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A paragraph or two on storytelling as it relates to branding.

Another small excerpt from the upcoming 4th edition of “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” Sam and I are revising the whole book top to bottom to BAKE IN digital and social. Those aren’t things you can “add on” in a campaign, and we can’t just spot-weld on a new chapter either. We’re tryin’ to bake it in from the get-go. Anyway, this small section is about storytelling.

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Rick Boyko, long-time creative and President of VCU’s Brandcenter explains the ad biz very simply: “We are storytellers in service of brands.”

Seven words, but they sum it up nicely. Our job is to get our brands’ stories into the national conversation and ultimately into the firmament of popular culture. “To make them famous” as they say at Crispin. The thing is, we don’t get people talking about our brands by feeding them product benefits straight out of the sales guy’s spec sheets. People talk in stories and so must we.

There’s a great book I recommend to ad students. It’s not about advertising but about screenwriting: Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. McKee makes a convincing case that the human brain is wired to hunger for story— that a structure of three acts, taking us from problem to unexpected solution, is something our brains crave. Story just sucks us in. Even when we know how the story on some late-night TV movie is going to end, we stay up later than we ought to just to watch the dang thing, don’t we? Theorists suggest that story is actually a cognitive structure our brains use to encode information. So in addition to its drawing power, story has lasting power — it helps us remember things. (“Did you see that spot last night? The one where the . . .”)

Our job is to discover the stories behind our brands and tell them in a way that will get people’s attention. “Told well,” Bogusky and Winsor write, “they stick in our minds forever.”

What’s interesting is that even though the ascendancy of digital and online looks to be a permanent change, the classic construct of a story not only continues to work in the new medium, its narrative power is amplified. I’m reminded of a recent interview of Avatar director, James Cameron. Asked what permanent changes digital technology has made in filmmaking, Cameron replied, “Filmmaking is not going to ever fundamentally change. It’s about storytelling.”  Cameron’s comment also explains why some of the Star Wars prequels kinda sucked — it was special effects over storytelling.

Steven Jobs and Apple have been telling the same great story ever since they aired their famous “1984” Super Bowl spot; a story first told in a line of copy from one of their early print ads: “Instead of teaching people more about computers, we taught computers more about people.” Mac’s are designed around the way we work, not the way manufactures of PC’s work. Mac’s are the “computer for the rest of us.” Remember that huge image of 1984’s Minister of Truth in Ridley Scott’s dystopian Apple commercial? He’s still saying the same things today. (“We’ll make computers our way, maggots.”) He’s simply evolved into the tubby “PC Guy” in the Mac Vs. PC campaign.

The thing is, when a brand discovers its true story and sticks with it, others begin telling the story, too. At first, it’s only within the company and at sales meetings. Then at stores and in commercials. After awhile, if it’s an interesting story, if it’s a credible one, customers start telling the story and passing it on. And to be a credible story it’ll to come from the DNA of the brand. As we said in Chapter 3, it has to have the ring of authenticity.

The construct of a story serves us at this brand level, but we’ll also need structure to write a TV commercial or online video, a radio spot, or – as we’ll see – entire multi-media campaigns. TV remains my favorite medium for discussing the structure of story.

I think of television as a thirty-second play with three acts. The curtain goes up on an interesting scene where some conflict is already evident. Also evident at a glance is some back-story (hints about who these people are or how things got this way). Things get tense or weird or complicated, usually because of some challenge to the characters. Finally, it’s all resolved in an unexpected way and the characters are changed because of it.

The end.

Of course, there are many great movies, spots, and novels outside this Hollywood sort of story arc, but for our purposes this is classic story structure. There writers more qualified than I to teach story and most of them will begin with Aristotle’s original definition (“A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end”). Many recommend anything by Chekov but for those of you here in the middle-of-the-road with me, I say read any short story by Stephen King or Ray Bradbury.

The New Creative Person is T-Shaped.

4th edition comes out next February. Cancel all your other plans.

