The Renaissance of Storytelling

March 30, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

The APA-hosted Advertising Week Europe panel highlighted a simple fact: storytelling will always be relevant.

Advertising conferences can be an exhausting tirade of buzzwords, prophesising and enough tech evangelism to make even the most fresh-faced millennials feel out of touch. This APA-hosted session at Advertising Week Europe came as the perfect antidote to all that. Called The Renaissance of Storytelling, it brought together a talented bunch of troubadours to evangelise for something as old as humanity itself.

APA Chief Executive Steve Davies framed the session well in his introduction. “During what we call the noughties, we were constantly hearing about new tech: in-store TV, beyond the red button, the internet (not that that was a failure) and how it all meant that it was all over for TV programmes,” he said. “We were told to adapt or die, as if we’d come into the office one Monday and find that the whole place had been populated by Martians communicating in some high-tech manner we wouldn’t understand. Without being complacent I think we can say that that hasn’t happened and we can be confident about the future because of that.”

As anyone who’s looked at a screen in the past couple of years will realise, TV drama has become a place where great storytelling can flourish. In spite of what the doomsayers predicted, long-form, master-crafted content is abundant. “It has triumphed over an era where we’re supposed to be watching skateboarding cats on YouTube,” said Steve.

The first speaker of the session was someone central to this renaissance of quality drama. As one of the writers of Danish drama The Bridge, Nikolaj Scherfig understands the importance of storytelling in today’s media landscape. He shared many lessons he’s learnt about spinning the yarn.

He started on how surprising audiences is key to a good narrative. Nobody wants events to unfold exactly as they predict, so think about how to drop a bombshell or two.

Coming from Denmark, who have always considered themselves a small, relatively insignificant country, Nikolaj made it clear that when writing The Bridge, they didn’t want to make something good on a Danish scale. They aimed for something great on a global scale. “Be ambitious about what you want to tell, how you want to tell it and who you are going to compete with,” he said. Having seen the high quality drama coming from American television such as HBO’s expensive productions, he and the team wanted to make something just as good, and with the best cinema talent involved, they weren’t just aiming to compete on the small screen.

Then he moved onto characterisation – for which The Bridge has won significant praise. Nikolaj admitted that, amazingly, their characters were based on clichés of the Swedish and Danish national traits. It’s a brave storyteller who uses such familiarity, but with enough layers added on top of these stereotypes, intrigue was woven into them. “You have to somehow deepen them and put a lot of layers into them,” he said. Thankfully a television series allows more time for such development and with each episode the people in the story become more real.

Nikolaj also noted that it’s worthwhile putting a bit of yourself into characters. He said writing can be therapeutic in this way, and the reality of your feelings and experiences also makes the fictional story more believable.

TV writing was not respected in Denmark 20 years ago, recalled Nikolaj, “it was a joke.” He remembers theatre attracted all the good writers. How the times have changed. Danish television is admired the world over now and it’s all due to the mature, deep storytelling dramas like The Bridge have adopted.

Next up was Peter Souter, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer of TBWA, but also the writer of the television series Married Single Other. His talk began with the point that almost everybody has some desire to tell stories, but hardly anyone writes.

“I believe that everybody has a story in them,” he said. “I’m not sure that there’s a renaissance of storytelling. I think it’s as human as breathing in and out to tell each other a version of what we know.”

He urged everyone to have a go, having done it and succeeding he stressed that the difference between a writer and a non-writer is “a writer writes.”

Quoting William Goldman, he reminded us that storytellers must “give the audience what they want, but not in the way they expect.” Like Nikolaj said, audiences crave surprises and with his adman hat on he paraphrased this again: “You cannot bore people into buying anything!”

All story comes from tension, he said. Nobody’s interested in the straightforward or the expected. He explained how the story of Married Single Other was inspired by the mystery of two kids at his son’s school who lived together as brother and sister, but looked completely different. He eventually discovered the mum of the boy had died and had previously arranged for her husband to move in with her best friend. A pretty unusual, intriguing dynamic, it was fertile soil in which he could sow his storytelling seeds.

Admittedly, it is an extremely personal thing to show a story you’ve written to someone, said Peter. But exposing yourself and then being complemented is one of the most rewarding feelings.

Great advertising feeds on great storytelling, and Peter showed this with two examples of ads he’s worked on – Guinness, Surfer (arguably the greatest ad of all time) and a recent campaign for adidas, Jump for D Rose. Both demonstrated tension in vastly different ways and both were effective ways of telling stories relevant to a product.

Andy Orrick next took to the stage. Chief of Stuff at Rattling Stick, he recounted his shame at messing up the story of the Trojan Horse due to having a stinking cold. His children, who he is working through the Greek myths with, were not compelled. Refusing to let down a story that’s endured for millennia, Andy had another go with some gusto. This time it inspired his kids. They were playing out the story the next day. His point: that stories need to be told well if they are to move audiences.

The remainder of his talk focused on three lessons. First, “story is vital to us”. He stressed that audiences need to make an emotional connection to a protagonist to connect us to the story, that despair is compelling – we are all narrative masochists – that the redemption of happy endings brings the catharsis we crave and that a great story teaches you about the human condition, teaches you something about the world and persuades you of something.

His second lesson was that “we gravitate to the best storytellers”. With the vast choice of media available to us, “none of us tolerate average for long,” he said. But while we hear that attention spans are shorter than ever, people will still wattle down for a 12-hour Game of Thrones marathon. If storytelling is good, we’ll listen. For that reason the best storytellers are worth their weight in gold.

Thirdly, Andy stressed that “the best storytellers respect their audience”. None of the great stories are overly simplistic or patronising, because the great storytellers “are their own cynical as hell, picky as fuck audience.” Great writers write for themselves, he argued, and added we should respect the judgement of great storytellers more rather than deferring to the focus groups and data our age seems to rely upon so heavily.

“Advertising pretends it’s not what it really is these days,” he said. But the truth is it’s not content, entertainment or editorial. “It thinks if it comes in disguise to your party you won’t notice what’s behind its mask. What you’d prefer is if it rocked up with a nice bottle, talked on your level, was honest, then told you a brilliant story that made you piss yourself laughing. Then you might give it some attention. You might even buy the thing it’s selling, because that’s still the point of all of this, isn’t it?”

Ultimately, advertisers need to act like Andy reading the ancient myths to his children. Because audiences love to be challenged and compelled, not patronised and placated.

Although short on time by this point, Chris Curtis, Editor of Broadcast summarised the lessons we’d learnt. High-end drama is in vogue in British television, he noted, and we should all be thankful for the fact that producers and broadcasters in this country have paid attention to the success of HBO and the Scandinavian noir. This means we’re finally getting the long stories about deep characters, devoid of cheap tricks, that audiences deserve.

The best storytelling in 2015 is rich, ambitious and respectful to its audience. Why shouldn’t advertising be as well?


Watch the whole session here.

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