04 March 2023

Book Review: Nothing Gets Sold Until The Story Gets Told

Nothing Gets Sold Until The Story Gets Told: Corporate Storytelling for Career Success and Value-Driven Marketing
by Steve Multer 
Message Master Media, 234 pages

If you’re in the marketing business, you know the difference between selling and telling.


But what if that difference isn’t what you thought?


You might think selling is what you want to do, and it requires a convincing pitch, versus telling, dismissed as just reciting facts and figures. “Show up and throw up.”


A new book turns that old wisdom around.


Selling is what you want to accomplish, but this new book says that telling – telling a story – is what closes the sale. In Nothing Get Sold Until the Story Gets Told, Steve Multer explains the role of storytelling in creating an effective message. It comes naturally for him because he tells stories for a living as a corporate presenter, spokesman, and public speaking trainer.

That’s right, a corporate presenter. It’s a perspective marketing and advertising people may not have considered, but Multer has a keen eye for all forms of marketing communication. Early in the book he describes an early form of content marketing -- from the 19th Century no less.


The Too Much Information Age

Much of the foundational thinking in the early chapters will ring true to marketers. The book describes in layman’s terms how our brains receive messages, categorizing them as no-value, low-value, medium-value, and high value. Very few messages make it to the high-value category, the ones that speak to us on a personal level first. Chapter 4 is a perspective in knowing your audience, which is the first rule of advertising. Chapters 5 and 6 are about clarifying your message. Successive chapters are about how to create and deliver the message.


This is not a trite book about public speaking, either. Multer debunks hackneyed advice like “open with a joke,” “tell a funny story,” or “shock your audience to gain their interest.” Those are tropes that don’t give your audience anything meaningful. (If we're honest, Super Bowl advertising has become a showcase for similar tropes that don’t give the audience anything meaningful.)


Passion is a word that comes up in the book frequently. That may not always be appropriate in an advertisement, but it is always appropriate in preparing an advertisement. You know how when you see a great ad, you know that the work has been loved by the people who made it? That’s passion showing through.


By the time you get to the chapter “From Corporate Speak to Human Conversation” you’ll see that this book really does apply to marketing and advertising, not just presentations. That said, we’re all presenters at some point in our work weeks. You’ll find a lot of solid advice for effective storytelling, including even how to make power point (and Zoom) work for you, not against you.


Coming back around to the title, we might agree that the best advertisements have always been the ones that tell stories. An ad that tells a story is always going to be more memorable. My two rules of effective advertising: (1) Impossible to describe the ad without mentioning the product. (2) Impossible to forget what brand created it. Stories make that possible.

Between each chapter is a short essay by someone who tells stories: an art historian, a musician, a documentarian, a playwright, a rabbi, an actor, others, and me. Yes, full disclosure, I contributed a page to this book, which naturally told a story about presenting an ad campaign to a client. Read my story here but look for Steve Multer’s book here

05 March 2022

Book Review: The Sea We Swim In by Frank Rose

The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World
By Frank Rose
W.W. Norton & Co., 256 pages

We’re drowning in stories.

In the 2010s publishing became democratized – anyone could publish a website, a blog or microblog, which is what we used to call social media. Everyone could tell a story. Very few people tell stories of quality, but now anyone can try.

That’s Frank Rose’s world. He’s a certified member of the media industrial complex, the creative class, the techno-elite, call it what you will, and he writes about this world in a recent book, The Sea We Swim In. The story – er, analysis – is at times convincing, scary, informative, partisan and above all insightful. If you work in media or marketing, read it.

Rose uses the words "story" and "narrative" interchangeably, which is a sign of the times because all politics today seems to be a contest of narratives instead of the dialogue it should be. If you lean left, you will enjoy Rose’s passages of progressive narrative. If you lean right, your patience will be tested.

