows.

Ant Keough’s delivery of the metaphor for the pace of technological change probably deserves ‘best in show’.

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As a target for parody, however, this is fish-in-a-barrel stuff. And possibly a little off the pace. Canada’s Rethink agency used 3D printers last year to bypass award shows altogether. A couple of years before that, John St. (again from Canadia) skewered case study video culture with this tongue-in-cheek recap of the marketing campaign for Chelsea Bedano’s 8th birthday.

You can’t stop progress.

The Creative Fuel video, however, betrays a deeper unease within traditional creative agencies. After years of striving to stay abreast of emerging technologies, understand the implications and then put the technology to use for clients, agencies now appear to be saying “stop the world, I want to get off”.

And you can scarcely blame them. The pressure to deliver innovation for its own sake (already great), has been exacerbated by the rate of technological change and amplified by the firehose of instantaneous information (read: press releases). The spectre of new technology now has Creative Departments running away in desperation. In this video, quite literally.

After years of trying to integrate digital departments, hiring (or not, in the case of W+K) Creative Technologists and appointing Innovation Officers, the current rallying cry by ad agencies to ‘get back to ideas’ is actually a neat way of stepping off the treadmill, by calling the treadmill itself into question.

My fear is that it reintroduces a dichotomy between creativity and technology that is largely meaningless and, ultimately, counterproductive.

All creativity requires technology. Not all technology is new technology.

Beginning with fire, pretty much everything we use to express ourselves or to bring about change in the world (the broadest definition of creativity), is technology. If you go back far enough, you arrive at a place where that technology was new. All new technology goes through an experimental phase while we work out what to do with it. In almost all cases, the first thing we ask of any new technology is to replicate the functionality of the technology it’s supposed to replace.

One of the first regular uses of non-military broadcast radio was a live reading of the front page of the daily newspaper, word for word, interrupted by ads. Television started by filming and broadcasting plays, which were staged and performed just as they were in the theatre, except now interrupted by ads. The first time we got our hands on one of them new-fangled mobile phones, we dragged the thing downstairs walked around outside and rang our friends to tell them that we were calling them while walking around ON THE STREET! OMG!

Actually, OMG came much later, but still relied on technology for the delivery.

So it’s not surprising that one of the first things we thought of when we were presented with the possibility of a remote control helicopter drone was to literally strap a client’s product to it.

Variations on the same idea occurred to the marketing teams at Dominos, Coke and this Scottish bakery. So many ad-fuelled drones are taking to the skies, the FAA has had to step in and issue a ban.

Eventually, we get past the obvious stuff and start tinkering, experimenting. That’s actually called innovation, where we try stuff out, maybe have a happy accident or an unexpected collaboration. In our industry, we have to somehow incorporate the brand in our experiments, because that’s how we get it paid for, not dissimilar to Beethoven naming his concertos after his patrons. Some really useful drone-powered stuff appears to be in the works, it’s just that brands and agencies don’t seemed to be involved at this point.

Clearly, not all of this early-adopter advertising-funded experimentation with technology is great. In fact, the majority of it is relatively pointless. But, as the guys (and they are all guys) in the Creative Fuel video point out, that doesn’t stop us making some very slick video case studies and entering them into advertising award shows. It also doesn’t stop these award shows from handing these very slick video case studies for largely pointless (or worse, entirely made up) work a shiny trophy from time to time.

This may well be the part that is getting the furthest up the collective noses of the Creative Directors quoted in the Creative Fuel promo video. I’m not entirely without sympathy.

Don’t throw the bluetooth out with the arduino.

Rare is the individual able to grasp the full potential of a new technology first swing at the plate. While we were all sniggering at the ‘twats’ talking with themselves in teenspeak on Twitter, CP&B took the time to understand how people were using the technology in an informal way. They quietly scaled it up and created Twelpforce, making Best Buy one of the most accessible brands in the US and casually bagging a Titanium lion in the process.

It’s important to note that Twitter had already been going for almost four years and we’d seen a lot of relatively pointless, ad-funded crap on Twitter by this point. In fact, we still do. Some of it is even winning awards.

