Dear CMO:

Writing a compelling story is the inner game of marketing and, not surprisingly, it is often the exclusive realm of the creatives in your selected agencies. The client participates by scowling during the presentation, inquiring if the logo could be a bit bigger, and then picking the execution they think is the funniest. This symbiotic relationship holds up pretty well, unless a client-side marketer sneaks behind the curtain for a look. Which I did. Thus, the blog posting.

There are a few items still undone on my ‘list of things to do between now and “then”‘. Earning my master scuba diving license and my SCCA racing license are near the top. I’m still committed to getting an Oscar and hosting the Latin Grammies. Both may require some new approaches at this point to bring to fruition. Taking Robert McKee’s STORY seminar, however, is now in the outbox.

If you aren’t familiar, Robert McKee teaches the seminal course on story development — for page, stage or screen — to the top screenwriters and novelists in the world. He is a mash-up between Don Imus and Charlton Heston. He does a wonderful John Houston impression (“… the future, Mr. Gittes… “). And his seminar is 12 hours a day for three straight days. He does not accept interruptions. The first unsolicited question was attempted at 5:00PM on day 1. The hapless screenwriter-to-be got three words out before he was crushed. Removing rants against the president (one per hour), observations on the decline of western civilization (one every 15 minutes or so), and profanity (every third word), could repackage the course to a crisply delivered infomercial. However, context is everything and life itself is profane, so I won’t complain.

I had a hidden agenda. My father was a published novelist, my mother and brother are both ‘creatives’ in the performing arts, and I — the black sheep of the family, who ran AWAY from the circus to get an MBA and a (gasp!) job — have always been on the other side of the curtain. So there were other meanings behind my self-selection for this three day weekend.

Do I aspire to write a screenplay? Not exactly. Why did I invest three days and 36 hours of lecture time to study an art form that I have no direct interest in pursuing? Because the development of ‘a good story, well told’ is central to everything we marketers are tasked with doing on a day in, day out basis, and without this we are missing what is most fundamental about how and why a potential customer looking at our brand would ever actively desire to begin a relationship with us.

A good story, well told, piques the curiosity in the mind of the audience, plants new insight and carries the viewer in a new and emotionally fulfilling direction. If you can do this as a marketer, you’re a good marketer. Everything else, to quote the professor, is “body and fender work”.

I could fill dozens of pages with feedback on this idea. For the sake of brevity, here are a few points to consider.

“Luke… I’m your father…”

Turning points are the events in a story where progressively greater risks are taken, bridges are burned, and irreversible decisions are cast. The journey of the protagonist is set in motion by a life-changing inciting incident. The protagonist struggles against the forces of antagonism. The quest inexorably drives the protagonist towards the posession (or not) of the object of desire. Things were fine until something changed; then, you struggled against obstacles — yourself, the people around you, society, institutions — to find the new balance in life. This journey is universal in all cultures. It is universal because we see ourselves in our protagonist. We have empathy with our protagonist. We don’t need sympathy, but we need to be able to identify ourselves in the trials of our hero. If we don’t — if our message doesn’t speak to the self-identity of our audience — curiosity is lost.

The flow of events from surprise, to curiosity, to insight, to new directions is the inner conversion turning an individual into a customer. Without surprise, the message is lost in the advertising clutter. Without curiosity, there is no need to continue the dialog. Insight is the meeting of problems and solutions. New directions lead to the emotional life fulfilled.

“Give them what they want. But don’t give it to them in the way they expect it.”

Character versus characterization — what you can observe versus what lies beneath, shown by the choices your character makes under extreme pressure. Controlling ideas – the one sentence that lays out the profound meaning of what we’ve written. The spine — the over-riding drive that compells your protagonist from beginning to end, connecting the scenes of your story. And image systems — fire and blood in Macbeth, water in Diabolique, prison bars in Casablanca, all subconscious elements hidden in plain sight that work their way into your audience’s understanding.

All of us need to define what we are and what we’re not, from the most mudane market requirement documents to the most conceptual branding development. The decisions you make under pressure — what you are when you have to decide without reflection — speak directly to the strength of your brand. Violate this consistency and your brand collapses.

“When the screenplay is written and the dialog is added, we can begin shooting.”

This quote from Alfred Hitchcock says it all. Show it, don’t tell it. The story must be shown, not told. You can’t explain cool, but you can be cool. Heavy handed scripts are just as awful as badly developed copy creative and poorly constructed branding except they run an extra 115 minutes.

Let me illustrate this point with a pet peeve that my old creative director used to appropriately call, “jackassing” — you know, the guy in the cubicle with his arms raised triumphantly in the air, pumping his fist, high-fiving the other overly excited salespeople in the office, and acting out each and every over-the-top cliche, all of it screaming, “heavy-handed and poorly conceived creative that makes me itch and instinctively look away”?

Stop casting the ‘office guy making his first really big sale and acting like his team just won the World Cup’. Please. Stories need to show more than ‘real life’. They need to explore the length and breadth of the human experience. They need to go beyond ‘life’, because ‘life’, on screen, is ‘dull’. The story must be taken beyond the everyday and show ‘the negation of the negation’ — life taken to its logical extreme.

If “performance parity” is the emotional value that begins our story, then our protagonist moves through the contrary value of “comparative advantage over peers” to the contradictory value of “uniquely successful”. But it can’t stop here with cubicle boy squinting his eyes and shouting “gooooal!” in the office. Take your story to the logical extreme of “the expectation of success without the need for validation — success in the mind.” So show me what happens to the guy when this happens every day. Show me confidence, swagger, and the expectation of success. Not jackassing.

Here’s a great example of this from the promotional side. I did some business with Kellogg’s not long ago and was discussing a promotion they ran on their Special K cereal. The overlay they ran was “Jeans Cash” — $20 off the purchase of jeans at select retail outlets. Special K is about taking care of yourself. They didn’t offer health club memberships, Weight Watchers, or anything obvious. They offered the ‘negation of the negation’ — the logical extreme of taking care of yourself in purely emotional terms. They offered you the chance to get a pair of jeans one size smaller than what you’re wearing today.

Show it. Don’t say it. For all of us. Please – we have to watch thi
s stuff, too.

The audience is hungry for interest. They are on your side. This is good news. So give them what they want. Stories can and should be given the care they need to compel the audience’s interest — ‘how will this all turn out??’. They want their expectations to be reversed. “Please… please… let this turn out to be a good story… I sat through Monkey Bone…”

Stories are metaphors for life. They give us the tools to understand the life unfolding around us. Stories gives us meaning. Casablanca teaches us that you can, in fact, have the ‘being’ and the ‘becoming’, you can have love and be a part of the bigger world, and that compromise — going back to any of your previous selves, no matter how good those times were and how much fun you had — means going backwards.

Does this message resonate with you? Does it matter to your life? Your work? If you have a job in 21st Century America, have a family, and possibly a heartbeat somewhere in your chest, the answer is an emphatic, ‘yes’.

A good story, well told.


Copyright (c) 2006 Stephen Denny