Category: Storytelling

The world beyond ‘storytelling’



It is Mothering Sunday, 1924. I have stepped into the body and mind of Jane, foundling, and maid to the Niven household. I am not where I should be. I am above stairs. I am naked. And I am not alone. “Feast on this.” I am lost to myself, immersed completely in the first pages of Graham Swift’s masterful, exquisite novella Mothering Sunday.

Later, reflecting on the experience, and assembling this piece, I will recall the novelist Will Self’s epitaph (far too premature, to my mind) for the capabilities of the novel:

The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them.”

Then this presents itself to me:

Maybe audiences aren’t the only ones who benefit by skipping ads. Maybe smart brands and marketers also want to skip ads, skip making them, and skip shoving them down our throats. Maybe “skip ads” isn’t a negative, but a positive statement. Because when you skip ads, you can do so much more: Skip ads and tell stories, entertain, educate, inspire and touch lives. Skip ads and win hearts. Don’t get in the way of what they want. Be what they want.”

Oh dear. I had resolved never to write about or proffer an opinion on advertising’s fixation with storytelling. The supply of ink and hot air on the matter was already a vast enough industry. But this was the last straw. The hubris, the delusion, the philistine rhetoric masquerading as depth, the pomposity parading as wisdom, and the narrowing of our industry’s ambition is too much to bear. For if advertising’s stories are amongst the best our civilisation has to offer then please, shoot me. Robert McKee, puts it well:

Flawed and false storytelling is forced to substitute spectacle for substance, trickery for truth… A culture cannot evolve without honest, powerful storytelling. When society repeatedly experiences glossy, hollowed-out, pseudo-stories, it degenerates. We need true satires and tragedies, dramas and comedies that shine a clean light into the dingy corners of the human psyche and society.”

If advertising truly represents great storytelling then we would almost certainly be on the brink of our civilisation’s decline. But it does not. And to the prophets, fluffers, trumpeters and theorists of the Golden Age of Storytelling I say this – you’ve got it wrong.

I am not a fan of Hollywood, let alone a student of it. I rather lost interest in its output when it stopped making movies for adult minds. But I am a fan (though no student) of the written word. Not least of all because it is the one domain of the arts that has not given up on offering us an ethical vision. So I shall limit my references and comparisons to that.

You confuse structure for story

Aristotle famously argued that the essence of story was “a change from bad fortune to good or from good fortune to bad.” He had a point. If the story ends in precisely the same place it began, if the arrow of time makes no progress, and if there is no advancement made for better or for worse, people audience will wonder what the point of it all was. 

If there is to be momentum, there must of course be conflict. Newton’s third law makes itself felt not just in the world of physical objects but that of the narrative. But reducing story to “somebody wants something and something gets in the way” is merely the stuff of plotting and structure. I suspect that somebody wants something in Fifty Shades of Grey and something gets in the way, but I am not sure if we’d want to hold it up as the best of the storyteller’s art. Stories – good, lasting ones – are so more than just structure, plot and momentum. Pattern does not a story make.

You have a limited appetite for conflict

“The heroine or hero has a goal and encounters obstacles to achieving it. Inevitably there is some sort of trouble. If there isn’t, you don’t have a story,” we are told. Well yes, indeed. But while you talk of overcoming ‘conflict’, the fact of the matter is that you have next to no appetite for the kind of conflict that is the real stuff of story.

Murder, oppression, sexism, vanity, alienation, jealousy, rape, abandonment, war, betrayal, envy, loneliness, megalomania, corruption, exploitation, avarice, addiction, revenge, depression, bereavement, seduction, racism, loss of innocence, lust, heartbreak, madness, incest, imprisonment, loss, greed, death, hunger, rivalry, injustice, isolation, desire… this and more is the stuff of great, enduring, insightful stories.  Stories that succeed in shining a light into the crevices of the human soul. Stories that illuminate our place in the state things.

Yet anyone who has had to endure the seemingly endless workshop/meeting/brainstorm in which we seek to “align” on a brand’s ‘personality’ attributes and heard descriptors such as ‘opinionated’ or ‘daring” rejected for being “too negative” knows – or has got to face up to the truth – that no marketing department on the planet has any appetite for any of this stuff. The really interesting stuff. The truly human stuff. The stuff of stories.

Conflict? Pfft. Mild inconvenience at best is the stuff of most of adland’s so-called storytelling.

