The ad industry likes to think of itself as great storytellers, but so often fails to look at the form those stories take. Gareth Kay believes it's time advertising applied creativity to how it tells stories rather than simply applying creativity to the visual and verbal narrative.
Storytelling. One of those words we throw around to try to describe what we do. Sometimes we get carried away with how good a set of storytellers we are. Sometimes I question whether a 'story' is the best answer to the commercial challenges our clients face but there's no doubting their power in culture, in the development of humans as a species and in driving a lot of commercial value for brands. What does increasingly bother me though is our tendency to define what we mean as a story – and perhaps more importantly, how we tell a story – by what we've always done, not what we can do now. The new technology, and the canvases on which we can create, open up new ways to tell stories. Yet very rarely do we think about how we might apply creativity to how we tell stories rather than simply applying creativity to the verbal and visual narrative.
Recently, there have been a couple of examples of how we might think about telling stories in new ways. Ways where the form of the story is perhaps as important as the narrative itself. About a year ago, the brilliant Tea Uglow at Google's Creative Lab in Sydney decided to try to answer a deceptively simple question: what might a book that cannot be printed look like? Tea and her team were frustrated by the nature of digital books – books that were literally digitised copies of their physical predecessors. They partnered with the publisher Visual Editions to explore what books might be like when they are powered by the internet.
The initial experiments began to push at how technology might alter storytelling. All This Rotting was a story about loss – both in the protagonist's relationships and also of their mind. It's a harrowing story, but what makes it truly immersive and intense is the way the story is delivered on your phone with words randomly fading and disappearing over time. You truly sense and experience how the protagonist feels. Later experiments have been even more ambitious in their exploration of how technology can impact the form of storytelling. Tea's A Universe Explodes is a story about a parent whose world gradually falls apart. What makes this standard narrative fare feel fresh and new is the fact that the book is owned by a collective of people, not just one person, and this group progressively reduce the book to one word a page using blockchain technology.
Focusing on applying creativity to the form of storytelling creates a new and compelling experience. As Tea puts it, "Every other form of media is borrowing and experimenting with aspects of art, culture and technology previously unavailable to them. Nostalgia is rubbing shoulders with innovation on every size of screen. We want books that act as powerfully on the imagination as any Penguin classic, but have the potential to generate the awe and magic of your favourite app."
The second example is the new Steven Soderbergh story on HBO, Mosaic. Steven has built a career around being a master storyteller on the big screen but was clearly looking to find new ways to tell stories, not just new stories to tell. Rather than being your typical linear TV series narrative, Mosaic is a seven-hour miniseries about a mysterious death, served as an app. Viewers don't simply just consume the show but are also able to participate. You can choose which order to watch it in, which characters to follow. Some episodes last a few minutes (a great snack for your commute) and some for an hour. This isn't simply a game masquerading as a TV series, but what Soderbergh is rightly calling a 'smartphoneenabled story'. You can take in all the details or choose to rush to the end. By allowing you to participate, you feel not just in control of the story but also more immersed. For the next few months, people will build their own version of Mosaic before they see a more traditional linear version on HBO.
So, it seems stories are ripe for reinvention. Applying creativity to their form creates new types of experiences that put the user at the centre to experience things more deeply. Yet all this feels a million miles away from the world of brands. When we tell stories in film, we are told to 'keep it simple, stupid' and we've built a system of research that rewards this and the ability to tell stories in a way that reverts to norms. And we haven't even really begun to think about how we might apply stories to shapes that exist across the end-to-end experience. Perhaps it's time for us to start thinking about that before we make brands feel even flatter and less interesting than they already do to most people right now.