Some Interesting Trends for 2022 and Beyond

December 17, 2021

It is December so it’s time for a lot of looking for guidance into how the next year or so will go.

There are lots of good one’s out there. I sent Pinterest’s 35 trends and 175+ predictions to a client just last week. I love the TikTok made me buy it curated page of products and there are surely going to be a tonne more coming out in the next few days.

However, these consumer trends (via a survey of 3,000 Americans) from Fred Wilson’s blog caught my eye for a few reasons, some of which for the dichotomies in our natures and in our worlds that they revealed. Download and read the whole thing at The New Consumer (and its worth it) but for some highlights which provoked my own thoughts, read on!

First, E-comm (or eComm or ecommerce) is seeing its share of sales continue to grow, but has retrenched a little since the 2020 lock down. It’s still growing but not quite as aggressively as when we couldn’t leave our houses

Secondly however, the cost of online advertising, as observed by Coefficient Capital’s portfolio has increased 200% since the start of this year and 250% since the start of the pandemic. Profitability is leaving the system and the company’s that are benefitting the most aren’t the retailers or producers but Facebook and Google.

This is not a new story by any means but seeing it in stark black and red reminded me of an old client who tied brand strength to cost per conversion (both online and off). The stronger the brand, the lower the acquisition cost – again, something we intuitively understand but sometimes fail to quantify when looking so closely at the trees of online marketing metrics. If you didn’t know it already, b uild a strong brand for lasting benefits.

This was an interesting to see – the prevailing wisdom is that younger consumers are more drawn to brands. That they (are more likely to) gravitate to brands they feel a personal connection to…yet Gen Z, the youngest cohort here, is showing a downward trend – 25% down from the Millennial group. Were Millennials peak consumerists or is that life stage drawn to brands as they make choices that inform the rest of their lives? Something to look at as we all attempt to build/refresh long lasting brands.

One thing that does follow my intuition is that younger generations are more willing to do something they believe will aid the environment, whether its eating a plant-based diet, choosing an electric/hybrid vehicle, and purchasing carbon credits. They’re also more like to rent things vs buying them – but that could be due to their disposable income levels. I was, however surprised to see older respondents being much more likely to recycle.

When it comes to regular purchases, online grocery has not retrenched the boost it got during the lockdown:

And this poses a huge threat to large established brands who see their share of market shrink (in the aggregate) when folks are buying online – product discovery is easier online, especially when DTC brands are more experienced in buying, targeting and optimising digital media (see the FB/Google slide above), and once smaller brands get into a shopping basket, its easy to become a habitual repeat purchase.

…and this trend will be even more important as online grocery adoption increases apace.

This was an incredible stat – more people invested in Ethereum last year than stocks, bonds, options or even Bitcoin…perhaps ETH looks like a bargain at ~$4k CAD compared to BTC at ~$50k CAD. Or perhaps the environment/sustainability concerns continued into investment behaviour.

Or, maybe its a hedge agains the dreaded “i” word which looms large over all our lives.

Going to work

May 19, 2021

Or to borrow a phrase from Heat,

Is the action the juice or is the juice the action?

When watching sports these days, its common to hear a commentator talk about one of the players “doing their work” and it got me thinking. When we see athletes performing at an elite level, this isn’t work in the sense you or I would understand it.

When we see athletes, it’s their job, but it’s not their work. It’s their evaluation. How they’ll be remembered. Stacked up against their peers. Given raises or contracts. Traded or cut.

The work is being done far away from prying eyes. In the gym. In the weights room. In front of their laptop, watching film. Only the athlete knows if they’ve done the work and they’re about to find out if they’ve done the right work.

The same can be said of agencies. Meetings, presentations and pitches are the evaluation. If you’ve put in the work, the right work, there’s nothing to worry about.

Marketing during a recession

October 19, 2020

Like most people, I have a visceral reaction to the word recession and can map my career against the recessions I’ve lived through. While no two recessions are the same, it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from what we lived through as marketers. After all, they say that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. So, here are seven lessons from the last couple of recessions we can keep in mind today:

The Lipstick Effect – while consumers will be understandably putting off (although interestingly enough not cancelling) big ticket purchases, they will be looking for everyday affordable indulgences. A more modern take on this could be the latte effect but either way consumers are looking for comfort and reassurance when they spend their dollars. Marketers may not be able to take advantage of this depending on theor category or position, but its important to be aware of how consumers are thinking and acting.

Fix Up Not Upgrade – even though we’re in the throws of fast fashion, its worth remembering that in 2008 both cobblers and tailors saw a big increase in business as consumers decided to fix what they had rather than buy new to save a few dollars.

Quality Over Quantity – faced with increasing supply chain costs, CPGs may be considering changing the ingredients in their products to save money but consumers are notoriously fickle about changing flavours. Far better to shrink the size of the product and have complaints around shrinkflation (up to a point) than to skimp on the quality and have consumers abandon your product altogether.

Anchors Not Mooring – rather than mooring your brand in its current category, think about how you can anchor yourself against unconventional comparisons or alternatives. A set of home candles and oils ($) compares favourably against a day at the spa ($$$). A $30 download fee for a film is great value compared to going out to the movies on a date night and spending a couple of hundred dollars on baby-sitters, dinner, pop-corn, drinks and whatever else you can think of.

Value, Value, Value – all the quality, all the anchoring, all the lipstick effecting will be for naught if your product can’t demonstrate its value to the end consumer. Now, marketers may believe they have conclusively proved their value but the landscape has changed and now products need to win the day every day – there’s no room for coasting on the hard-won laurels of yesteryear

Be You, Just More of It – when people come under great stress, their personalities can change but when faced with seemingly insurmountable stress, their personalities change back to their original, just more. It should be the same for brands. Marketers have worked hard to figure out what their USP is; how they stand apart from their competitors so, if you have an established brand which consumers know and understand, your job is simple. You should double down on who your brand is, how it speaks and how it acts in order to cement itself in the minds of your consumers. Work on your differentiation – it will help your value proposition, your comparison points and other decisions you need to make

Increase Share of Voice – this is the hard one. When the world is going to hell in a hand basket, how can you responsibly maintain your marketing spend, let alone increase it? All the “science” and best practice says to do it but the fabric of you being says don’t. And you don’t have to maintain or increase marketing spend to grow within a recession – you just need to ensure you don’t cut as much as your competition. You just (just!) need to stay a little ahead of the other guys – this doesn’t need to be through paid media…you just need to be more visible, have more mental availability with your consumer and there are many relatively easy ways to do that with digital content and distribution.

There you have it. Seven ways to think about marketing during a recession using behavioural economics and hard won lessons from someone who’s seen it before – after all, experience matters.

A funny thing happened on the way to the forum

August 27, 2020

I was on a bike ride through the Toronto trails, coming downhill on a steep track and ahead of me there were two women walking side by side, deep in conversation. I rang my bell several times but they didn’t care. As I got closer, I called out “on your left” to try and go by them but they both moved in weird ways and I was forced to brake hard behind them. They were startled by the braking and started to yell at me.


I was on a walk with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while through the Toronto trails having a great conversation about our lives, families and careers. We were socially distanced, making sure we were a good distance apart when a cyclist, who was going way too fast down the hill, almost lost control and crashed into us without a single warning.

What can we learn from this?

Perspective and empathy matter – there is almost always another point of view and our role as planners, as marketers, is to not look at the world as if we were the only person in it.

Everyone is the hero in their own story – no one tells a story that makes them look bad. In this case, there are no facts, just opinions and we select the opinions which fit into our own personal narrative.

The Quarantine Diaries – Calgary Edition

April 2, 2020

Everything is changing, seemingly day to day in the wake of COVID-19 and the advertising business is no different. The Message put out a call for folks to tell them about the new normal they are finding in their lives and I was more than happy to do so. The Message was kind enough to post an abbreviated version of this on and allowed me to post the long version which was incredibly cathartic to write.


We made the choice in early March to make a long planned trip to Calgary and be with family for a little while. We talked long and hard about whether or not to cancel given the quick spread of the virus but ultimately decided that we would rather be with family in a smaller city than in Toronto. The airport experience was tough with a curious and energetic toddler but we made it through pretty well – it was emptier than usual and we were able to maintain a decent amount of distance from everyone else. We did see something pretty interesting though:

When we landed, we got the news that Ontario schools had been shut which made the decision to hunker down in Calgary much easier, even as this city closed ranks around us. The first weekend, when the wind chill got down to -30 something, was pretty tough but as social distancing kicked in the weather has heated up so we’ve been able to enjoy some appropriately spaced-out walks and find ways for the kids to keep active.

I work with a talented group mainly on the west coast so being on Mountain time has actually been a little better for staying connected. From the off, this was a dispersed team and we are lucky to have built a culture in the team that promotes remote working – Slack, Box and Webex have been and continue to be invaluable. 

Have you developed any good habits about working from home?

A makeshift standing desk on top of an old dresser

Any bad habits?

You’ll see why in a few moments but snacking from the city’s best stocked pantry has been a big problem!

Favourite quarantine meal?

My mother-in-law is a fantastic cook so we’ve been spoiled rotten the whole time but there was one amazing prime rib roast…(and the meatballs…and the bbq chicken…and then there were some fire pit s’mores)

Piece of advertising that can always make you laugh…

With no live sports, I’m grateful for Reddit users posting old highlights and ads including this NFL/All Blacks Rugby mashup which I really enjoyed:

Thing you miss most about the office…

The frisson of conversations off the side of your desk and the law of unintended consequence. One of the podcasts I’ve been listening to talked about the importance of ideas needing to “have sex with each other” which I thought was a lovely way to put it. One of the things I’m interested in seeing is how the need for in-person interaction in our, and many other industries, is married with the desire for more flexible working times and locations. Will the idea of The Office become more nebulous – becoming more important yet less populated at the same time?

What books are you reading? Loving it? Hating it?

I’ve gotten up to date on the Gray Man series (classic spy-action-escapism) but there are plenty in the hopper:

Any TV, Netflix or streaming recommendations?

In times like this, I turn to the old classics for some comfort so if you haven’t already seen it, now is the perfect time to be introduced to The Wire. In my mind its the best TV series of the modern era. Not only does it have some inspirational advice about self isolation, but it acts as a powerful commentary on the institutions we think are there to help us but which are manned by people out to help themselves.

What song best represents your current state of mind? Or what is on your quarantine playlist?

The Wheels on the Bus (go round and round and round and round and round) is getting heavy rotation these days – which makes a good podcast on a long walk even more appreciated.

Advice you’d give yourself six months from now…

It’s the same thing I always try to remember in this crazy business: don’t let the highs get you too high or the lows get you too low. Be resilient and strong for yourself and others.

Any technology challenges/triumphs?

Getting Webex to call me rather than dialing in each time made me feel great but FaceBeer/Tea/Rioja with old friends has done the best for my state of mind.

On brands and branding

July 23, 2018

What is a brand and why do so many organisations spend so much money asking very smart people to dedicate so much time to them?

Way back when, brands were logos and colour schemes.

Kellogg put his signature on his cereal boxes and they stood out from all the other mid-western cereal companies because it was a sign of commitment to quality…if someone put their name on the product, they were vouching for it.

A brand navigational tool or heuristic to get something with consistent quality.

When you’re in a new city, you feel a sense of home when you see the colours and logo of your favourite chain of coffee shops – because you know what you’re getting. Familiarity and consistency in a strange land.

Since then, the idea of brand has become associated with tag lines – Nike’s “Just Do It” is the most famous – that belie a commitment to a higher purpose.

As the industry tries to push upstream, the higher purpose becomes the thing marketers and marketing start to focus on..

As AdWeak says, tortilla chips don’t sell chips, they sell “togetherness”.

The most biting part of satire is the truth.

So when did marketers start selling “togetherness” instead of selling tortilla chips?

Because I’m not buying togetherness. And I doubt you do either.

I am a fan of the Kahneman System One/System Two thinking – that the decisions we think we make rationally today were made emotionally many years ago. And I see how brand plays a part in this. Like the coffee house example. The decision to go into that shop was made, by or for you, many years ago and cemented over time.

I am a fan of the Byron Sharp philosophy – creating memory structures through repetition around distinctive (brand) assets. And obviously a consistent, frequently repeated brand plays a key part in this. For our coffee house, the saliency of associating colours and squiggles with great coffee combined with the physical availability of being able to actually buy some coffee.

What I don’t understand is why we still think a strong brand is indicative of a product people want to buy.