Interestingly, that’s a foundational point Rose makes early in the book: that our perceptions of stories are shaped by the degree to which we identify with them. Rose quotes Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson, who says that by the simple act of telling a story “I’m making your brain similar to mine.” Ah, the goal of every advertiser, reached not by stating a benefit, repeating a USP, or showing a dog or baby, but by telling a powerful story. Later he quotes cognitive scientist Roger Schank, who explains that “human memory is story-based.”

The Nine Elements of Story

The main part of the book is nine chapters describing the elements of story: Author, Audience, Journey, Character, World, Detail, Voice, Platform, Immersion. Two insights about Audience are especially worth noting. The first is that society has flipped from an oversupply of attention and undersupply of information to the opposite. “Time is the only unit of scarcity on the Web,” says Tony Haile, founder of Chartbeat and CEO of Scroll. The second is about the nature of attention, that it means engagement. “If you treat your audience like so many eyeballs, that surface interaction is all you’ll get.” Take note, clickmongers.

The chapter on Platform includes a serviceable taxonomy of platforms, in case you’re in the club that senses this is an overused and hence vague term. It reminded me of the false strategy of early Integrated Marketing Communications, that we should somehow “surround the consumer” (who didn’t want to be surrounded anyway). In Rose’s view we might find a more successful strategy to “invite the consumer” by telling stories in some combination of platforms now available.

The Pros and Cons of Immersion and Engagement

“Immersion” is the last element of story, but it’s also a theme running throughout the book, and a note of caution. Earlier in the book he explains how Christopher Nolan’s Inception was completely understood by gamers, who are accustomed to organizing different worlds and levels, just as the movie’s story was told. This isn’t eyeballs, it’s engagement taken to another level. What happens, however, when the audience is telling the story? The creative director and proprietor of a London VR arcade told Rose, “I realized I wasn’t the storyteller, they were,” referring to his audience.

Technology is developing faster than our ability to see its social impact. If you use any social media you already know that. Consider something more insidious, though. Rose describes a meeting at the Entertainment Technology Center, a think tank funded by the major Hollywood studios. The leader of its Immersive Media Initiative tells Rose, “The ultimate goal is effectively to have multi-sensory input that you can’t tell what is real and what is virtual.”


To his credit, Rose, seemingly deadpan in tone, then writes, “I was starting to wonder about this whole immersion thing.” He increases the worry level when he segues to a story about an ETC scientist who struggled personally with what is real, having disgraced himself as an on-air ABC News consultant with a completely fake résumé, later resurfacing with a different name as an AI industry executive. “I realized the entertainment industry was a great opportunity for AI,” he states, with apparently little self-awareness.

Read this book, because it’s an essential view into what we’re developing – and perhaps what we’re becoming. Meanwhile, remember that the best marketing is stories. Preferably truthful ones in which we can indeed “tell what is real.”

23 March 2021

Book Review: Working Backwards by Colin Bryar and Bill Carr

Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon
By Colin Bryar and Bill Carr
St. Martin's Press, 304 pages

"You, too, can build a business behemoth - just like Jeff Bezos - by following the proven method of Working Backwards!"

Colin Bryar and Bill Carr don't come right out and make that promise, but their book Working Backwards openly invites you to adopt Amazon's business methods. They both left Amazon years ago, but "can't imagine doing business without (these principles)." Given their success, you can understand their enthusiasm - and perhaps your own curiosity about what made Amazon so successful.

Working Backwards: Book Summary

The first half of the book, "Being Amazonian," lists the elements of their corporate culture: leadership principles, hiring process, organizational design, prose narratives vs. PowerPoint, consumer focus, and managing inputs vs. outputs. The second half of the book tells stories of how these principles led to successful product launches: Kindle, Amazon Prime, Prime Video and AWS.

Despite how neatly the book summarizes all of the lessons, there's a real-life messiness to the narrative because Amazon admits failures on the road to success, and the authors are honest about those journeys.

This review focuses on two elements of their corporate culture, communication in prose, and the consumer focus.

Communicating: Narratives and the Six-Pager

My whole reason for reading the book in the first place was a sense of vindication about the superiority of memo-writing, especially over PowerPoint.

