What’s Our Story?

As an industry that is currently in the midst of espousing the value of storytelling, we’re doing a pretty shoddy job of telling our own.

First let’s look at what’s wrong with the storytelling frenzy. As I have previously written, we’re not the ones that are telling the stories. Consumers are, as are the many publishers, studios and artists. Yet, even today new agencies are being launched, and proclaiming they are great storytellers!

Just think for a moment what has made companies that have been standout successes in the last two or three decades. Started in a garage by a Harvard dropout. Built by four Indian friends, some of who sold their wives’ jewellery for startup capital. Built by a Chinese schoolteacher who was turned away from a restaurant job because he didn’t look very handsome. Granted that they’re all technology companies, but isn’t the story, the legend such an integral part of their brand identity?


Finding and telling that story is as relevant and necessary today, for the entire marketing communications industry, as it is for the agencies. It is vital for differentiation, and for lasting appeal amongst our clients and talent.

The reason why Mad Men makes for such compelling viewing and engagement is because many of the agencies that were founded in the 1960s had a compelling story to tell. About their founders, the campaigns they produced, the lifestyles, the brave clients.

Today we need that story.

If we want to win over talented hearts and minds, what does our workplace offer that is different from the free food and ziplines on campus? What kind of unique skills can one acquire – is it the blend of left and right brain thinking that can be learned and honed through interaction with peers? If our story is one of a data and digital company, there are a hundred firms, big, medium and small in Silicon Valley, Bangalore and Beijing that are perhaps more appealing.

We need to get much better at talking about the kind of opportunities that are unlocked when you’re part of – or even associated with the industry. When Graham Fink, Ogilvy China’s Chief Creative Officer, reached out to Jonathan Mak Leong, a 20 year old student in Hong Kong, to design a poster for Coca-Cola, it offered the student community, the Coca-Cola Company and the agency a whole new way of crafting ideas for the brand.

Could it be that we provide mobility to the millennials: across diverse cultures – which opens minds to the creative potential, and across job functions and gives people new challenges and a constant opportunity to learn? These are important values to job seekers; both experience in different markets and adaptability are valued by clients.

As an industry – and even in Asia, we’ve created and popularized instantly recognizable icons: the Singapore Girl, the Amul girl and the Air India Maharajah, Vodafone’s Zoozoos and the Michelin Man. We have created movements – such as getting people to vote in Tunisia, and made a measurable difference to causes. Those are emotional hooks and anchors for talent: it imbues their workday with meaning and purpose.

Malcolm Gladwell has given us proof that connectors are the most valued people in business and society. We should recognize that tomorrow’s agency will be a connector, between brands and their enthusiasts, between specialists and craftspersons and businesses that need those skills but do not posses them internally.

As a notoriously self-congratulatory business, we need to understand if and why are we famous, and how does fame attract business and talent. Is it about the work, or about the people? Is there an intriguing story about how the work gets out there, is talked about, and performs in the marketplace?

Above all, the story which we tell about ourselves has to be a unified story. The more specializations we offer as an industry, the greater the chance that different people will narrate different stories. It’s something we can ill afford.

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