The End of Words? Let’s Hope Not

Author, Jeremy Ettinghausen, Innovation Director, BBH Labs and BBH London

Working at Penguin Books in 2000 I recall plenty of excitement about a brand campaign featuring black-and-white documentary photography with the caption ‘be here’ in Penguin orange. The striking images and absence of any actual books certainly made the work stand out from the mass of publisher marketing activity, which largely featured a book jacket and a quote.

The campaign was a huge success. But perhaps there was a little ambiguity in the messaging. The intention was, of course, to imply that there was no better way of immersing oneself in a story, a world, someone else’s life than through the pages of a (Penguin) book. But such was the power of the imagery that, without the Penguin logo, ‘a picture tells a thousand words’ could have been an equally valid interpretation.

I was reminded of this last month when Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn seemingly predicted the end of the written word, at least on that platform. “The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, actually is video,” she told a conference in London, adding, “We’re seeing a year-on-year decline of text…If I was having a bet I’d say: video, video, video.”

Of course, Nicola has both data and Mark Zuckerberg on her side. Video content made up 64% of web traffic in 2014, had reached 70% by the end of 2015 and is predicted to reach 80% by 2019. At Facebook’s F8 developer conference Mark Zuckerberg told the crowd that we are ‘at the beginning of a golden age of online video’, announcing a raft of tools for the production and dissemination of live video content. Twitter seem to be placing a major bet on and major investment in the streaming of live sports. And Snapchat proudly opens into the camera rather than into anything as passé as a text entry box.

And in the meantime, traditional publishers are doubling down on video. Most major newspapers have created video production units, and just a few weeks ago The New York Times (‘All the News That’s Fit to Print’) picked up two Cannes Grand Prix, one for Mobile and the other for Entertainment, with its VR app and The Displaced VR film. Even The Economist magazine has a documentary film arm, tautologically advertised as the place ‘Where the Image is the Final Word’.

Words, it seems, have had their day.

It’s undeniable that the raw, unedited, as-live video that fills our news and social streams provides a more visceral and immediate storytelling experience than a more passive, measured reading experience can. But – and this might sound a strange question from a publisher-turned-marketer – is storytelling all there is?

Right now, given tumultuous events both at home and abroad, I’d argue that there is a desperate need to propose, share, support, challenge and discuss ideas, not just tell each other stories. We need ideas that can change views, overcome apathy and suggest how we get to a better tomorrow.

And words, carefully chosen and elegantly arranged, are perfect tools for the communication of ideas.

Certainly the brand as storyteller is a notion that many dismiss nowadays. The 2016 brand needs to have a purpose and a mission, an idea of what a better world might look like and an idea of the role that a brand can play in helping us get there. The GMO of Procter & Gamble has pronounced that Millennials demand brands have a purpose. And it is purpose driven ideas (that word again!) that win pitches and win awards.

So perhaps we should hope and expect to see more brands crafting campaigns with ideas formed out of words instead of stories crafted from video. History and momentum suggests the year-on-year decline of text on Facebook is an inexorable trend on that platform. But just as is it’s not all about storytelling, it shouldn’t be all about video.

Our culture and our marketing needs ideas more than ever. We still, unambiguously, need to choose and use our words carefully.


This article first appeared in Campaign

Write and Black Sheep – Pt 1

At the end of last year, strategists at BBH London were ‘invited’ to compete for The Write and Black Sheep Prize, an internal writing competition. Answering the question ‘If I were a marketer today what zag (general or category specific) would I make?’ in 400 words didn’t faze their planning brains – there were many brilliant entries. 

Over the next week we’ll be publishing some of the entries – starting today with the winning piece, Saskia Jones wonderful provocation on the connection between introversion and creativity. 

(note – this piece was first published in Campaign)


Precursor Monologue to a Creative Dialogue

image (7)

Let’s start with a game of “Who am I?”

I am told to speak up;
more often;
with more authority.