You have no interest in deep exploration

The lack of true conflict reveals advertising’s true intentions. It has little interest in truly exploring the human condition. And here perhaps, is advertising’s greatest departure from the agenda of the storyteller. Writing for the Chronicle, the essayist Arthur Krystal puts it thus:

The only mandate here is one of exploration. Writers have an obligation to interrogate reality, to make sure that our relation to the world is or is not what it appears to be. This sounds rather grand but can be accomplished in a number of ways: through layered Shakespearean rhetoric, nuanced Chekhovian observation, lengthy Proustian ruminations, collagist Joycean soliloquies, or minimalist Carveresque touches. What it boils down to is an intelligent appraisal of the nature of things, including our humanity, which, if we’re honest, contains a good dose of ignorance. What are we or the universe doing here? What is the meaning of existence? In this capacity, literature is, at bottom, a wondering, an attempt to get to the bottom of things, or, at least, a faithful, if oblique, portrayal of how things are.”

Picasso allegedly once noted that the role of art was “washing the dust of daily life off our soul”.  So when pray, did advertising’s storytelling ever offer up a truly penetrating revelation about what it is to be human? When did an insight unearthed and authored by a planner ever hold a candle to the examination of the human condition offered up say, by Chaucer or Dickens? When in its quest for insight and understanding did advertising ever exhibit the same fulsome embrace of the conflict, ambiguity, paradox and grubbiness that makes for human nature and relations?

We can peddle the rhetoric of insight all we want. But there is a world of difference between brushing dust off the human soul, and merely adding through the power of our imaginations, a bit of gloss to it. Which, for the most part, is the bread and butter of our business.

You have little appetite for genuine human truth

Unwilling to embrace conflict, advertising deals in a very different kind of truth from that of the storyteller. For story is a vehicle, argues Julian Barnes, author of the Booker prize-winning The Sense of An Ending – perhaps the very best one – for telling the truth:

It’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts… I think a great book – leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on – is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truth – about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both – such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television.”

The great American writer Annie Dillard similarly reflects on literature promise of truth and enlightenment:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed? … Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaning, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?”

Susan Sontag believed that in seeking such truth, the writer was a moral agent:

By writing truthfully about the society in which she or he lives, cannot help but evoke (if only by their absence) the better standards of justice and of truthfulness that we have the right (some would say the duty) to militate for in the necessarily imperfect societies in which we live. Obviously, I think of the writer of novels and stories and plays as a moral agent… This doesn’t entail moralizing in any direct or crude sense. Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though the lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate — and, therefore, improve — our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgment.”

Short-or long-form, one struggles to think of any advertising that has expanded and educated our capacity for moral judgment. That assumes as its primary purpose the pursuit of an ethical agenda. That enquires deeply about how we live, could live, should live. But then why should it? It has another agenda. For in the final analysis, and however it achieves it, advertising is always about the brand.

Most of what you make just isn’t a story

A gorilla limbers up and starts playing drums. A woman throws a hammer at a big video screen. Coloured balls roll down a hill. A man tells us we could smell like him. Gerbils are shot out of cannon. A fat kid runs down an empty road. A puppy steals a toilet roll. A bronzed man walks down a beach in Speedos. Martians laugh at humans. A man hurtles through the air in a wing suit. Things get distorted when seen through a bottle. A meerkat talks to camera. Young people gather on a hill and sing. Sofas, kitchens, and carpets are offered at low, low prices. An offer must end. If you think that any of this is a story, you need to think, as Andy Nairn suggests, very long and very hard about the basic ingredients of a good yarn, before telling the world that we spin them for a living.

From time to time, we do tell something that at least approximates a story. Sometimes those stories are good – touching, memorable, tender, moving, entertaining, spectacular, thrilling, even. Indeed some of them have created enormous economic value for the businesses on whose behalf they are told. So by all means point to the 0.1% of our industry’s output that does actually resemble a story. But do not tell us that this represents the totality of our output, the ideal, the standard, or the future.

So for Chaucer, Austen, Defoe, Dickens, Bronte, Stoker, Grimm, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, James, Conrad, Kipling, Woolf, Joyce, Orwell, Shelley, Melville, Carroll, Trollope, Eliot, Conrad, Proust, Forster, Hemingway, Huxley, Greene, Nabokov, Grass, Marquez, Amis, Ishiguro, Kundera, Ellroy, Pullman, Lessing, Murdoch, Ballard, Swift, Fitzgerald, Hesse, deLillo, Steinbeck, Updike, McEwan, Fielding, Waugh, Hardy… for all those who came before, and for all those who toil now in the hope of scant reward, I believe stories deserve to be taken back from the adguys, and protected from our shallow, and specious theorising. As an industry we’ve devalued enough language as it is, and the idea of a story is far too valuable to be fracked to exhaustion by those in the business of selling other peoples’ goods and services.

Having defended the virtue of stories, let me defend the future of our industry. For amongst the great many things that threaten not merely to “disrupt” our industry but render it impotent or irrelevant, the insistence that we must tell stories is high on the list of threats.

