How An Existential Crisis Ended In A Train Station, While Looking At Endless Content Campaigns Featuring “Real” People

While standing in line to board a train this morning, I felt like the kind of “opinion elite” person who is targeted by nearly every thought leadership campaign. It’s not that I have particularly influential opinions or that I’m especially elite … it’s that, right there in my line of sight, was yet another billboard from yet another thought leadership campaign.

The billboard, like most of the other billboards that had been in and out of my line of sight over the last few days, featured “real” people. Their lives had been changed. Or their lives had been helped. Or their lives had been threatened. And Brand X had come along to do bring about the change or deliver the help or alleviate the threat.

And rather than behaving like an opinion elite who might now regard Brand X in a different way … I chose to engage in an existential crisis.

These “real” people are the reason I do what I do. I tell myself stories aren’t worth telling unless they’re real and honest and raw and thoughtful, whether they’re told for a news organization or a branded content agency.

But isn’t it also true that if every branded content campaign (or every news story) is so focused on the “real people” model … that this approach to storytelling might one day jump the shark for its target audiences?

Lord help us.

So there I am in the train station … feeling like the cosmos is imploding … when a love song comes through my headphones.

Yet another love song. Like I haven’t heard a million love songs before.

And it was awesome.

Needtobreathe’s “Haley” is a song about heartbreak. Heard one like that before? The singer pleads: “If you don’t know just how you feel, don’t say those sweet things that you know I’d want to hear.” Heard something like that before?

Still, for me, the song has a kind of magic sauce — something that separates it from a long line of love song noise. I was moved. I don’t want to make a huge deal about whether I started swaying back and forth in the station as people kept crossing in front of me to go to the bathroom … but it was a great song. (Don’t judge.)

My existential crisis quickly faded.

Well told stories that are real and honest and raw and thoughtful … DO have a place in storytelling, for any format … even if the format has gone to that infinite well again and again and again and again.