Storytelling, brands and a disappointing revelation


04 Mar 2013 - Maria Kivimaa


Here’s a little short story about how one innocent industry event can result in a borderline nihilistic soul-searching session.

Adland has been drooling over ‘storytelling’ for a good few years now, so last week I picked my moleskin and a pen and headed to LBi’s headquarters on Brick Lane, to get inspired by a talk about the buzzword, organised by the fine people at Creative Social.

I didn’t get inspired. I got annoyed.

In the beginning we had five charismatic, smart and clearly successful creative directors from London’s top notch agencies on stage in slippers and pajamas (funny), getting ready to tell us stories about how brands should be telling stories – potentially quite a fruitful set up, minus the slippers, I thought.

The presentations started.

Yes, thanks to social media we are all now storytellers, and brands have also become curators of our stories. Yes, brands should act like humans and be emotionally intelligent. Yes, they should show the love, not just tell about it. Yes, sending a KitKat to space for Felix Baumgartner made a good story and generated numerous tweets and good PR. Yes, Bodyform’s period video still makes us laugh. Yes, Lego replying to a kid who lost his toy with a personal letter is a lovely little tale. Yes, showing your creative work to the client with PowerPoint slides bores both parties.

The presentations ended.

There was nothing that anyone working in advertising hasn’t read about in Campaign or Mashable. There was nothing new, exciting or thought-provoking. There wasn’t a story.

I felt irritation creeping in.

Is the advertising industry so caught up on buzzwords and social media trends and Red Bull’s awesomeness, that we are afraid to break any rules or venture into new territories outside our own little sandbox?

This theme would have been perfect for exploring anything else other than the same old case studies. But there we were, congratulating ourselves and and tapping each other on the shoulder like the smug clique of popular kids at school. (Who then, ten years later, turn out to be the ugly and fat adults with a herd of misbehaving kids, grey tracksuit and Asda loyalty card, because they got too content in their own little cool corner in their expensive trainers and forgot to be genuine, curious and humble.)

Or was I expecting too much? After all, no matter how loudly brands scream about engagement and entertainment and how desperately they beg to be your lover and solve your personal problems and make you laugh or question the meaning of life, they exist first and foremost to sell, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

They can still tell lovely stories about space jumps and period pains and army recruitment, but they won’t change your world, like reading Crime And Punishment or watching The Sea Inside or, erm, Forrest Gump. They can act like noble kings but they will never touch you like a true friend. They can make you smile but they won’t tell you the joke that you will pass on to your grandchildren. You might share their funny video on YouTube but you won’t share your secrets with them.

While walking home through the dark and stormy east London I remembered again that brands are just brands. And we, we are just strategists, creatives and account executives.

Quite an underwhelming thought. Or is it?