Once Upon A Time.

June 26, 2018

In a rapidly changing business, the fundamentals of telling a good story have remained timeless and constant.


We are all storytellers, regardless of one’s role in this business be it in an agency, client side, or as media resource partner.  We all work in service to a brand’s stories, whose protagonists are products or services or brand narratives and whose challenges, conflicts and inciting action are as varied as the brands themselves.


Post-modern storytelling.

This is how our agency has come to define what we do, who we are and our fundamental responsibilities to the brands we serve. Modern storytelling, within the context of providing meaningful brand and product narratives, has evolved as – now more than ever – the medium is the message. Marshall McLuhan pointed that out in 1964, and it remains true within the realm of modern storytelling as well. “The form of a medium embeds itself in any message it would transmit or convey, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived.”


In our case, it’s all about alignment with accomplished media partners and the application of analytics tools and platforms to inform innovative marketing strategies and compelling brand narratives. We convey our clients’ stories into the expanse of today’s innovative new marketing channels, counting on them to find purchase and influence.


As for me, I almost always introduce myself as a writer by vocation and marketer by profession because, well, that’s what I am. And in that order. I began my own journey as a fiction writer and wannabe teacher, only to concoct a twist in my tale that put me in the offices of Griswold-Eshleman Advertising my sophomore year in college, the general agency world becoming the setting for an array of personal stories over the next 40 years, starting from the day the copywriter in me was first hatched.


Writing is work.

David Ogilvy once said about creativity: “I have to invent a Big Idea for a new advertising campaign, and I have to invent it before Tuesday. Creativity strikes me as a high-falutin word for the work I have to do between now and Tuesday.”


A visionary, IMHO, whose wisdom and insight are as keen today as they were  when he wrote Ogilvy On Advertising, David Ogilvy is a hero of mine and his book is still my bible.


One of the core tenants of agency Benton & Bowles, a contemporary of Ogilvy, was this: “It’s not creative unless it sells,” another old insight that has application even today.


Creativity is work. Writing is work, process, immersion. Writing is preparation. It’s discipline. Like the origin of the universe, writing is controlled chaos, part infinite possibilities and part big bang. At its core, writing, in our world, is “interrogating a brand until it confesses its weaknesses,” that from an old CD of mine, Robin Wight, creative guru and the “W” in the UK agency Wcrs&Co. The only person who ever said writing is easy was newspaperman and Hollywood screenwriter Gene Fowler, who famously observed that “all you have to do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” I agree with him. Even the most casual of prose has likely been researched, rehashed, reworked, rewritten, revised and rewritten again. Like this paragraph, for instance.


Writing is process.

There is a basic story structure that holds true whether you’re talking about a novel, a short story, a play, a movie or a TV commercial. A brand story, or a company’s core story, can similarly be plotted along a traditional story structure, which consists of a beginning, an inciting event, a middle or period of rising action, a climax, a period of falling action and a conclusion. In their insightful book “The User’s Journey: Storymapping Products That People Love,” authors Donna Lichaw and Eva Lotta-Lamm provide a great tutorial on exactly how to apply this in a number of ways to your own brand stories and campaign challenges.


An even simpler application of this basic story structure, at least on its surface, is the Story Spine, used everywhere from college classrooms to company boardrooms to Pixar in the pursuit of creating rich, imaginative storylines.


Conceived in 1991 by educator, playwright, business coach and improv impresario Kenn Adams, the Story Spine lays out the telling of a story like this:


Once upon a time ___. Every day, ___. But one day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ______. Until finally ___. And ever since then…


© 2018 Kenn Adams


I qualify this only because, for Pixar, this part of the process (which they refer to as Research & Development) takes years.  Directors will spend months developing core story concepts, pitch up to three at a time, and then spend months more flushing out other story elements such as character and setting.


This is all designed to refine the story itself and only then, after sometimes upwards of another year, is the story ready to be greenlighted. Or not. Which is when the real work begins, in which another year or more are dedicated to refining the final story line. It’s only at that point that Pixar will put a new film into actual production.


For the film WALL-E, story supervisor Jim Reardon had more than 20 people dedicated to his story team alone, their mission to bring to life Pixar’s three foundational elements of a great story: a compelling narrative, memorable and appealing characters and a believable world (story, character, setting). For a more comprehensive look at Pixar’s approach to storytelling, go here. And for an interesting exercise, re-watch WALL-E and track it against the Story Spine. Talk about eye opening. I only hope I didn’t ruin the film – or others – for you by just saying that.


Did I mention that writing is a process?


I had the privilege of speaking with Kenn Adams about his Story Spine, it’s viral growth and its applications in both the arts and in business. Here’s his perspective.


“The Story Spine began as a purely artistic endeavor,” he says. “It started as a tool that I developed to condense a story into its basic elements  – its purest form – in order to better prepare my improv company for our performances. That was it.”


That it took on a life of its own in business, and certainly at Pixar, was quite a surprise for Adams, the latter happening after a chance meeting at a workshop he was teaching in San Francisco.


Says Adams, marveling at the way his creation literally took off: “Creating the right story for the sales process or using a well-told story to address team building, communications, collaboration, innovation, creativity, leadership development, marketing communications – that has really become part of the Story Spine’s unexpected growth and popularity.  My real passion is the theater, but it has been both amazing and humbling that so many take the Story Spine, run with it and craft it into so much more.”


Ogilvy on process.

Specific to what we do for a living, David Ogilvy laid out his own basic approach for how to do the things we do. And how to do it better and smarter than anyone else. I find it’s a good complement to the Story Spine, providing a useful checklist for developing a brand and its story, regardless of category, though I’ve made my own modifications to it over the years as opportunity has afforded and innovation has dictated.


  • Do your homework.
  • Develop where, how and to whom you want to establish your position in the Marketplace (and give your audience some credit, what I call “the negative space of imagination”).
  • Develop a brand image (that’s true to the brand).
  • Work to develop core messaging and the big idea (which, alone, has been the subject of many books, blogs and industry treatises.).
  • Make the product hero (and get to the heart of its unique compelling benefit).
  • Establish tactics for delivering and repeating the product message (I can only imagine what Ogilvy would say about today’s digital marketing ecosystem).
  • Facilitate word of mouth advertising (remember, this was in the late 70’s, early 80s – social media wasn’t technically invented yet).


Malcolm Gladwell, one of today’s most engaging and imaginative storytellers, is also a huge proponent of process in creating, developing and, ultimately, telling a story. Gladwell doggedly tests his story ideas (as we do our own stories, be it formally or informally), often before committing words to the page. He feels he gets a much more comprehensive and honest, visceral read from informally pitching his stories and story ideas than simply having people review drafts of his work as he goes. In our world, this takes the form of brainstorming and collaboration, but could also incorporate formal concept testing should we have a wealth of tellable stories – and a research budget – at our disposal.


Gladwell’s own general process? Structure the narrative, engage the reader, research and prepare, select your story (which often comes from the research process), develop the story (and test it), set an appropriate tone for the subject matter and the audience and work tirelessly on the writing and revision process itself. And that’s all there is to it.


Mozart once said of his work: “I’ve never made the slightest effort to compose anything original.” Again, taken in the context of what we do, I interpret this to mean that innovation and significant brilliance (another nod to David Ogilvy and his soapbox) can come from a structured, orderly and well considered process as well as from muses, osmosis or the creative chaos and cacophony of dogs and cats, living together.


You can get there from here.

In building a campaign for client Visit Indy, we worked to develop a strategy that could be delivered upon exclusively through digital channels – a first for this particular client. Here is a representative spine of that campaign’s own “story:”


Once upon a time, Visit Indy was looking to reach defined client segment “Jenn Jones,” her 2.5 kids and her minivan, introducing her to the many attractions and activities available in Indianapolis to her and her family.


Every day, Jenn Jones was presented with that messaging, traditional channels providing the conduit with seasonal factors and specific citywide events defining the timing of the campaign.


But one day, Visit Indy, discerning that this approach was not delivering the results desired, decided to look at the story they were telling and the way they were telling it. Enter The Basement, an agency uniquely capable of helping them to fully explore new channels and opportunities.


Because of that, the team began exploring the possibility of engaging with only digital channels and the ways in which data-informed digital strategies could be tracked and measured.


Because of that, we were able to take a closer look at Visit Indy’s audiences, its messaging and the story they were telling.


Because of that, we began targeting a number of different audience segments (7 in all) with experiences curated specifically for those targets.


Until finally, we launched a new digital campaign sharing those experiences to the right people, in the right place at the right time.


And ever since then, the always-on, year-round campaign has delivered consecutive years of record growth in web traffic and hotel bookings.


The more things change, the more things stay the same.

I remain struck by the fact that the foundation of good storytelling is something that remains truly timeless. And that’s given the constantly emerging channels we have at our disposal, the paradigm-shifting technologies that are propelling us and the array of tools we have to measure our results and inform new strategies.


Until finally…

Waxing nostalgic, it really does go back to things like Malcolm Gladwell’s definitive process and Kenn Adams’ Story Spine. It goes back to David Ogilvy’s book in the late 70’s and early 80’s and his work prior. It goes back to the “Mad Men” generation and those “men in the gray flannel suits,” like Mary Wells, in the 50’s and ‘60’s.  And it goes back to Leo Burnett in the 30’s, 40’s and beyond (“If you can’t turn yourself into a customer, you probably shouldn’t be in the ad-writing business at all,” according to Leo).  Heck, I can imagine these same basic precepts of telling a good story originally being employed in caves, with early peoples binge-watching a fire and regaling each other with tales of the Wooly Mammoth that got away.


Whatever your perspective or personal history, and however you wish to go about telling your own stories, it all comes down to telling them and, indeed, working deliberately to tell them well. Which brings us to the final segment of this story, something I wish to propose to Kenn Adams as the final addition to his ever-evolving story spine:


The End.


A special thanks to Kenn Adams. Kenn Adams is an improviser, playwright, corporate trainer, and educator with over twenty-seven years of experience in the theater. He is the Artistic Director of Synergy Theater, an improvisational theater company in the San Francisco Bay Area that performs completely-improvised full-length plays. He is the author of the book How to Improvise a Full-Length Play: The Art of Spontaneous Theater. Kenn created the Story Spine in 1991 while working with Freestyle Repertory Theatre, the New York home for TheatreSports.

George Evans
George Evans
Director of Brand & Content Strategy

I'm a writer by vocation, a marketer by profession and I've been telling brand stories for nearly 40 years. The channels have changed, but the fundamentals of spinning a good yarn are timeless. Our grasp of this is why I joined The Basement in 2016, following 10 years at the helm of my own shop. We have great stories to tell.