How to Craft A More Interesting Agency Story

By Tim Williams

By Tim Williams

Since every agency on the planet is now apparently in the business of “brand storytelling,” perhaps it’s time for agencies to spend some time making their own stories more interesting and compelling.  Storytelling has catapulted onto the business stage because we’ve learned that stories are inherently more interesting to people than bullet-point lists of facts that populate so many agency websites.

Stories have been told since the dawn of human civilization; so much so that there have emerged seven basic plots that are used repeatedly, even by the great authors.  Rags to riches.  The quest. Journey and return.  Overcoming the monster.  Comedy.  Tragedy.  Rebirth.  These themes are almost hard-wired in the human psyche, which is why even Hollywood screenwriters follow these structures to tell their tales.

Stories also tend to use similar characters.  The mentor.  The shadow.  The guardian.  The hero.  The trickster.  The shapeshifter.  The herald.  These arearchetypes that run deep in the collective consciousness.

So how many agency stories have you seen that use the same techniques that make the books of Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling so compelling?  Probably not many, which is one more example of agencies not taking their own medicine.  We advocate using the principles of storytelling for our clients’ brands, but often default to “factual features” in our own brand communications.

A key ingredient of a good story: conflict

Part of the resistance to using true storytelling techniques is that it requires a level of candor and transparency that makes most firms uncomfortable. Central to a good story is conflict.  Setbacks.  Twists and turns that keep the reader wondering about the outcome.

What makes for a boring story?  One in which nothing interesting happens.  Events are all predictable.  There are only heros and no villains.  The makings of a box office bust.  Most agency websites are stellar examples of this kind of poor storytelling, because you can largely predict what the “About Us” page is going to say before you even read it:

“Founded in 1979 by Joe Spruce and Emily Pine, the Evergreen Agency creates integrated marketing solutions for leading clients …”

The first line of a good story should draw the reader in.  I recently visited a little store in Melbourne, Australia that sold framed book covers alongside just the first and last lines of famous books. “It was a pleasure to burn,” begins the book Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury.  That’s the kind of language that makes you want to read on.

A few progressive firms understand the power of a good story.  Here’s how the first line of “The Story of Our Company” begins for Toronto-based Teehan+Lax:

“That’s it. It’s over.”

This compelling agency story goes on to talk about Teehan+Lax was created in the darkest days of the dot-bust (not a great time to start an agency).  T+L then tells about the options they considered as a business strategy, how they named the company, the experience of outgrowing their space, debating whether to invest in new programs, and losing their largest client.  Plenty of conflict and lessons learned.  And an incredibly interesting agency story.  Told not in 500 words, but probably more like 5,000.

When agencies and other organizations insist on telling only a straightforward, sanitized version of their story, not only is it uninteresting, it’s often not even fully believable.  When you wax on about “experienced team,” “award-winning,” “best place to work,” it does nothing whatsoever to differentiate your firm.  Change the names and it could apply pretty well to another firm in another city.

If you want convey the idea that your company is smart and successful, show it, don’t just say it.  Tell the story of your success, not just the history of your firm.