Because for my money, a great product is the best leading indicator of a great brand.

Not the other way around.

The coffee house has a great brand because it has a great, consistent product.

I look at the new breed of modern, progressive companies.

Apple. Google. Amazon. Netflix. Uber. Tesla.

Many folks would say these are great brands. And they would be right. Now.

But before they were great brands, they were great products.

Building a great brand was never the goal. It was a byproduct of the actual (great) product.

The role of marketing is and was to expose as many people as possible to the great product, tell them why its so great and then sell as much as possible for as much as possible.

Ultimately, the old maxim is true:

Nothing kills a bad product faster than great advertising.

If only we knew what this inherently tells us: no matter how great the advertising, it will never lead to a great product. The logic only goes one way.

A brand is a decision maker on the margins.

I’ll have that cereal/chocolate bar that that chap put his name on. I’ll turn left to go to my favourite coffee house in a strange city rather than right to the one I’ve never heard of. I’ll default to that thing that reminds of a feeling when I was younger.

That makes me feel comfortable.

If all this is true, what does this mean for advertising and marketing?

Does this mean we should no longer strive to create distinctive work? Absolutely not.

Does this mean we should no longer strive to build an emotional connection between the business and  its audience? Of course not.

Does this mean we need more specificity in our work? Yes.

We need more specificity on why one product is better than the other.

On who the ideal consumer is and, more importantly, why that consumer should spend their hard earned on this, not that.

On what success truly looks like and on the best way to achieve it both now and in the future.

It’s a lot more work to come up with that level specificity for the whole advertising ecosystem. It means you can’t default to “make the brand relevant”. It means you have to fight for a real problem to solve, then fight even harder to get the solution…and then harder still to make something that is distinctive enough to stand out to the target audience.

Presentation Tips for Agency Life

June 4, 2018

When I was writing last week’s post on the new business process, I started to conflate the idea of the pitch process with the presentation itself – and as the list was getting a little unwieldy so I broke these out because presenting is one of the most important skills to have in business. Being able to command a room. Communicating an idea – not just the “what” but the “why. Building rapport with folks you’ve never met before.

Careers can be made and broken in presentations and in the exposure to increasingly senior colleagues. I can point to at least five people I’ve worked with who were subsequently (and quite rightly) labelled as up and coming rock stars on the strength of their performance in a presentation. But what is often forgotten is that presenting is a team sport, so these are some tips to building and delivering a great presentation:

  1. Be the best you. A lot of this is just a reminder to do whatever makes you comfortable. From how you like to prepare, to what to wear and how to deliver your story. If something seems interesting and you try it and it works that’s great. If you read something don’t think it will work for you, that’s fine too. Hopefully you can take this and push yourself outside your comfort zone to be a little better at one of the truly important business skills.
  2. What’s your story? When you introduce yourself, either as a team or as an individual, tell a story. For you, personally, don’t let anyone else introduce you because it discounts your own expertise and builds unnecessary cognitive distance between you, your expertise and the story you’re about to tell.
  3. Tell a story with a theme. Its been called a thread of steel for a reason. If you can hang your pitch on one thing, you’ll be a few steps ahead of most of your opposition. Tell a story with an emotional arc and you’ll be miles ahead.
  4. Not having the courage of your convictions. You have a great idea that you love but instead of putting all your faith in that basket, you decide you need a second idea for the client to “kill”. Now you’ve divided your focus, your time and your audience’s attention. A great idea should be able to stand on its own; two ideas shows you’re second guessing yourself
  5. Who said that? I helped a couple of clients with agency selection last year and although we only saw two agencies, I found myself getting lost between who said what. Imagine that multiplied by five or six. One of the keys to pitching is being memorable and being provocative – bring that through into the presentation itself.
  6. Get the timing right. An old colleague would time you down to the second for your piece. Its a great practice, as is enforcing the timing. Nothing worse than someone stealing time in the up front because it puts the back end of the presentation at massive risk. We all have absolute horror stories on this one – the problem is the more senior you are, the more likely you are to steal time up front and the more likely it is that the junior folks have to “pay” for it by cutting their own sections on the fly.
  7. Don’t worry about repeating yourself. The folks you’re pitching to are seeing maybe three, maybe four, maybe eight agencies just like you. Repeating yourself and others can help your ideas be remembered. Hopefully through the quality of your ideas and being as provocative as you can be practical will help as well.
  8. Repeat other people. As well as being a team sport, presenting is another word for persuasion. Strengthen your collective argument by strengthening your collagues’ arguments – I always like to call back to something smart my colleagues have said to cement what they said and to build the argument I’m trying to make as well. You can do this in the q&a section as well
  9. To script or not to script? Whatever makes you the most comfortable. Some people need to be 100% scripted, others 100% off the cuff. Personally, I like to know what I need to say in general but also have specific sayings or turns of phrase that I can sprinkle in throughout. I often over write myself and the sayings can feel a little trite or staged, so I need to practice until they feel natural. Then I like to use visualisation to “see” me saying it in the room.
  10. Reciting vs Presenting. Again, whatever makes you feel comfortable. An old ECD I worked with used to have their notes on index cards which they always held, but never looked at. They were an amazing presenter and I always loved that quirk. I find that if I ever have notes, I get lost on where I’m supposed to be so they don’t work for me.
  11. Piling on. In the q&a section, it can be very hard to be consistent when there are lots of people answering the same question with their particular take on the subject. Because of that, I like the rule of one answer and one follow-on if its in a formal presentation. If its more of an organic conversation, the rules are a little different but for a client. However, I can’t imagine its great for a client to ask a question and hear three or four answers back – or how those answers can all be consistent
  12. Edit, edit edit. Too often we fall in love with certain sections, certain ideas or certain slides. As the presentation evolves, the content has to change too. Be ruthless (ruthless) in your editing. You don’t need all those words on a slide. You don’t need all those pictures or charts or graphs. You need simple, bold imagery which support what you say, not distract from it. Come to think of it, you may not even need a “deck” at all.
  13. What to wear? There are two schools of thought here. One is to dress about 25% more formal than the people you are presenting to. This builds credibility in you before you open your mouth. The second is to wear whatever makes you comfortable and ready to go so you can do the best job you can. Track pants and a hoody are comfortable at home but if I’m in a board room, I usually go for jeans, a crisp shirt and a sharp blazer. YMMV.
  14. Nail the landing. End with a bang, not a whimper.

Like the pitch process post last week, I’ll try to add to this as I see or pick up new tips.

What can go wrong, and right, during a pitch

May 28, 2018

I love a good pitch. The chaos, the creativity brought into sharp sharp focus by the constraints of time, the late nights, the camaraderie and the sheer relief at the end of it.

By no means am I an expert (the Mirren folks, Barry and Peter Coughter are amazing resources for people who need real help on pitches) but I’ve been a part of enough pitches to start this, an occasionally updated list of all the things that can and have go wrong in the beautiful, ugly, fulfilling and frustrating process of pitching new business as an agency. The list started to dovetail into the presentation side of things but that deserves its own post in the next couple of weeks.

