Storytelling in ads risks becoming a forgotten tale
A view from Gideon Spanier

Storytelling in ads risks becoming a forgotten tale

The ongoing angst over 'traditional versus digital' touches on a major debate in advertising.

One over-looked aspect of the recent JWT employment tribunal ruling, which found two male creative directors were unfairly made redundant “because of their sex” in 2018, was just how much financial trouble the WPP shop was in at the time.

The tribunal heard how JWT London revenues had “declined catastrophically”, falling £49m to £30m in the previous two years, and senior executives urgently wanted to move beyond “traditional advertising” such as “TV ads” and make more digital and social work. Part of the reason the two male creatives fell out of favour was that they were seen by management as being too “traditional”– a “pejorative” term in this context, the tribunal said.

What’s fascinating is that this angst over “traditional versus digital” touches on a major, unresolved debate in advertising – the future of brand-building and brand storytelling in a busy media world where it is harder to win consumers’ attention.

Countless effectiveness studies have shown that TV is the most emotionally engaging advertising medium, yet scheduled viewing and commercial impacts (the number of people who see a TV ad) are in long-term decline as ad-free streaming services have exploded.

The problem, as one marketer described it, is “chasing the missing viewer” who might be spending more time on social media, streaming or gaming. A six-second online ad doesn’t allow for much storytelling (and can be an irritant if, as sometimes happens, it is served again and again).

The pandemic temporarily obscured some of this debate because consumption habits changed abruptly. TV viewing and internet usage surged as people stayed at home and other channels, such as outdoor and cinema, suffered. Now that a degree of normality is returning, marketers are fretting about how to build their brands in a booming market. Part of the issue is that advertising itself has changed to suit the era of social media and short-form content. One industry figure calls it “the Instagramming of advertising”, where brand work is increasingly image-driven and focused on snapshots and vignettes, rather than telling nuanced and emotionally compelling stories. Advertising effectiveness is in decline and risks falling further, as research company System1 has warned.

Yet the current state of flux also presents huge opportunities. Brands are thinking about the whole customer experience, not just their advertising, because there are so many consumer touchpoints.

Media fragmentation and fewer moments where an advertiser can reach a mass audience mean “you’ve got to turn up in a lot more places, and a lot more consistently, to tell a story” but it can be effective, and brands are getting better at it, one agency leader says.

Consistency of communications, combined with data, can be powerful – a key theme of the recent Mercedes-Benz global review, where the car-maker consolidated all its media, brand and performance marketing activities with Omnicom. Significantly, Mercedes-Benz says it is “focusing even more on generating brand-defining experiences that lie outside the classic campaign – from events to collaborations”.

All of which underlines how creative, media, data, PR and other disciplines must collaborate much more closely. That was once a strength of JWT, before WPP hived off different parts to supplement other agencies and left only the creative shop – a decision that ultimately led to JWT being folded into digital agency Wunderman.

We are living through exciting times for creativity. Technology means there have never been so many ways to innovate, make and communicate. But it is only a tool. Companies that want to build their brands in the long term will put a premium on great storytelling.

Gideon Spanier is UK editor-in-chief at Campaign