Absent from this (entirely manufactured) debate are the voices arguing for gimmicky campaigns running on obvious (and obviously new) technology. Which makes it hard to work out who exactly the Creative Fuse crew are railing against? People who like using technology in advertising? Gullible award juries? The clients who fund this sort of work?It’s not immediately clear. Maybe they’ll turn up to debate the point in a panel discussion on the day.

Let’s go to the video one more time

While it’s a fun (if a little lengthy) video and it’s working brilliantly as a piece of marketing against the target audience, it will be interesting to see how many put their hands in their pocket for a $600+ asking price that covers just a single day of presentations. By way of comparison, SXSW gets you five days of inspiration for around the same coin, admittedly it’s a long way from Sydney. TedX at the Opera House charged half that, if you were approved.

Although Reg Mombassa is always good for a story and anything featuring the work of Dr Suess gets a tick, it looks, at a distance, to be shaping up as a full day agree-a-thon.

For my money, I just can’t buy into the technology vs creativity argument as it’s presented by the Creative Fuel promotional material. This one’s a zero-sum game – one that can’t be changed.

There’s no one without the other. Technology is part of the creative process (and creativity is inherent in all technology). Terrible ideas are terrible ideas. Awards juries will sometimes fall for these terrible ideas when they are very well packaged (please try to remember which industry you’re working in before you allow yourself to become too upset by this). Nothing to see here, move along.

History, research and pretty much anyone writing seriously on the topic knows that there are many paths to creativity.

I just don’t believe running away from technology is one of them.

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

Adland is drowning under a tidal surge of narrative-driven jargon. Everyone is now a storyteller. Every post is now part of a conversation. I’ve railed against this before but it has been to so little effect, I’m starting to believe I’m the marketing equivalent of the guy who washes his car just before every rainstorm.

 

Storytelling, narrative

We’ve opened the storytelling geyser.

 

The Five Types of Brand Narrative (from simple to  complex).

Seeing as we’re all getting into brand storytelling (at least until we decide we’re getting into the next thing, like, say, artisanal persuasion), we might as well see if we can’t create some sort of order from the chaos.

The First Type: An experience.

This type of marketing is striving to generate a feeling, an emotional reaction. This is really in the realm of branding (more specifically, brand association) and tries to hard-wire a correlation between the appearance or suggestion of a brand and a positive firing of neuro-somethings in your lateral sub reptilian cortex. (I’m sure someone like Rory Sutherland knows the exact medical terminology). This type of communication is subliminal and, over time, the customer response becomes Pavlovian. Think: Reef footwear and girls’ butts. Mercedes and their door-closing thud. Apple and their polished aluminum. A local example here in Singapore is Ion shopping mall and their carefully calibrated scent, continually pumped through the walkways to simultaneously relax and energise the consumer.

Constructing ‘experience’ marketing has traditionally been in the realm of sponsorships and activation, but within the digital world, the most adept practitioners now are probably UX and CX designers. If you are using mainly adverbs to describe your communication, your are probably building an experience.

message, broadcast, storytelling, brandsThe Second Type: A message.

This is a (usually) rational statement, expressed through language in a way that makes it easy for the audience to articulate back to you or, more encouragingly, to each other. That language can be textual (Think Nike and ‘Just do it’) or it can be visual (almost all car advertising; hotels, too). The message can be uplifting (Pedigree and their wonderful ‘We’re for dogs‘) or it can be really quite banal (Walmart’s Everyday low prices.) What’s important to note is that the reader has no role in this message, except to view it and understand it. We are not meant to construct our own meaning. In fact, quite the opposite. Traditionally, almost all advertising operated within this narrative type. Today, most of it still does. If you’re using mainly adjectives, you’re probably making a message.

 

The Third Type: A story.

This is a little more complex, a little messier. A story doesn’t have to necessarily be longer, but it should have some ups and downs. If not for the brand, then at least for the use-case of the product or, better still, for the audience. The ups-and-downs can be as simple as Vonnegut’s man in a hole, as formulaic as the classic 3 act structure or as sophisticated as Truby’s 22 steps, but it must have a range of action, both positive and negative. And this is why most brands can’t handle storytelling: they have no stomach for the negative, the ‘hole’ part of the Man In A Hole.

digital, technology, story, brands

Adding technology doesn’t always improve the story experience.

