In recent years, copywriters, “branding” experts, “strategic” thinkers, and advertising and marketing agencies have evolved a conceit in which they refer to themselves as “storytellers.”
Although it is largely self-inflating bullshit, I enjoy this conceit. It puts an emphasis on the concept of “stories” and helps me when I try to explain and expose one of the great logical miscalculations of our industry. I call it the “untold stories” problem. Here’s how it works.
Most of the information we get about the success or failure of advertising and marketing activities comes in the form of a story:
– A press release
– An article in a trade publication
– A feature in the business section or on a TV business report
– A case history presented at an industry conference or event
The stories that reach us are usually superficial — they are mostly just headlines lightly dusted with a few specifics, some meticulously curated numbers, and a generous helping of spin. This is because marketing strategies are valuable trade secrets and are crucial to business success. You don’t just give ’em away. As a result, the stories we get are often devoid of the crucial specifics that are key to understanding the true nature of the activity.
Nonetheless, for every story we are exposed to, there are a thousand untold stories we don’t get to read or hear about. These are the non-spectacular stories, created in non-spectacular fashion, by non-spectacular brands. In other words, almost everything that ever happens in the world of marketing.
I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to suggest that we are far more likely to hear success stories from marketers than failure stories. Ask any business reporter. The number of PR releases she gets about the brilliant new campaigns being launched will outnumber the releases she gets about the failure of campaigns by about a zillion to one.
After all, who wants to embarrass the CEO, alarm the Board, scare the shareholders, frighten the puppy dogs, and reveal themselves for the mediocrities they are? It’s a lot wiser strategy to be forthcoming about your successes and circumspect about your failures.
However, when this tendency becomes terribly dangerous is when the primary information we get about marketing fundamentals (not particular brand campaigns) are the ones that reach us through “storytelling.”
I would wager any amount of money that the number of untold stories about the ineffectiveness of a particular marketing activity outnumber the heroically told stories of success by a hundred to one. This is doubly true of (but not limited to) the shiny new object activities like social media, content marketing, virtual reality, native advertising, “personalization,” blockchain, and whatever other new marketing miracle happens to be trending this week.
The narratives we are exposed to about these activities are profoundly skewed by the bias toward trumpeting success, not failure.
This is perilous. It leads to conferences, books and, god help us, Powerpoints, extolling the efficacy of these activities based on wildly unrepresentative samples. It gives an entire industry a false impression of the value of these methodologies.
It leads us to throw money at expensive, wasteful tactics. And it reinforces the lemming-like attraction of naive marketers to the trendy fantasies that have dominated our industry for the past decade, often through widely read “success” stories.
Before you take any story about advertising or marketing as indicative of a general truth, you’d be wise to assume that just the fact that it is being told makes it likely that it is one or two standard deviations from normal. You should factor in the likelihood that the overwhelming number of stories that haven’t been told aren’t nearly as rosy.
The untold stories are usually the real story.
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