You may have heard that Amazon banned PowerPoint in favor of six-page memos, or "narratives" that present the meeting material in one cogent, organized document. The authors describe how the company realized PowerPoint may enable a great presentation but it rarely catalyzed insightful discussion. In a memo to employees, Bezos said "a good memo forces better thought and better understanding of what's more important than what, and how things are related." PowerPoint, he added, "gives permission to gloss over ideas, flatten out any sense of relative importance, and ignore the interconnectedness of ideas." Hear, hear!

How this works in practice: there is "an eerie silence at the beginning of Amazon meetings" while those assembled take 20 minutes to read the memo. (Don't you love the idea of not having to do the homework before showing up at the meeting?) The authors describe the company's reaction to the PowerPoint ban, and difficulty in changing to the six-page memo, but they stuck to it and now it's enshrined in this book as a principle. They even wrote, within the book, a six-page memo about how to write six-page memos.

Working Backwards: Start with the Desired Customer Experience

Every marketing thought leader, guru, Twitterati, and conference speaker has always spouted some version of the wisdom that innovation must start with the desired customer experience. In this book you can read about how to do it vs. just hearing yet another sermon about it. PR pros will delight at the idea that new product innovation at Amazon begins with the writing of a press release, a document they call PR/FAQ. This is akin to writing a new product concept for BASES forecasting, but the example they give on page 109 starts with an amazingly clear first paragraph that's better than most new product concepts I've seen in my career. Just like the six-page memo, this press release with FAQs focuses the team's thinking.

The rest of the chapter describes in Amazonian terms how they think through the market opportunity, source of volume, economics, P&L, external partners, and feasibility hurdles. You will nod your head at all of these steps, but the news here is how, having started with the customer experience in mind, they never lose sight of it amidst the numbers and analysis.

Something from an earlier chapter explains how Amazon organizes for innovation. You've probably heard of Amazon's "two-pizza rule," referring to the number of people who can be fed by two pizzas. Often described as a limit on the number of people in a meeting, it's actually the number of people allowed on a product development team. The authors explain that they tried this concept in other functional areas but it only proved necessary for speedier product development.

Yes, I recommend this book

A friend once observed that most business books can be written as 14 PowerPoint slides, i.e., most business books are not as analytical and insightful as 300 pages would suggest. That's not the case here. After one of the most serviceable book introductions I've ever read, each chapter reads quickly and clearly. All that practice writing six-page memos instead of PowerPoint decks obviously helped.

03 March 2021

My advertising strategy killed Dr. Seuss

As a newly-minted account executive at Leo Burnett, in a meeting with our clients at Keebler, my copy strategy presentation for Quangles multigrain chips was built around the well-known Dr. Seuss story, Green Eggs and Ham.  

The killer visual
This approach made sense at the time, because consumer research indicated that heavy snackers wouldn't love the idea of a multigrain chip. So we likened the challenge to Sam I Am convincing his target audience to eat Green Eggs and Ham.

Rather than write umpteen Power Point slides, most of my presentation was a dramatic reading of two or three passages from the book, and a single presentation board featuring the story's climactic moment. We passed around copies of the brief when I was done.

My boss at the time, Jeff Hiller, encouraged this approach and had me rehearse it a few times to maximize the effect. And what an effect it had.

We sold the strategy.

Then the next day, Dr. Seuss died.

Later that week, the client jokingly asked me not to feature him in future presentations.

I'm not sure if my advertising strategy killed Dr. Seuss, or if he's rolling in his grave this week, but he left a lasting legacy. Regardless of how you feel about Dr. Seuss Enterprises pulling six of his books, remember that his many other works - including Green Eggs and Ham - still have incredible value.

10 February 2021

Fiverr, the Super Bowl and the Gig Economy

Fiverr, the freelance platform where you can sell gigs for as little as $5, may have wasted a million times that amount on Super Bowl LV.

