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If creatives want to reach audiences, it’s time to lose the plot

Potted narratives and storytelling devices are core elements of the advertising toolbox. But, as AMV BBDO’s Mike Alhadeff argues, data-led storytelling has led brands to build dry creative. Could it be time to embrace the abstract again?

Have we lost the plot? It’s surely a question that we’ve all asked ourselves over the last year 18 months, where even the news has all made us question what the hell is going on.

But pandemic aside, why do we really need plot? Plot has of course been central to storytelling for centuries – providing a narrative with a host of characters along the way. It has been remarkably durable, too.

After the war, the postmodernists came along, questioning the value of plot in the face of economic and cultural upheaval, and The Bomb.

But however strong the critique, it has largely remained intact, not only in the world of literature, but also most aspects of popular culture.

And the same is true in advertising, where we seem to be increasingly beholden to plot. What’s the story? Will consumers be able to follow the story? Will they find the characters relatable? But are these the wrong questions to ask?

We want to elicit emotion, rather than make people understand. Some of the best ads ever made have done this. Think Guinness ‘Surfer’, Sony ‘Balls’ and Comparethemarket.com ‘Meerkats’. None of these have a plot in the traditional sense, nor do they really feature relatable characters (unless you count a Russian meerkat).

But importantly, they all got us to feel something, whether it was the pleasure of a drinking a pint of Guinness, the joy in watching high-definition television or searching for car insurance. We remember them for their feeling rather than their story. Often years after they’ve been made.

These days, examples are few and far between as brands increasing eschew feeling for the sake of story. But there is the odd bright spot. Churchill’s recent makeover, turning Churchill the dog into a chilled out LA skateboarder, taps into that reassuring feeling of insurance.

Continuing the dog theme, the AA employed a dog to recapture that driving feeling. Crucially, both sought to employ metaphor and analogy to drive interest in so called ‘low-interest’ categories.

Advertising can perhaps learn from outside the category where others are trying to loosen the grip of plot. Dance music has always been an arena that seeks to generate feelings, but recently it has started to generate more mainstream success with the likes of Bicep hitting the charts.

It not only defies normal chart logic, where songs normally have defined narratives, but it also highlights how people are increasingly searching for something that makes us feel something, or more importantly you can lose yourself in (perhaps unsurprising when many of our feelings have been deadened by the pandemic).

So how else might we break free from the shackless of plot? To challenge research might seem a dangerous game to play for any strategist. But it is increasingly being overused. Or more precisely, not being used at the right moments.

Executions are being researched to within an inch of their lives (quite literally at times) with the obvious consequence that any feeling is sucked dry. Research budgets would be better directed further upstream, talking to consumers about their general hopes and fears, as well as the challenge we’re trying to solve, and then filter it into work (this form of research has all but fallen by the wayside in the face of supposedly quick results).

We might also want to consider backing the creative process. And I mean really backing it. In particular the creatives, the engine room of any agency. There will always be a tension here of course. We’re not ultimately in the business of making 6-minute dance videos, our creativity has to meet commercial ends. But the benefit of doubt should be granted more often, a faith in the creative curveball respectfully observed.

And lastly, we need guts. An awful lot of guts. Both from us working in agencies and, importantly, from clients themselves. The examples mentioned earlier took an awful lot of guts to make, often requiring people to hold their nerve in the face of accepted marketing theory. This is the exciting bit. The ‘shit, will this actually work?’ bit. This should excite all of us. And if doesn’t, then something has seriously gone wrong.

Because, if 2020 taught me anything, it is that I want to feel more.

Mike Alhadeff is a senior strategist at AMV BBDO

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