I grew up during the golden age of creativity within Belgian advertising, and spent my childhood in relatively close proximity to its idols, Guillaume Vanderstichelen and Guy Mortier. I looked up to them, too – I still do – as they are rightfully considered creative geniuses who helped transform the previously rather boring world of advertising into a playground to humor and creativity.
But that is also the reason why I never once considered a career in the advertising business myself. Though I have always loved writing, I was convinced I was never going to be as good at it as these demi-gods, so surely there’d be no place for me at one of those glamorous and ambitious agencies.
Instead of marketing, I studied Literature and Journalism, and I’ll be forever grateful for that decision because the combination of these two fields allowed me to gain a much deeper understanding of the art of storytelling. Well before graduating, I landed jobs as journalist and editor at several lifestyle magazines. I rose to editor-in-chief rather fast and furiously, but I soon realized this line of work couldn’t make me happy, either.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned during my studies – whether my professors intended to teach me this or not – it’s that objective storytelling doesn’t exist. Every story is colored by the writer’s disposition and personality, no matter how hard they try to hide it. I figured out that’s exactly what I loved about storytelling, and though that might be problematic in a journalistic context (though I’d argue there is nothing objective about lifestyle journalism), it sure helps to write compelling content for marketing purposes.
In other words, I gradually evolved from a journalist into a storyteller for brands: call it a brand journalist or a content marketeer – in any case I was dipping my toe into the industry that I had always avoided. And I learned that I had real value there: not because I was the wittiest, the funniest or a genius at making up unexpected and surprising storylines, but because I was talented at telling stories in a way that is honest and true – both to the company that hired me for it, as to the community they wanted the story to touch.
Through my personal evolution, I learned that successful advertising or marketing doesn’t always have to be the work of a creative genius. Fortunately, because let’s be honest – we’re lucky if we get one or two of those in a generation. Does that mean that everyone else is either wasting their time or trying to intimidate the world into thinking they are genius?
In my opinion, it does not. There’s room in advertising and marketing for people with another fantastic talent: translating a strategic briefing into a story that is irresistibly convincing to those it is intended to convince. And this approach is the opposite of what I consider the process of an artistic geniuses. They like to generate ideas out of thin air – the wilder, the better. They are driven to create the most original or most clever concepts and are focused on provoking intense reactions in their audience.
In the approach of Community Marketing, creatives are briefed by the Community-based Story Canvas: a strategic framework that tells them who the community is they have to reach, what the effect is they need to create within its members, and what the main story is of the company that needs their storytelling to connect with their consumer. At first sight, it’s a much more complex assignment than wild and limitless brainstorming, but I find that it is actually a great way to stimulate creativity.
It eliminates a great deal of what creatives often refer to as ‘instinct.’ Their gut feeling might be on point from time to time, but basically it means they surrender to the fickleness of inspiration (will it strike today?) and chance (will they happen upon the right tone of voice by coincidence?). Working from a fundament – within a framework – actually provides inspiration, at least in my experience.
This approach also allows companies to put much more focus on long-term strategy. Creative agencies may claim to include strategy in their approach, but it is rarely long-term. And that is understandable, because when that is the responsibility of the creatives, the pressure on their shoulders and their workload becomes unreasonably heavy, possibly leading to a feeling of ‘creative depletion’ or even full-on burn-outs.
Personally, it also gives me much more satisfaction to see that the storytelling I created touched upon the lives of real people – people who belong to the community I intended to reach, and who appreciate or are even thankful for the stories I deliver to them at a time when they were not just open to it, but actively looking for it. To me, that’s a much more meaningful accomplishment than any fancy-looking award that gathers dust in a trophy room.