  1. Pitching in the first place. My old boss used to say “there are two winners to every pitch. The winners and the folks that drop out first”. I love the qualifying questions Deutsch sends out, and its always great to know if there is a “preferred” agency…
  2. What’s the why? The minute an RFP comes in, there are a tonne of unanswered questions which can help your cause. Why this and why now are two pretty important ones.
  3. All in, early. You can’t run a winning pitch with folks in the wings dropping in and out of the process. If you’re in, you’re all in and you’re all in right from the start.
  4. Who’s in charge? Knowing the decision maker on the client side and what drives them will help you make all the big decisions you’ll need to make. What is their personality type? What will they respond best to? How can we convince them? Can we presell andy of the approach/strategy/ideas? If you’re in the dark, you’re hoping for the best and as a former colleague says, “hope is not a strategy”.
  5. Who’s in charge (pt II)? It sounds so basic, especially when its a bunch of senior folks but having one person who can drive the process within the agency and veto even the most senior person in them is oh so important to your ability to make decisions and move forward, constantly. Having to reverse can be a death knell to a pitch.
  6. Communication. Pitching builds camaraderie because of the massive pressures – and nothing kills that rapport more than someone on the team going rogue. A high functioning team needs to communicate well and often (d’uh) so implementing scrum sessions / group texts / slack channels can keep everyone on the same page.
  7. Getting more time. If you get a week’s extension, or even more, take the time to consider if you want to optimise what you’ve already got or toss it and start again. This is good for your everyday life as well.
  8. What’s in it for them, not me? If you’re on the list, or in the room, the potential client knows why. Don’t talk about yourself unless its in the context of how what you’ve done and achieved in the past can help this particular client This is a key part of how we picked up a tonne of business in the past. Once you’ve done it this way, you’ll never want to pitch the old school style creds deck again.
  9. Are you pitching to win? Or are you pitching the work you want to do? Sometimes there’s a difference and if there is, this is a choice to make right at the start…and follow it through. Losing smarts either way.
  10. Focus, focus, focus. Another decision to make is how far down the line are you going? Are you going to lay out a deep, rich, insightful strategy, buoyed by real consumer research and testing? Are you going to lay it on the line with an awesome, compelling idea? And if so, how will you show the idea? Will you make stuff for it? This comes back to knowing your client and committing to your path forward.
  11. Timing vs Process. Pitches are incredibly compressed and one of the biggest decisions is how you’re going to get everything done. You are rarely in the position to work with the potential clients as if you were actually working with them in the research > strategy > brief > creative > creative reviews > creative tweaks > final creative > experience layers // propagation // etc. So, are you going to waterfall, agile or parallel path everything? There’s value and risk in each approach and as always, you need to make that decision early, rather than have it made for you. One of the biggest wins I was part of was a parallel path job with all the strands being brought back together right at the end…with literally minutes to spare.
    • Truth be told, its much easier to pitch as a (traditional) PR shop, than as a creative shop, in general. Within the PR construct, you have generalists of varying levels of seniority who can strategise and ideate almost simultaneously, vs the creative agency structure of having specialists work in something more like a waterfall process. Personally, I think the creative process gives you higher highs, but similarly lower lows. The PR process is more consistent but rarely hits the same heights.
  12. Be memorable. The folks you’re pitching to are seeing maybe three, maybe four, maybe eight agencies just like you. How will you stand out? Hopefully through the quality of your ideas and being as provocative as you can be practical As an aside, I don’t usually like the over-staging of rooms for the sake of it (there are better things to focus your time and emotion on), but if the theme fits with the theme of your pitch I’m all for it. It’s more interesting to hold important meetings in interesting places which, increasingly, is not in a board room.
    • The story of a big Canadian business proactively asking agencies pitching them to not include any lions in the meeting shows some clients feel the same. (one agency still did)
  13. Celebrate. Once you’ve delivered the pitch, make sure you take the time to take a breath and celebrate the hard work from everyone who touched the pitch. One of the nicest ways to decompress after the chaos is a late lunch on a sunny patio with cold beer and old stories.

That’s what I could think of – what have I missed? What else would you add?

What are the components to great storytelling?

May 7, 2018


It seems like storytelling is all the rage these days. Marketers, communicators, sales people, journalists, trade pubs. Everyone is a storyteller these days – and everyone is advocating for telling great stories. Just like we all (present company included) advocated for “making great content”.

But its never that simple. What is a great piece of content? What is its role? How does it move people, and how does it move people along the path to purchase?

I spent a few days last month with a client thinking about not just the importance of story telling, but the core components of how to tell a great one. The types and genres of stories we tell have come a long way since Shakespeare. The Bard had a choice of two storylines – between a tragedy (extreme suffering for the main character, like Hamlet) and a comedy (a happy ending, usually marriage as in a Midsummer’s Night Dream)

Nowadays, we have a lot more to chose from and its important to look at the core components of how we can tell a story both personally and from a brand perspective. Here are some the things we came up with:

The audience – the way you tell a story and even what story you want to tell is totally dependent on who you’re telling the story to. I wouldn’t have told a bawdy tale from a university night out to my grandparents, but I would relish telling it to friends from school. If this post-social world has taught us anything, its that businesses need to be focused on their audiences and serving their needs to move the business forward.

The location – just like audience drives the story, so does location. An Irish pub is going to play host to a very different type of story than a boardroom or a living room. For me, this one speaks to channel planning and selection – not all stories belong on all social platforms.

