Structuring strategic storytelling

People always look fairly perplexed when you say your job is a planner in an Ad agency. After the standard “Is it just like Mad Men?” questions are answered, it’s a hard role to articulate. In many ways we are storytellers; we understand the stories of people, we tell stories from brands and we sell strategic stories into clients. Or to use industry lingo, we create strategic narratives. This was the focus of VCCP’s Chief Strategy Officer Michael Lee’s talk at the monthly Open Strategy meeting and what I will cover below.

One of the most high-risk situations we tell stories in, is a pitch. To be in for a good chance of winning, Michael defines three things your strategic narrative needs to be; interesting, memorable and indisputable. To achieve this you need to really think about the story you are going to tell, think about it as a play, a book, a film, whatever, but spend time to plan the strategic narrative. The aim is to keep the audience’s attention and know when to land the punch.

The Aristotelian structure was that of an arc; build the story slowly and gradually, let it reach a climax in the middle then slowly descend as gradually as it began. The downside however being you’re half bored by the time the drama ends and yet only midway through. Shakespeare challenged this structure with the popular three act narrative, moving the climax towards the end of the piece before a wrap up and resolution. That worked pretty well for him we can agree.

A more modern storytelling structure is what Michael refers to as the Don Simpson model. For those who don’t know Don Simpson, he is a film producer who sprung to success with a repertoire of films through the 80s & 90s (many of them including Tom Cruise). His works are great examples of the four box narrative which goes like this: hubris, the fall, redemption then renewal. In Tom Cruise’s case in Top Gun (a Don Simpson classic), Maverick had excessive confidence going through pilot school (hubris), but then his wing-man and co-pilot Goose dies (the fall), he learns his errors and regains his confidence (the redemption) which leads him to get the girl and become an instructor at Top Gun (renewal).

Why are we talking about the plot to Top Gun again you may ask? Well, this four box model is applicable to structuring strategic narrative.

Makes sense, but how could this come to life for a real client presentation?

1) It’s been going well - Find the things which have been working for the brand; are they liked? Are they expanding products? Is their share price rising?

2) But a changing world threatens us - Look to what changes/challenges the brand will face. Is there a new aggressive competitor? Is the category facing challenges? Has consumer behaviour changed?

3) Luckily, we have a great strategy to make it all better - How does your knock out solution tackle these challenges? What changes? What stays the same? Deliver your strategic recommendation with gravitas and wow factor.

4) And this is what it looks like - The creative showcase, this is often the part that potential clients are chomping at the bit to see. Use showmanship and pitch theatre to bring the idea to life, give them a taste of how it looks across your recommended channels.

And this structure works on different clients and different challenges across the board. After all there will always be positive brand aspects a planner can work on, there will always be challenges/changes facing the business, you will always be selling a solution and that will always manifest in comms, products or services in some form.

But what is it about this structure that works so well? It seems that jeopardy is the key. People love it, really lap it up, from who will America choose come the election in November to who will Sophie choose in next week’s episode of Love Island, suspense and risk are biologically addictive. So when you build the tension and jeopardy in your strategic narrative you are hooking the client into a story they need to know the end of. But this is not to say this structure is the only way, of course not, if so we would have a far less interesting and more standardised plateau of planning.

So here a few of the structures that Michael has come across over the years.

The three box ‘Shock Quant’ structure:

  1. It’s even worse than you thought, you can’t keep doing what you are doing (quant of brand metrics tanking)
  2. Luckily we did some quant that discovered something new (new stat which changes the framing)
  3. And it’s guaranteed to work (jazz hands resolution)

The three box ‘Brand Love’ structure:

  1. No one even cares if you die (Brand autopsy)
  2. But we can make them care (resolution)
  3. And this is what it looks like (creative execution)

It is also important to think about how other agencies, aka the competition, will be approaching the pitch when defining your structure. You don’t want to fall into the same 1st attempt solution which everyone else will do. You need to stand out. One approach is to tackle this head on. Here are two examples of this…

This I’ve named the ‘Sycophantic’ structure:

  1. Everyone else is saying you are shit (other agencies)
  2. But we’ve always believed you’re great
  3. You really are amazing
  4. So we’re going to celebrate that fact

Quite nauseating but sometimes a good ego stroke goes a long way in the pitch room. A less dramatic way to show your ability to work with existing brand elements without bending over backwards is a structure like this:

The ‘Keep the baby with the bathwater’ approach:

  1. Everyone else is saying you are in such big shit (the other agencies)
  2. But we believe it’s actually not that bad
  3. You can become likeable without changing everything
  4. But change enough to be seen as doing something

This evolution over revolution approach can be a winner for more risk averse clients or those who are broadly happy with their brand position.

Having discussed a number of approaches it is clear that the key learning is to take the time to plan out your story before you begin. Play around with different structures; take into consideration the client at hand and the role of the presentation. Most importantly stay conscious of the shape of your narrative arc and make sure you leave time for a strong finish.

This is the second write-up from the Open Strategy School of Planning event on Strategic Narrative.

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