I am encouraged to
communicate with immediacy
work in groups;
and to network.
Yet I think more than I speak;
I am considered rather than immediate
I seek solitude.
& I hate small talk.

Who am I?

I’m Albert Einstein, I’m Barack Obama, I’m Mark Zuckerberg.

I’m me.

I’m an introvert.

I am part of the 30% of the nation that are.

I haven’t picked introversion to validate talking about myself for the next three hundred words.


I’ve chosen this because of the intrinsic link between introversion and creativity. The kind of creativity that creates difference. At scale.

The kind of creativity that is the holy grail for today’s marketers.

Yet marketing is an industry renowned for attracting extroverts – and our environment has adjusted accordingly.

Collaboration, brainstorms & public speaking.

These words, and variations of them, fill me with fear.
I turn quickly from a vaguely intelligent & considered individual into a vacuous mute.

These now common-place processes and functions are founded on extrovert norms.

Extroverts are galvanised by other people, by external stimuli; they are each other’s catalysts – but these approaches are less effective than applying introvert “norms” to idea generation.

They also increase both social anxiety and peer pressure.

I therefore become more likely to agree with an idea I don’t necessarily believe in.

However, these approaches still prevail.

I find irony in the idea that we are trying to create difference but adopt processes that promote homogeneity.

There is an opportunity to disrupt this – to encourage a dialogue between extraverts and introverts.

Greater difference will come from quiet, than it will from noise.

This opportunity is not just internal, it extends to how we best engage with introverts through our comms;

Introverts over index on having a higher income – being high net-worth individuals.

Audi is marketing to them – consciously or otherwise.

But these people have defining traits that impact how & where we talk to them; they are fiercely private – an important consideration as comms become increasingly personalised.

Do I have all the answers to how this would work?


But I do know that “Neither E = mc2 nor Paradise Lost was dashed off by a party animal.”

So how about I start by turning the tables.

By asking you to:

Speak more quietly
and less often.

To work alone
be more considered
and cut out the small talk.

Try it.

I dare you.




Tree of Codes and the Web It Left Behind

Author: Jessica Berta (@jeccaberta), Writer, BBH NYC

Certain artists are typecast, sometimes by choice. They capture a style so well that it comes to define them. Author Jonathan Safran Foer falls outside of that camp with a chameleonic thud. He keeps us curious.

In his new book, Tree of Codes, Foer does with a physical book what we often neglect in digital—he turns reading into an experience. In showing how a story’s environment affects its meaning, he gives digital storytellers a slap in the face.

Tree of Codes, breaks from the standard book format in two ways:

  1. It creates a new story by tearing apart and piecing together an old one—Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles.
  2. Each page is die-cut to reveal just a handful of words and phrases.

I found the book annoying to read at first, despite its delicate beauty. I couldn’t decipher between the page I was reading and the ones beneath it. It was like a depth perception test following a mug of bourbon.

After sobering up and finding a better technique, I enjoyed the layout. Words hovered in a dream-ridden state. Thought went into each line, each phrase and how it was laid out. Such attention to the UX of reading is tough to find on the web. Foer’s analog approach would be easy enough to toy with in digital. So why aren’t we more playful with narratives online?

Brilliant writing isn’t enough to keep readers happy. Long blocks of copy, no matter how poetic, are begging for attention spans to scamper off elsewhere. In a design dominant field, it’s easy to neglect voice, tone, even punctuation. Or to forget about how each will figure into a broader environment.

Maybe that’s because we get swept up in technology. We use it to tell stories rather than to shape them. The following ideas and executions use technology to influence how stories are read. Bravo! The better ones put UX at the forefront. In doing so, they offer some lessons in communicating creatively.

These concepts and methods fool with language, narrative and technology to entertain. It’s humbling to think that a few pieces of paper and an X-Acto knife can do the same.

When we leave room for interpretation and delight, we can expand the playground for digital fiction. We can turn stories into experiences that are unique to each reader. So let’s stop neglecting the goddamn words. Pretty please?