When you combine the Story format with digital media, all sorts of possibilities begin to emerge, but it’s important to remember that good stories are still linear, even when they are digital, or interactive (and these two things are not the same). If you want to dive into that distinction, the best explanation I’ve heard recently was from The Goggles, makers of Welcome To Pine Point, during their excellent session at SXSW.

Another realm in which technology is bringing new creative potential to traditional storytelling is the arena of Data Storytelling. Several interesting examples have emerged recently, although strictly speaking, these are stories told about data.

The key thing to remember about the Story format is that there is a range of action and emotion (including both positive and negative) and that the reader or audience is allowed some space to bring their own meaning or interpretation to the communication – another reason why some brands struggle to become true storytellers.

Even though stories may allow for some interaction (mainly in terms of navigation and pacing), they do not generally allow for user reaction and input. That belongs to…

The Fourth Type: A conversation.

The defining quality of a conversation is that it is two way. Back and forth. I say something, then you say something. Then I say something that is a reaction to that thing that you said.  Then you might have to abandon your script and think of something different to say that takes into account the thing that I just said.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 9.38.29 AM

The question remains: why?

And this really freaks brands out. Social media is a good arena to pursue a conversation format, but it does not automatically follow that your communications will be a conversation just because it is deployed on social media.

The most common criticism levelled at brands every time they take to a new social platform is that they treat it as a broadcast medium. They talk but they don’t listen. Or they listen, but they don’t respond. Or they respond but show no evidence of having understood what they heard. Or, most egregiously, no interest in understanding what they heard. “Join the conversation” is the classic direct response CTA, only slightly updated for Twitter.

The other difficult thing about the conversation format is purely a practical matter: it doesn’t scale. Technology hasn’t really solved this issue (just made it slightly easier to manage), because it is not a technological problem – it’s an inherently human one. We know this from real life. A single conversation can hold about four or five active participants before it either breaks into smaller discussions (Think: dinner party) or comes under the control of an active manager (Think: office meeting).

We see this now with the increasing recognition of the importance of Community Managers in executing these types of communications programs, and the pursuit of chatbots or ‘Embodied Conversation Agents’ that trick users into believing they are talking with another person. We’ve had the low-tech version of this for some time now: call centre scripts. Airlines, hotels and telcos have recognised the real use-value of conversation formats and simply added social channels to their existing customer service infrastructure. And it appears to be working.

The Fifth Type: An education.

Now it gets really interesting. And complex. This format works best when the brand has some information, some knowledge, that the audience may find useful. It really works when it becomes clear to the audience that this information is going to improve their life, or enjoyment of it, in some way.

education, brand, narrative, storytelling

Transmit knowledge and you’ll power up a deeper appreciation of your message.

The educational format does require some investment, attention, persistence and generosity (a ‘pay-it-forward’ attitude is a big help) on the part of the brand, but it doesn’t have to be a huge production. Digital is also consistently throwing up incredibly useful and user-friendly formats for education formats (Think: Lowe’s 6 second hardware tips on Vine). It is important to remember that you are placing a huge burden on the audience (Learning new things is hard work), so you need get the value exchange right. The audience has to believe the knowledge gained is worth more than the time and effort required to acquire it (Think: IBM’s NextGen CIO, an MBA-level shortcourse that helps IT Managers move from the server room to the boardroom).

Ironically, education formats can be as broadcast-y as you like, but take a tip from the people who do education for real: try to incorporate some sort of student feedback and scoring, to complete the transfer of learning.

Before I step off, I want to point out that none of these types of communication have been classified as content.

That’s because they are all content. This term was useful when we were emerging from the “advertising and PR” era, but social (in particular), has rendered the term meaningless, beyond a technical distinction between the delivery mechanism (the TV slot, the Facebook feed, the smartphone, the shopping mall aisle) and the thing that goes in those spaces (the ad, the post, the app, the scent). Beyond that, I think the term is now too broad to be truly useful.