You obsess on what you tell, not what you leave behind

Telling. Time and time again we are encouraged, exhorted, and even mandated to tell stories.  It’s a myopic and dangerously short-term vision of our value. Tell a story. Over and out. Job done. Simples. The telling is the story.

Yet any writer will tell you that there is no story without a reader. Interactivity is not an invention of the digital age. For until a story comes to life in the mind of another, it simply does not exist. Our insistence on storytelling makes a mockery of the notion of an active, interested, participating, nay, ’engaged’ consumer. We can fill the Palais this summer with all the keynote addresses and grandiose rhetoric we want on modern storytelling (as I am sure we will), but in doing so we will only reveal we do not understand the first thing about real stories.

In an essay on the power of the written word, Philip Pullman champions what marketing cannot cope with:

Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy. Once the reader opens the book, they enter a space as private and secret as the polling booth… The private space between the book and the reader is something utterly precious and individual. The conversation a reader has with a book is none of the writer’s business, unless the reader chooses to tell them about it. … To limit a reader’s permitted response to what the writer himself or herself knows about their own work is an infringement of freedom. Reading should be free.”

How well a reader’s interpretation reflects the writer’s intention in telling the story is not something that can be controlled. But it does not matter. Because that is the point. As the psychologist Jerome Bruner notes:

The author’s act of creating a narrative of a particular kind and in a particular form is not to evoke a standard reaction but to recruit whatever is most appropriate and emotionally lively in the reader’s repertory.”

Yet how many marketers would be comfortable with people not taking out precisely what was intended? Who would be willing to trade in measuring “key message takeout” and measure “personal takeout” instead? I suspect that for the most part marketing’s tolerance for subjective experience and personal interpretation is far, far less than that of the average – albeit bona fide – storyteller.

Worse, reducing our contribution to the telling of stories is fire-and-forget marketing. It is marketing that is fixated only on the moment, the act of telling. But the true source of our value (if we ever have wish to realise it) is to be found not in what we make, but in its lasting effects. Despite the easy rhetoric of “it’s about the work”, it isn’t what we make that matters. It’s what that leaves behind that matters. For ultimately it is not the story we tell that is important. But the story that the consumer tells about the brand. Whether to themselves, or to others. And it was ever thus.

Your grand desires obscure opportunity

And herein lies the truest, most clear and present danger for marketers in falling for the storytelling rhetoric. Convincing ourselves that we are storytellers might make us feel important.  Culturally significant. Belonging to a community and tradition stretching back to the very origins of art and language. Possessed of a cause and purpose far more noble and ethically sound than selling stuff and creating profit. Sought out by people rather than at best tolerated, and at worst blocked from view altogether. But it obscures the endless vistas of creative opportunity that now reach out before us.

For in the quest to render brands visible, interesting, meaningful and memorable, there are many, many more ways to accomplish this than solely through storytelling. A man jumps out of a very high balloon. A girl falls off a treadmill. A man in nothing but a towel responds in realtime to people’s tweets. Fans tip their hats in thanks and respect and the hat can be bought. People control the flightpath of a plane through the power of thought. We need not tell a story for the consumer to tell a story. And indeed sometimes just making something useful, or beautiful is enough. So we might do well to remember that ‘advertising’ is derived from the Latin advertere meaning “turn toward,” (from ad- “toward”and vertere “to turn”). We are in the business of turning gaze and attention. 

Meanwhile culture passes you by

The thundering tsunami of pop culture unleashed by the falling cost of production and the sidelining of the traditional gatekeepers of distribution should remind us that much of what garners attention, fame, participation, notoriety, conversation, comment, adulation, envy, and imitation is neither a story, nor told.

What we in Adland make has for the most part, already been shunted out to the margins of culture, when once we helped shape and define it. If we wish to hasten our marginalisation and irrelevance, then the best thing we can do is continue with our insistence that as advertisers we are ipso facto, storytellers – and fail to embrace all the other ways in which we can render brands visible, interesting, memorable, and meaningful.

What an irony it would be if the advertising industry’s response to the opportunities now before it would be to narrow down its definition of creativity to the one thing it doesn’t do very often, or very well.


Julian Barnes, The Art of Fiction No. 165, Paris Review

Jerome Bruner, ‘Actual Minds, Possible Worlds’

Annie Dillard, ‘The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New’

Arthur Krystal, ‘The novel as tool for survival’, Chronicle, 06.03.16

Robert McKee, ‘Nothing Moves Forward Except Through Conflict’, 10.03.15

Andy Nairn, ‘What it takes to be a true brand storyteller’, Campaign, 04.01.16

Philip Pullman, ‘Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy’, New Humanist, 19.01.15

Will Self, ‘The novel is dead (this time it’s for real)’, Guardian, 02.05.14

Susan Sontag, ‘At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches’