Why great brand stories aren’t just told — they’re built

John Osborn October 2018 Video

It’s no longer enough to be a great storyteller — brands must learn how to become story builders. OMD’s CEO John Osborn shares three tips for getting started.

“Why did you leave creative for media?” That’s a question I’ve heard a lot since moving from my CEO position at creative advertising agency BBDO New York to join OMD as its new CEO. My answer is always the same. “I haven’t left creative — I’m just looking at it through a different lens.” Now that I’ve had a full year on the media side, I can better explain that difference as recognizing great storytelling is about great story building.

Regardless of the company name on the business card, I am still — and always will be — unequivocal in my belief in the power of great storytelling. But on the media side, the aperture through which we view the story is much wider, encompassing all the ways in which an audience can both experience and be distracted from it.

Which is why it’s no longer enough to simply create a story and get it in front of people. Great storytelling today calls for a slightly different approach: tell it, share it … and build on it.

The old way of brand storytelling

Storytelling in our industry has historically meant developing creative based on cultural insights and broad audience assumptions, and then using media to blast it out to as many people as possible. While this approach remains critical to building brands, it doesn’t allow for personalization — a critical component in today’s noisy media ecosystem.

That’s where story building comes in. It’s a process rooted in three core tenets.

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1. Use audience signals to be more relevant

Just as cultural insights and demographic assumptions are essential to brand storytelling, granular audience signals are vital for building relevance at the individual level.

People know what they want, and they’re telling us what that is through a wide range of signals — from views to searches to clicks to shares. If brands want to cut through the noise, they need to pay attention to those signals and let them inform the story they’re creating.

We can still tap into the cultural zeitgeist when coming up with creative ideas, but we’re wasting a real opportunity if we stop there.

For example, at OMD we’re now using a tool that uses audience signals to help us determine which creative images and language are likely to resonate with certain people. We can still tap into the cultural zeitgeist when coming up with creative ideas, but we’re wasting a real opportunity if we stop there.

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2. For scaled personalization, think dynamic creative

It’s always been a media fantasy to create personalized ads at scale, but new technologies are finally allowing this dream to become a reality. For example, audience signals not only provide clues as to what people want — they can also help us understand what someone is about to watch and respond to by serving up a contextually relevant ad.

Our client Frito-Lay did this with a recent Lay’s campaign. Working closely with Google, the team started by identifying the most popular YouTube content categories — everything from gaming to 90s fashion — among their target audience. They then used YouTube’s Director Mix tool to quickly create different creative variations for each of the top categories. Finally, they set up the campaign so that the relevant creative was served to the right person at the right time. If someone was about to watch a music video, for example, they might have seen music-related creative.

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3. Build beyond the single ad

The third tenet of story building goes beyond customizing a single ad or ad experience. It’s about customizing the experience of an entire campaign across a sequence of ads, based on how a user interacts along the way. This has never been possible before, and we’re jumping in headfirst to try it.

For a new Doritos campaign on YouTube, we’ll be using this technology to tell an elaborate, funny story in several parts. The story in each creative execution starts where the last one left off, and it will be served to someone only if they watched the previous video. For those who choose not to, we’ll assume they aren’t interested in the full story and instead follow up with a quick product shot.

Sequencing six-second bumper ads with longer skippable ads drives significant lift.

This type of strategy is the future of story building, and we’re already starting to see it work. According to recent Ipsos research, in which some of our clients participated, sequencing six-second ads with longer skippable ads drives significant lift across the marketing funnel, from awareness to purchase intent.1

The same study also found that sequences using the same creative are better at driving upper funnel metrics, like ad recall, whereas sequences using different creative messages are better at driving action, like purchase intent.2

The future of story building

The move from just telling stories to building them won’t happen overnight, but we can start by asking ourselves three questions for every one of our creative briefs: What audience signals are informing this story? What technologies can we use to personalize them at scale? And how will our story build up over time, in a sequence?

When these questions are baked into our processes, building better stories — and thus better advertising experiences — will soon be the new normal.

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