Storytelling and Context Pt. 1 — The three elements of Context

May 23 · 6 min read

This post was originally given at D&AD Festival 2019. Many of the ideas are inspired by video intelligence’s ‘Context is Everything’ series. Visit here for part two and here for part three.

Today I’m going to look at the elements of context and storytelling, and show how you can win a D&AD Black Pencil if you combine those two elements perfectly.

At video intelligence we have a product called vi stories: it’s a video player that analyses webpage content, and then delivers contextually-relevant videos into that page. Hence why we’ve spent so much time understanding the mechanics of context, and how they affect the way we tell stories online.

So here I’ll reveal the core elements of ‘context’ in a digital environment, I’ll show you how stories effect us emotionally, and I’ll bring them together using lots of creative examples. And at the end we’ll all have a good idea of what this means for the future of commercial creativity.

This isn’t a talk about media planning — the examples I’ve used demonstrate how the creative itself can benefit from context.

Three elements of context

The framework for context I’m going to use was developed by socio-linguist Alexandra Georgokopolou-Nunes, of Kings College in London. Alexandra studies how communities communicate on Instagram. She conceives three different ways in which context affects the way they share stories.


Environment is the most obvious aspect of context, but I think it’s worth revisiting in light of the current media landscape.

Previously ‘environment’ would cover things like the scale of a cinema screen, and the immersive effects of the smell of popcorn, pin-drop silence and complete darkness.

We could look at the immediate environment around TV or OOH in a similar way. So here’s a great example of how MullenLowe used environmental context to drive their strategy for a poster series.

These ads feature brilliantly crafted typography, colour, art direction, copywriting, and photography from Nadav Kandar.

These posters ran in UK train stations.

I wrote a case study on these for D&AD a few years back, when we spoke to the team they explained how the environment informed their strategy:

So I love the way they considered the environmental context of train stations, including the other ads, and designed theirs accordingly.

Online we can go really granular with regards to environment. If we consider that a video story can be delivered on a news webpage, for example, we can ask:

– What is the surrounding content of that ad? – What are the other ads on the page? – What tabs does a user have open in their bowser? – Do they have a social media notification blinking in the corner of their screen?

Each of these factors will affect the way you receive a story, and compete for your attention.

We should also consider the format in which ads are delivered. Video can be:

– social in-feed – in-stream: like Youtube, vi stories, – out-stream: which pushes the text content apart to appear.

Each of these offers a differing user experience, and differing contextual factors.

So in 2019 user experience has become ad advertising problem.

Much of this will be down to planners and media buyers, and for creatives it can feel a little out of control, especially when we consider that much of the planning will be done through programmatic channels, where you may never even know what sites your ad appears on.

I guess the point is to consider these different environments when creating campaigns, and ask how the assets can adapt to those environment.

Don’t imagine a story will be viewed in isolation — it won’t be.


This is another area that has taken on more meaning as the media landscape has changed, and there’s been an increase in digital storytelling.

So, yes the point of engagement is super important in OOH, Press, TV and Cinema where you’re looking for a response. But digital engagements are much more measurable and specific. They have become a driver of creative ideas and executions.

I could show any number of brilliant social campaigns here, but I chose this one as it uses the engagement as the idea for the campaign itself.

By asking people to contribute, they become a part of the campaign. The social platform gives us the ability to drive a personalised story with the product as the hero.

But engagements bring with them differing contextual factors.

The volume of likes and shares can add gravitas to a post. Who has shared the post will also affect the meaning of it: influencers/celebrities bring with them a world of meaning, and they transfer that onto a brand, for better or worse. That’s what you’re paying for, as much as their reach.

Comments too can make or break the way people perceive stories. The same goes for replies, user reviews, and memes.

Referring back environment, it’s worth remembering that those places where engagement is at its most natural — ie. social media — are environments where attention can be at its sparsest.


This is about the wider world a story lives in; it’s about connotations and discourse.

Stories have to be understood in a culture, within discourse. To do this they must reference elements of life that we all have a common understanding of. This also involves speaking on a level that your audience identifies with, in a tone, or register that resonates.

This is all about creating a meeting point, called congruence, between the brand and consumer. People bring with them their previous associations, memories and preconceptions. To illustrate, let’s look at this marmite campaign.

This ad has a knowing tone, referencing the tropes of soap opera conversations. We recognise the storylines, we’ve seen them 1000 times, they play on our expectations of a story; The postcards on the fridge, the collection of beer mugs, light through a stained glass window; this is all about register and congruence.

These references are all extra context piled onto this ad, that the story plays on.

The effect of this is building empathy, and empathy is absolutely crucial in getting buy-in to the idea of product, as we’ll see in a minute as we look at neuroscience.

The context map

The context map

So if we look at context map here, we see the levels of context as they build up, from the delivery of a story online — to a cultural level, and the engagements that happen along the way.

Here’s a campaign that for me really delivered on considering all these contextual points, for a specific audience.

By understanding the role of basketball in UK culture TBWA were able to create a campaign that both played into, and changed, perception.

The campaign knew its audience, and delivered an activation right in the heart of their environment.

By encouraging real life and online engagement, they created hysteria among their target group.

We can also look at it as a great story, which places the participants as a key actor in the narrative, which they then control. I think this is a great example.

Environment / Engagement / Culture

So that’s the a quick run down of the three elements of context that we deliver stories in.

In the next post we look at how stories are constructed, what effect that has on our brain, and how these environmental, cultural and engagements affect our reception of them…

Read Part 2


Written by


Content Collator, Curator and Creator. No Baloney. Plenty of Emmental. ZRH.