The Super Bowl is an awareness-building showcase, so there’s no doubt Fiverr succeeded in getting their name out there by buying a 60-second ad.

But name recognition doesn’t go very far unless people also know what your product or service actually does, and on that score Fiverr’s ROI may have been weak.

Here’s why I think that – and why I care.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping… and Press Venue

The recipe for Fiverr’s Super Bowl ad started with a good list of ingredients. Small- or medium-sized business owner: the on-camera narrator was Marie Siravo of Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Entrepreneurial mindset: Siravo says “success is often right place, right time.” Real people, non-copywriter language: “When opportunity knocks at your corrugated garage door, you roll that puppy up.” And it’s a Super Bowl ad, so cultural currency doesn’t hurt: Siravo’s business was the improbable site of a Rudy Giuliani press conference to contest Donald Trump’s loss in the presidential election.

A message to you, Rudy
All of the above gets across in the first 17 seconds. After that, it’s hard to follow. Siravo tours her facility, which has turned into a futuristic greenhouse staffed by workers at computer screens doing… what? She mentions graphic design and web development, but it’s not clear that’s what these people are doing. And if it were clear, has Four Seasons turned into a plant-based WeWork office space? Suddenly, an employee exclaims, apropos of nothing, “We found a fifth season!” 

Then a businesswoman wanders in asking where the lobby is, to which Siravo answers, “This is not a hotel.” That’s an obvious reference to Giuliani’s press conference, which was originally announced as taking place at the Four Seasons Hotel and was instead held at Siravo’s similarly named landscaping business.

In other words, the commercial clearly trolled Trump. But the tagline, “Freelance services on demand,” while a good summary of what Fiverr does, is not a good summary of what the commercial communicates. 1-1/2 stars out of 5.

Caveat Venditor: My experiment on Fiverr

My interest in this commercial was sparked by a work experiment on Fiverr, which went public in 2019 and reported $107.1 million in revenue for that same year. They earn that revenue by taking a 20% commission on all transactions. These aren’t high-dollar transactions. According to Priceonomics, only 1% of Fiverr sellers make more than $2,000 per month, 96.3% make less than $500 per month, and the vast majority of those make less than $100 per month.

Thus, my attention was drawn not by big money, but curiosity: How cheaply could one buy marketing services like social media, graphic design, copywriting or web development? The best way to get the answer was to use Fiverr myself.

My first step was to follow my own advice to clients: make sure you know what you sell, to whom you’re selling, and against whom you’re competing for the sale. In my case, it was marketing plans for small- and medium-size businesses, startups and franchise businesses. My competition was easy to define: similar sellers on Fiverr. I did numerous searches for the same services and saw a wide variety of approaches by other sellers, which I used to refine my own thinking and create a gig.

My gig on Fiverr
In the process I realized that while my career has been built on longer-term, mutual-benefit relationships, Fiverr is much more transactional. So one line in my gig description was “years of experience, delivered in days.” From there, Fiverr guides you on creating basic, standard and premium levels of your gig, plus producing a short video to introduce yourself (and attract more clicks from prospective buyers). No, I did not price my services at $5. Let’s just say all my prices were in the three figures. (I could always say “no,” right?)

An entrepreneur contacted me wanting to franchise his house-cleaning business. He’d been operating for a few years with some success and was looking for advice. We found each other because my profile emphasized franchising, and I’m a Certified Franchise Executive with the International Franchise Association. I liked him immediately: classic entrepreneurial personality, very focused and driven, knew what he wanted. Best of all, he was a very experienced buyer on Fiverr, and was generous in coaching me on how to make the most of the platform. It was a fun project and he gave me a 5-star rating.

Caveat Emptor: Viva the Gig Economy

Fiverr, and other platforms like it, can be effective agents of the gig economy. They act as lead generators for sellers and problem-solvers for buyers.