An excerpt from the the upcoming 4th edition of “Hey Whipple, Squeeze This.” It’s got a cool new cover drawn, shot, retouched, and designed entirely by a marvelous art director, Keli Linehan, from GSD&M. (She won’t like the way the cover’s reproducing here. It’s all done on a chalkboard, for reals, and it looks way cooler than this low rez file.) You’ll note also the cover includes a new name, my wonderful co-author, Sam Bennett. Sam is a really smart digital strategist, also from GSD&M. I’ve learned a lot from her and was happy when she agreed to help me update Whipple for the digital world. This excerpt includes material from a previous post from this site. (So sue me.)

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In spite of all this change, the two crafts we discussed in the first chapters – copywriting and art direction – these are still the basic tools you’ll need to create work in this new world of analog and digital media. Even if we wake up tomorrow in a Philip K. Dick novel, when it comes to creating advertising or content of any kind, someone’s gonna have to sit down and actually make something and that’ll still probably require the crafts of a writer and an art director.

The crafts are portable. They still matter in the new world, as do the disciplines of branding and positioning. As does being creative. In fact, given the kaleidoscope of stuff competing for the everybody’s attention, creativity is more important than ever. Our core job hasn’t changed. We still have to make things that are so interesting people lean in to see what they are.

None of what goes into creating a great idea changes; but as we’ve seen the output is different.

Today, a creative person is expected to be able to come up with everything from an ad to a website, a mobile application to a TV show, and a tweet to a radio spot. Where once Bernbach’s original teams of two could tackle all the traditional media, creating for a world that includes digital requires more skill sets than just copywriting and art direction.

For big cool projects that involve online creative or digital content of any kind, you’ll need to have at your side interactive producers, digital designers and developers, as well as IA and UX people (information architects and user experience). Where briefings once happened in a quiet room with four or five people, today you might find groups of 15 or more. And to be an effective member of these new teams, you’ll need to be what some call a “T-shaped” person.

T-shaped is just a funny name used to describe a person who has very deep skills in one area (the deep vertical stroke of the T) as well as the ability to collaborate across disciplines they’re not an expert in (that would be the horizontal stoke). Today’s most successful creatives are a sort of hybrid, capable of expert contributions in their chosen fields of art direction or copywriting, but fluent enough in other digital disciplines to collaborate effectively, occasionally even executing things on their own. The new creatives have both depth and breadth and today their job description isn’t “writing or art directing cool ads and TV spots.” It’s bigger. Your job is to create entertaining or useful experiences for your clients’ brands. That might involve an ad; it might not.

“I’m not even sure that the future is a writer-and-art-director team anymore,” says Weiden CD Tony Davidson in Spencer’s Breaking In. “I get a sense that the kids coming through want to do a lot more. They want to be an animator, they want to be a director, they want to be a writer. I love the idea of hybrid-ideas person who can move between disciplines.” (XXXX FOOTNOTE)

The thing is, when you can become conversant in other disciplines you’ll be a better creative and a better team member. And then, when you become fluent in other disciplines and can even execute on occasion, you’ll become the sort of go-to “creative alchemist” every agency on the planet is trying to hire.

In Breaking In, Google’s Valdean Klump describes just how valuable this wider skill set is:

“What impresses me most is the ability to make things. More and more these days, young people are coming into the business able to shoot their own commercials, create websites, program games, take photos, make animations, build Facebook apps, and generally act as one-person ad agencies. This makes CDs salivate because getting ideas off of the page is at least as hard as getting them on paper in the first place … If you can make things and make them well, you will never be unemployed.” (XXXX FOOTNOTE)

Having been a CD at an agency that was hiring, I remember wanting to recruit only the most techno-geeked-out, mobile-ready, code-slinging web brats I could find. On the other hand, I wanted writers or art directors who knew how to take a blank sheet of paper and make something interesting and beautiful happen. The place where these two skills overlapped seemed to be the sweet spot. The ones who can do both of these things? They’re the creatives of the future.

Now if you’re already in the business, as either a “traditional” or “digital creative” (a distinction that’s almost obsolete already), there are many things you can do to align yourself with the direction the industry’s going.