Add a comment below if you’d like to join the conversation ;-)

 

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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The reason we struggle with insecurity, is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

Pastor Steven Furtick, from the excellent Atlantic article “Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators”

These are confusing times for brands, and the people charged with growing them. On the one hand, we need to ensure the ROI of everything, while on the other we must pursue constant innovation. We need to be open to new technologies, platforms and networks, but we can’t spread our investments too thinly. We’ve got to stay on brand and on message, but we also need to go viral.

These competing ambitions make it very difficult for marketers and agencies to make intelligent choices for their brands – but it is largely our own fault. As an industry, marketing is particularly susceptible to ‘the shiny new object’ syndrome and, after attending SXSW interactive in Austin, Texas last month, I’m predicting that we’re about to start chasing after two diametrically-opposed aims yet again.

Plug in to everything.

Many of the presenters and panelists gave compelling testimonial that technology might not quite be everywhere, but it soon will be. More to the point, they believe it should be. Once we work out how the make wearable computing look more like clothes and less like, well, wearable computing, it appears inevitable that we’ll all be individually wired up, all the time. The ‘quantifiable self’ movement was also highly visible, arguing that the responsibility for monitoring health will soon shift to the individual – and the battery of sensors and transmitters embedded in our bodies.

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data, story

Expect data everywhere.

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Our homes, shops, offices, cars and skies will be literally buzzing with input/output devices, WiFied to the max and constantly shipping information to the grid. For marketers, this new tide of data will start to drive the automation of more decisions and more executions – we’re practically already there with automated media buying exchanges and personalised recommendation engines.

Easily half of the conference seemed to be welcoming our new Big Data overlords and the relentless efficiency it will bring to our lives, ready or not.

But stay, y’know, kinda human.

The other half, however, were preoccupied with that most human of endeavours – storytelling. There were panels and presentations and seminars and workshops on Product Storytelling, Immersive Storytelling, Content Storytelling, Transmedia Storytelling and on and on it went. The unified message from this side of the house seemed to be: use your marketing to tell human stories to human customers in a human voice, you’ll be able to make your brand appear more, well, human.

I’m being flippant here but some of the storytelling advice was pretty solid: stick to a linear format, don’t be afraid of offering complexity to your audience and don’t try and chase out all the imperfections, visual or otherwise. Implicit in all this advice was the belief that storytelling is an inherently good way to go about marketing.

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Is it possible to pull together the threads of story and data for an experience that is accurate and human

Is it possible to pull together the threads of story and data for an experience that is accurate and human?

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 Am I the only one who sees a problem here?

Maybe it’s just a re-imagining of the old above-the-line vs below-the-line marketing split for a fully digitized age, but I believe there’s a real schism developing here. The choice appears to be between a marketing philosophy based on ensuring the absolute accuracy of everything (marketing by algorithm, if you will), and one based on overtly accentuating the human element of communication (artisanal marketing, to borrow an adjective from the hipsters).

Perhaps the answer is ‘yes’.

Yes to being both data-informed and also to being story-driven, which is to say human. Just as we have seen the rise of ‘Data Artists’ in the visual arts world, ‘Data Visualisers’ in the statistics world and, more recently ‘Data Journalists’ in the publishing world, perhaps marketing is about to make room for ‘Data Storytellers’.

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Data Storytelling: patterns stay in the background, humans take the stage.

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This industry needs another made-up job title like a brainstorm needs a ninja evangelist – or like we need brainstorms, for that matter. Real creativity, however, often comes from combining two previously unrelated ideas to develop a new approach and I see real potential in combining these two ascendant disciplines.  A mashup of data analysis and storytelling could result in a new type of communication approach, one that is both accurate and human – and creative in a way we’ve not seen before.

 

This post originally appeared on the Firebrand Talent blog.

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About the Author: Barrie Seppings blogs about making things better – for clients, brands, agencies and humans. He is currently Regional Creative Director at Ogilvy Singapore and he likes boards surf, skate and snow. Follow him on the Twitter, connect on LinkedIn, or add him on Google+

About the images: all photographs used with the permission of Martin Ollman Photography. Contact Martin directly for rights and commissions.

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