A buyer, however, needs to understand that most sellers, making less than $100 per month, are mainly working a side hustle vs. full-time employment. As such, the initial assignment should have a narrow, well-defined scope, so neither side risks a lot. Take care before hiring – make sure it’s the right fit. And, like Marie Siravo, you may be on a tight budget anyway. As a B2B software CMO told me last week, “Upwork (a Fiverr competitor) helps me scale on a startup budget.”

That brings me back to the disappointing Super Bowl commercial. Fiverr was right to focus on a small business like Four Seasons Total Landscaping. But they completely missed the opportunity to portray freelancers as the ones generating the entrepreneurial vibe. Maybe they were too focused on trolling Trump, or too corporate in their perspective, or too enamored with the creative execution itself. All of the employees working in the facility seemed to be just that, employees, not freelancers.

Perhaps next time, Fiverr will consider asking its own freelancers to pitch ideas.

24 January 2021

How Short Should Ads Be?

Ads keep getting shorter, but not subliminal.

Way back in TV advertising history, there were 60-second ads. Some people still remember those; there was even an article in The Atlantic looking back on them, wistfully.

Ads used to be longer

Like most GenXers, I grew up with :30s and :15s on TV. Conventional wisdom, after I joined the industry but before bandwidth permitted online video, was to run :30s until awareness reached some level when :15s could take over as reminders or reinforcement.

Miller High Life ran 1-second ads in
the 2009 Super Bowl, featuring
the late, great Windell Middlebrooks
During my international career, I became familiar with :20s and even :10s. In Argentina, where I lived and worked for three years, ads could be any length client and agency wanted, because media time was bought and sold on a second-by-second basis. So, we made :17s, :36s, :52s, etc.

Maybe that Argentine flexibility is going global. 30-second units are still common on linear TV, but audiences can be reached on other platforms that allow for all sorts of possibilities. Bandwidth has improved and the shift to mobile devices and mobile-friendly formats, like YouTube and TikTok, permits shorter ads and new rules for what makes effective communication. The six-second format is common.

But does the six-second format work?

Shorter ads can work, but...

Magna Global, the IPG media research hub, has studied ad lengths across different video platforms. Their 2015 study found that even 5-second ads could build awareness, but it took :15s or :30s to drive brand favorability and purchase intent.

A lot changed in Magna's more recent study, just published in the last few weeks. This time, they found :06s and :15s to be similar in their ability to drive search intent, brand preference, and purchase intent. Why would that be?

One reason may be the platforms on which they ran the test: Snapchat, a video aggregator (i.e., YouTube) and a Full Episode Player (FEP, perhaps a streaming app like Hulu). Audiences are already accustomed to short ad lengths in these environments, and there were no :30s tested for comparison.

The Snapchat part of the test was interesting because more people watched :15s all the way through, but they were all placed mid-roll, about ten seconds into the content, so perhaps viewers were really staying for the content, which might explain the other finding that these ads were slightly less convincing.

YouTube was different. Viewers didn’t like the :15s, which were skippable after six seconds, but keep in mind that all of these were pre-roll ads, meaning that they were a barrier to the selected content. On the FEPs, :15s were better-received, but may also have been more expected during a 20-minute TV program.

None of these findings should surprise us, especially when you consider:
  • Linear TV wasn’t part of the test and neither were 30-second ads. It would be instructive to have these points of comparison.
  • The three viewing platforms in the test give individualized watching experiences, which may improve the ability of short copy to get across its messages, and also lead to less patience for longer ads.
  • We don’t know the quality of the ad creative shown. There were four brands included (Clinique, Mini, Lego and a “major CPG brand”) but we can only assume their ads were adequately memorable and persuasive.

On that last point, not only do we not know the quality of the ad creative, we don't know if it took full advantage of the format. Traditionally, :15s were (mostly) just shorter versions of :30s, both seen on linear TV. Newer formats, like a six-second pre-roll on YouTube, are seen by an individual person watching a very small screen. That calls for a different creative approach, and opens creative avenues instead of closing them.

It's always nice to have more time to get your message across, and :30s will continue to run on TV. But newer formats may prove to be a useful piece of your overall plan.