The delivery – everyone has a different story telling style; some are animated and boisterous while others are soft spoken, still as a board and every bit as compelling. Just like the others on this list, the right delivery depends on knowing your audience and what they will respond well to. In the business context, I’d equate this to format planning – do you need a piece of film (long? short? medium?) or an article? A pretty picture with a killer line or a multi-part execution? Static or immersive? The story you tell and the way you deliver it makes a huge difference.

The emotions – I want to do a bit of a deep dive into emotional resonance because it gets misused and is often a crutch for weaker strategic thinking but the emotions you want to evoke are a huge part of finding, constructing and telling a story. Do you want the audience to be awed, do you want them to be energised and motivated or do you want them to be sad? For businesses, we don’t need to guess – Karen Nelson-Field in her book Viral Marketing has done the work for us and the most important thing is that you play on emotional extremes if you want to have impact in your storytelling, if you want your story to travel, so to speak. To whit, focus on any emotion but make sure you can evoke the extreme end – as with most things, you don’t want to be in the middle.

emotional resonance karen nelson field

The story teller – of course, the person telling the story is a key component. What is the point of telling the story in the first place? What are your motivations and what do you hope to accomplish? What do you have authority and legitimacy to tell stories about? Each business is different – some audiences seek out stories from certain businesses while other businesses need to push their stories into the lives of the audience. Which one are you? It makes a big difference.

Structure – as we talked about stories, I was reminded of the way Pixar creates a framework for its own stories. Like most good stories, it is simple, timeless and endlessly malleable.

It looks something like this:

Once upon a time there was a _________

Every day _________

One day ______ (this is called the inciting incident)

Because of that _________

Because of that _________

Until finally _________

pixar storytelling rules

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like a pretty good brief for a long standing narrative that a business can tell about itself, its origins, its motivations, its place in the world and how it wants to make the lives of its users/consumers/audiences better.

So there you have it; the six key components to good story telling:

  • Audience
  • Location
  • Delivery
  • Emotion
  • Storyteller
  • Structure

For more practical advice on telling great stories for your business, get in touch and we’ll see what we can come up with together.


What is an insight?

February 7, 2017

This post was first published on Hill + Knowlton Strategies. More on that change in my life later!


What is an insight?

They are the things upon which multimillion (billion?) dollar decisions are made.

That entrepeneurs bet their careers and family’s lives on.

That companies are founded on.

That political leaders stake their reputations and campaign on.

But what, really is an insight? For me, the best way to define an insight is to paraphrase entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, of PayPal fame, and say that every insight is a secret. And as with all secrets, the less people who know about it, the more powerful it is.

This especially hits home for all strategists. How long do we toil through data, through focus groups, through online behavior and through popular culture to find those secrets? How overjoyed or relieved do we feel when we find one – and how much do we subsequently protect it, polish it and decide how best to use it.

But not all secrets are the same. As we talked about this within H+K, we identified five core types of secrets or insights that we use to solve our client’s business problems.

Those we discover on our own: this is the classic secret where one person’s brilliance, persistence and intuition leads to a completely new discovery. Thiel calls this the Pythagorean secret and eventually they cease becoming secrets and start becoming convention.

Those that are commonly held but that we chose to use in unusual ways: this is the act of taking an insight from one industry or category and applying it to another. Insights gleaned from years of pitching media relations stories can be used to reshape a brand strategy. Insights into the purchase journey of buying a car can be applied to that of buying term life insurance.

Those that only we can see or understand thanks to data and analysis: this is what I would call the “Moneyball” secret. The answer is staring us in the face, if only we can interpret the data properly and get over our own inherent biases to realize that On Base Percentage (Hits + Walks) is more valuable than slugging percentage (which measures power).

Those that allow us to reframe a problem or belief. Our WPP colleague Rory Sutherland brilliantly reframes the spending of six billion pounds to shave 40 minutes off the Eurostar journey by simply making the journey infinitely more pleasurable – through the use of models and vintage wines.

Those that we can combine to make more powerful. Like the five mechanical lions coming together to form Voltron: Legendary Defender (my son’s current favourite show), the act of combining many small and powerful secrets together makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, and allows us to solve bigger problems for our clients.

The definition of insight is something we can, and have, debated for days. However, the inarguable truth is: if you want to forge truly meaningful connections with consumers or stakeholders, your communication needs to be rooted in an insight into their lives, their needs and their behaviours…and your business’ role therein.

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