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  • The Storyteller’s Story

    21st April 09

    If the past couple of weeks have seen some of the industry’s finest minds crystallise why there isn’t more great work in the interactive space, then from here on in – inevitably, I guess – this debate is going to need to shift on its axis slightly and focus on the trickier task of finding tangible solutions.

    The good news is that there already appear to be some answers emerging, all with the potential to lead somewhere interesting and worth recording. I’m going to approach this pretty organically and see where it goes. Please feel free to jump in, disagree, debate, add your own suggestions etc.

    First up, a theme that may seem controversial to some: the wholesale reinvention of a (sometimes much maligned) skill, the art of storytelling.

    Ben’s second post caught my attention with the observation that “there’s currently much less of a culture of developing narrative or storytelling on the web” and this got me thinking.

    Part of the issue behind this, I would hazard a guess, is the fact story telling as a skill has come to be associated with the old school mores of broadcast advertising. By way of illustration, in his NMA column last week Mark Cridge talked about the need for a creative director to be comfortable with the idea of curation, rather than control. A thought that made complete sense – no question. His piece then went on to conclude “If these are the skills that are going to be important from now on, which type of creative director would you rather work with: a big budget brand storyteller obsessed with control, or one more comfortable with the ebb and flow of the interactive world?”

    Reading this, you’d be forgiven for thinking storytelling no longer has a place or is badly in need of rehab. In truth, and I am going to nail my colours to the mast here, it’s never had the potential to be more relevant or exciting.

    (For full post click below)

    Entertainment brands are showing us how it’s done. The days of film trailer after film trailer featuring near-identical Don LaFontaine or James Earl Jones voiceovers are kinda over. Undoubtedly these brands do have it easy – acres of high value (okay, not always the case..) content people are already prepared to pay good money to see. How hard can it be to chop up bits of a film or game into neat trailers and distribute to a waiting fan base on the web? But, in fact, they are doing so much more than that. The new movie marketing model (the latter also recently examined here by Noel Bussey) shows us that storytelling doesn’t need to be written off as antiquated, one way communication, quite the opposite. Sophisticated stories are spun around the core characters & concept behind a film, all with the aim of driving anticipation, buzz and deeper, more rewarding relationships with fans.

    There are a multitude of examples to prove the point from an ever-growing line of films and TV shows (Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Lost, Heroes, The Sopranos etc), but I am going to pick just one: Watchmen. Whatever you may think of the graphic-novel-turned-film, the marketing content was near flawless. The creation of a fictional, immersive world in which a fan could lose themselves happily over a prolonged period of time. If you haven’t read it already, check out Dan Light at PPC’s account of producing it all here. His story is a rare and useful thing: collected in one place, a candid, informative & riveting account of how a seamlessly integrated & interactive campaign was created.

    Compared to an fmcg brand, say, of course we can argue that it’s easier to create an extended fictional world around an entertainment brand, especially one as hotly anticipated as this film. However, if we buy the linked principles of (a) moving from interruption to engagement (b) moving from one night stands to ongoing relationships with consumers, and (c) shifting £££ from bought to earned (& owned) media, then we have to accept we have a lot to learn from how entertainment brands are approaching these very same challenges.

    At a conceptual level, they teach us that the fundamental shift in storytelling is simply this: we are now in the business of starting stories, not attempting to nail them down from beginning to end. Letting stories take on a life of their own, to be played with, passed around, modified and enriched by the audiences they’re developed for.

    Here are a few observations about what it takes to put this into practice, drawn from what Light had to say:

    1.The importance of starting out early and producing a LOT of content from that point on. The first part of the jigsaw, the ‘movie countdown widget’ (now a ubiquitous part of any movie launch) was available 10 months before the film was released, compared to the average 8-10 weeks. And, as Dan says, “In the case of Watchmen, content-wise, we really went for the mother lode”. See the post for why that was important.

    2. Don’t expect a linear process: brief->concept sign-off->production. To get some things approved, you need to make them without being asked. There’s a risk, but proto-typing and producing at low cost & high speed means the pay-off is worth it, most of the time.

    4. Fans may want to be “hunter gatherers” (see Henry Jenkins on the subject of world-building), piecing together dispersed pieces of content in order to build a fictional world, but they only have so much time to do so. The Watchmen downloadable widget was a countdown to the movie, but also a – updated weekly – portal to most of the content surrounding it.

    5. The crucial importance of creating a tightly woven team (see Warren Bennis on Great Groups for the theory behind why this is critically important). Dan and his team created a space which removed them from their usual environment. It was the loading bay at their offices – effectively a stripped down warehouse area – nothing fancy. Then they gave that team the tools they needed to do what they do best. For writing purposes they used software which allowed them to co-create whilst still keeping individual ownership.

    6. Seed aggressively / mobilise your network. Journalists, bloggers, fans. Despite Dan’s modesty about how last minute some of the meet-ups were, truth is, this probably added to the excitement. These relationships were all carefully identified and nurtured ahead of time. He knew a lot of them personally. Bear in mind, this was in addition to the actual movie’s pre-launch activity orchestrated by the director and production company.

    All this leaves me feeling there is a real and significant opportunity for brands to excite and inspire again through storytelling. That it is possible to reinvent a lost art, rather than dismiss it. That storytelling can be a powerful tool to drive new creativity in the interactive space. That the storyteller’s story does not, after all, end here….

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