15 January 2021

Artificial Intelligence vs. Genuine Creativity

Will Artificial Intelligence replace Creativity?

No, but it might help it, in a roundabout way.

What is AI? What can it do?

Nearly all AI work today is based on successes in machine learning. Think of machine learning as having enough data and enough processing power to think through analyses that would take humans too long to do. Imagine a mountainous, time-consuming task that needed to be done, however slowly.

Here’s one example. For half a century, scientists have been mapping the three-dimensional shapes of proteins that are responsible for diseases like cancer and Covid-19. They refer to this mapping as “unfolding,” and doing it for just one protein takes a long time and a lot of money. Up to now they’ve “unfolded” only a fraction of the 200 million known proteins. The work done so far was recently fed to an AI program called “AlphaFold” which used it to do decades of work all at once. The results have been published online for review by the scientific community.

Did AI cure any diseases? No, but it advanced the work of scientists trying to do so.

Can AI advance the work of creativity?

How to approach AI

Some AI experts will tell you to approach AI with three questions in mind:

1) Is the task genuinely data driven?
2) Do you have the data needed?
3) Do you need the scale that automation provides?

On that last question: If you have a decision that needs to be made more than once per minute, then yes, you need the scale; if you have a decision that needs to be made only once per year, then probably not.

Does creativity answer “yes” to all three questions? What kind of creativity are we talking about? A painting, a sculpture, a novel? An advertisement? Let’s focus on advertising for the moment.

Advertising, Big Data and AI

We can’t say the task of creating ads is “genuinely data driven.” Sure, advertising ideas for a particular client or project may entail data or feature a data point, but even that isn’t a matter of computation. Nor is the task so routine that we create ads at a rate of more than one-per-minute. (OK, it feels that way sometimes.) Variations on an ad, however, might drive that kind of scale. Personalization of ads, for example, might be accomplished with AI that considers not only the recipient’s name but their past purchase history and other data. That’s already happening in most online marketplaces, and don’t forget that direct mail is personalized. But these are all variations on an ad created by humans.
It's a protein,
not a creative brief

There have been attempts to create at least one kind of advertising with AI: movie trailers. The first experiment was back in 2016: someone wrote a program, based on consumer reactions to movie trailers, that could lift scenes from a movie and sequence them in 30 seconds that would effectively convince people to see the movie. Judge the results for yourself and see here a more recent experiment from 2018. More recently, Netflix invested in technology to automate trailers for their content, while adding personalization for its subscribers, which makes sense for an individualized setting like your Netflix account.

Setting aside the irony that movie trailers are already quite formulaic, we see that AI made an ad. But does anyone really think that the studio marketing head won’t ask the machine for revisions? What about the movie itself? Could AI create a full-length, cinematic feature?
This may depend on one’s world view.

Keep AI in perspective

AI can certainly enable a human being to see new possibilities. For example, large amounts of data may help us predict future changes in consumer behavior. Knowing these possibilities may lead to a new insight on how to position a product or service. There’s great value in AI when it comes to aiding our thinking process. It can give us insight that inspires creativity. But that creativity is human, not artificial.

At an AI conference, a very intelligent professor of computer science said, “There’s no aspect of human cognition that can’t be modeled on a machine.” At the next break, I sought him out to learn more. He explained his world view that humanity – the human mind – is essentially physical, part of the physical world, and therefore can be modeled. Yes, he explained, machines will gain the ability to make cinematic features when AI develops enough to mimic every function of the brain. I asked, does it follow that humans are essentially machines? Incredibly, he said, “Yes, that’s a fair statement of how I see it.”

I see it differently. Creativity takes judgment, and human judgment comes from each person’s uniqueness, and their interaction with other people’s uniquenesses, to create something with passion and imagination. Perhaps, like me, you believe that we are more than machines. We have a spirit, a soul if you will, that animates us and gives us the ability to create sculptures, novels, choreography, and advertising. No machine can ever replicate that.