Kirk Cheyfitz
Kirk Cheyfitz
CEO & Chief Editorial Officer

A Story about the Future of Advertising

The latest news from the upper-echelons of marketing and advertising is that storytelling is the path to advertising’s future. There’s still a lot of what can be called “TV thinking” hanging on stubbornly, but no one any longer denies the basics — which, if you’ll allow us a short moment of tooting our own horn, is exactly what we’ve been preaching at Story Worldwide for the past five years.

Recently, I became a Global Advisory Board Member of The Future of Advertising Project. This is possibly the most pretentious title I’ve ever had and the most portentously named project I’ve even participated in. But it’s the real deal. The project is being run by The Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania with help from the prestigious Advertising Research Foundation. Some of the other partners, besides Story, will sound familiar: Google, for example, is supplying a bunch of the funding and some of the ideas. MDC Partners, WPP, Y&R, Radical Media (recently purchased by Fremantle Media) and many other big agencies are involved, along with senior clients from Kodak, Unilever, Commerzbank and so on. It’s a pretty heavy-weight group and I’m very proud that Story was asked to join.

The consensus at my first board meeting of The Future of Advertising Project was that conventional advertising, in fact, has a very limited future. The project’s leader, Yoram “Jerry” Wind, a senior marketing professor at Wharton, believes that “advertising” is an outmoded term. But he says we don’t yet possess the terminology to speak about what’s replacing advertising. I, of course, suggested “post-advertising,” which got some attention and understanding (“like postmodern!”) but not wide adoption.

But when I presented a single-slide vision of advertising’s future (cooked up with the help of Jim Boulton and Jon King from our London office), and followed it with our game-changing work for Klondike, there was suddenly a lot of head nodding. And a lot of the attendees liked our use of the word “curate” to describe how brands need to construct context for online conversations.

Take a look at this slide yourself and consider it for a moment. With a few refinements, it’s going to be a staple of our approach for a long time to come.

The basic story here begins with something that we first said a dozen years ago, when it was admittedly controversial. Now, even middle-of-the-road business gurus like Tom Peters are saying it: Brand IS story.

Fortunately for us at Story, we already have a disciplined, proven process for collaboratively finding that core story, which we like to call the Story Platform. Once you discover that core story, the next step is to create narratives based on it and then publish those narratives across all relevant media in weird and wonderful versions. Text and image. Film. Games. Apps. Tools. Books. Magazines. Whatever.

As each story is published, it then needs to be syndicated and shared. You syndicate this brand-embodying, valuable content by planting links—paid and free—in all the places where your selected audience is most likely to encounter them. And, of course, you make the content easy for people to share across the social web so they can help spread the brand’s stories with no media cost.

Finally, you want to make the stories searchable and findable by all of the leading search engines. So you optimize the stories and tag them with the right metadata (and do some trickier, proprietary things to multiply inbound links, dynamically adjust the metadata based on changes in popular search terms and do other things that advance stories in the search rankings).

The neat thing about search is that tracking the terms people are using to find our stories will help us refine the next version of the story and the next wave of syndication. And so it goes, round and round, driving results and effectiveness up, up, up while driving media costs down, down, down.

What’s missing from this simple diagram of course is the compounding of the story that occurs as the audience begins to add, syndicate and share its own content—comments, links, ratings, and entirely new versions—that then allow the cycle to take on a life of its own as the audience joins in, pushing the brand’s story to levels never before dreamt of. And that is when the story really gets exciting.

As I said at the top, there’s been a lot of talk about advertising becoming storytelling and a lot of agreement that brands need to become media companies. But there’s been precious little practical demonstration of what that means and how to do it, largely because most agencies have no history with long-form content. We’ve been doing this for more than a dozen years, however, so we’re going to share what we’ve learned and focus on the practical.

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  • Ben Gin

    Awesome article Kirk. I really enjoy this because I’ve felt the same way for several years about the future of ‘advertising’ which will be more about brands (like mine, yours, Google’s or whoever’s) investing in people, which gets expensive quickly, which will force us to get better at defining and specializing our brands’ goals, missions, and the value we deliver. Before, advertising and branding was simply ‘talking at people’, and the costs of doing so were based simply on the medium we used. The only questions asked were “how much money can we spend” or “how many people can we talk at”? That determined your media buy, which determined the sort of content you could afford (as ad agencies….the ‘artists’ behind your message….standardized the 15% fee based on your media buying budget). Advertising became something we did TO people, as opposed to something we did FOR them, or did WITH them. The coming world is exciting, because we’ll see for the first time a generation of people who’ll view no difference between information, advertising, entertainment, and even friendship (as even our own ‘friends’ on facebook have exponentially added to the ‘new noise’). I think major brands can relax and bit and realize that they need only to invest in their own great stories and tell them in more faceted ways to the people (their contributors, consumers, AND competitors) who really care about them (who have a stake in the brand’s success). It’s an incredibly exciting time. The world as we know it will become the world as we never imagined it starring Chow Jung Phat (ATHFCMFFT…I’m a fan, in the tribe…Seth Godin…Also a fan of many of his thoughts). -Ben Gin (

  • Joseph Heath

    Einstein said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”. You talk about the end of ‘TV thinking’ but for me ‘story/narrative thinking’ is the same thing, just spread out across lots of different media. Yes we can all find great examples of brands who have told a great story or have built an engaging narrative around their brand to great success, but in an age where people are ‘value experts’ we don’t want brands (whose product or history has nothing at all to do with storytelling) to tell me stories - no matter how participatory - we want them to help us improve our own lives. Do us a favour and leave the storytelling to the film makers and games makers and starting looking at how brands can help a business be better at what they do. It’s time to stop looking at the brand as a separate entity that simply expresses something about the business and product; instead we have to start looking at the brand as force or energy (purpose) that inspires the people within the business and within the communities that exist at the fringes of the business to build real value for each other. Value that contributes back to the common force or purpose that is the brand.

  • Jennifer Schnell

    Brilliant. Finally someone said it. The rivers have all got to end somewhere. I think we’ve needed some cohesiveness for a long time. Those that get this right will continue to be strong. Those that don’t will be lost in the noise.

  • Kirk Cheyfitz

    Ben, forgive me (first), for not having responded to the comments here for so long. Luckily, a friend in Holland reminded me that I wrote this piece and here I am again. I really like your line” “we’ll see for the first time a generation of people who’ll view no difference between information, advertising, entertainment, and even friendship…” I’m still puzzling a bit over friendship, but I think I’ll get there with you.

    To our friend Joseph Heath, I think I have to say that Einstein never endorsed reinventing math (adding is adding, and so on — mathematical relationships do not change). He just suggested that we ask new questions and approach unanswered questions with fresh perspective. Storytelling falls into much the same category as math: It is a peculiar property of the human brain and a way we have been making sense (and nonsense) of our world for some 50,000 years. Storytelling won’t end and probably won’t change much. And one way to add value (here I agree with Joseph) is to tell true, engaging stories that embody a brand and expand the audience’s horizon. That’s what we’re advocating. And in the world that you describe, Ben, where there’s “no difference between information, advertising, entertainment…,” telling a great story—creating great media—is the only way brands will be able to connect with their audiences.

  • Kirk Cheyfitz

    Thanks very much, Jennifer.

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