For now, I find myself pushing both traditionals and digitals towards the middle. Pushing traditional creatives to use, study, and learn the emerging technologies. And pushing digital creatives to learn how to create things that are delightful and conceptual on paper; things that are still cool even before any production happens.

I’ll use myself as an example.

Having come up in this business during the ‘80s and ‘90s, I think I’m probably pretty good at looking at a brand brief, figuring out the single most important thing to say, and then making something interesting happen: in print, on TV, outdoor or radio. I kinda know what I’m doing there.

But I won’t kid myself. I’m not what they call a digital native, someone who grew up with technology. I’m a digital immigrant, with a heavy enough old-world accent even the guys at the corner deli can’t understand me. Yet I am not content to sit on Ellis Island wondering what delights await discovery on the new digital shores. I’m swimmin’ across, people. Meaning, I stay very busy learning everything I can.

I am busy actually using the new media. I have an online presence and I’m busy blogging about this stuff, tweeting about it, and watching “webinars” (I still can’t say that word with a straight face): online seminars broadcast from cool places like Boulder Digital Works. I’m on lynda.com (where you can teach yourself Flash and Dreamweaver) and a whole bunch of other cool websites for inspiration and education. All of this so I can learn the new media, experience the new technologies, and help take my clients’ brands out into the world to meet their customers. I do all this hoping my self-guided education will push me towards that sweet spot in the middle.

Now, if I were a digital native, someone whose deep part of the T-shape is expertise in, say, HTML5, CSS, and Javascript? I’d get me a couple of the latest One Show annuals (insist on the kind made out of “paper”) as well as any December issues of Communication Arts’ Advertising Annuals I could find. Then I’d turn off my cellphone, put my feet up, and read ‘em cover to cover. I’d inhale them. And then I’d go find some more.

I’d probably start by studying the print of the ‘80s Fallon McElligott, I’d watch the TV of the ‘90s Goodby, and I’d understand how they tell an integrated story at today’s Crispin. I’d learn how to write headlines as good as the work Abbott Meade Vickers did for The Economist (page XXXX). I’d learn how to say something provocative in a 10-word sentence. I’d learn how to tell an interesting story in 30 seconds.

I’d push myself towards the middle.

Ultimately, for any open job position in its creative department, an agency’s gonna hire someone who is – drum roll – creative. But the tie’s gonna go to the person who can express creativity over the widest variety of media.

Before we move on talk about this whole idea of content, there’s one more job position now available in many agencies, one that’s neither art director or copywriter – a profession called creative technology.

The creative tech is trained to be skilled in using new media technologies in the service of branding, advertising, and marketing. This person introduces emerging technologies into the concepting process and is involved from briefing through development to final delivery. Whether it’s bringing a technical understanding of location-based platforms, designing communities, or executing Facebook applications, the creative tech helps turn the main campaign idea into cool online consumer experiences. In addition to blue-skying concepts along with the art director-copywriter team, she may build prototypes to test ideas, do some coding, or be a liaison to the client’s IT stakeholders.

A creative tech is even more helpful when she also has some polished skills of copywriting or art direction. So if you have any tech-geek in you, “CT” may be the way you want to go. Not a bad idea considering the whole world is Matrix-ing into 1’s and 0’s. We’re going to need people who specialize in applying all the digital media technologies coming online every week.

My single favorite thing I ever did on Norwegian Cruise Lines.

The coolest thing about Norwegian Cruise Line is that they have what’s Called “Freestyle Cruising.” And the coolest part of that is Freestyle Dining, which means you don’t have to eat at some assigned table next to strangers. This happens on most cruise lines; fewer and fewer of them as they start to copy NCL, but it happens. Our TV campaign was going to be all 15-second spots. Only a few of the spots ever ran, but the best thing to come out of it was this string of all the spots put together by Sam Selis of Beast, Austin. The old lady with the gallstones was the best – well, along with the poor guy who has to suffer all the fools. The smacking-chewy guy is Haven Simmons the art director. And the really ugly “lady” at the end, is me.

My Last NCL spot