The Mad Man’s dream has run dry

Research proves that while mass media may be good at starting conversations, the power to change behaviour lies with the conversations themselves, writes Story Worldwide’s Jon King.

Jon King
Jon King, Story Worldwide

More than 50 years ago, an intellectual fight broke out between two radically different conceptions of how marketing influences people. Ever since, heavyweight media has slugged it out against the dancing butterfly of people power. Today, the big guy is on the ropes.

On one side is the notion, so brilliantly described in Vance Packard’s seminal work of 1957, The Hidden Persuaders, that mass media has almost magical powers to create and manipulate our desires by tapping into fundamental human triggers. It’s a meme that’s deeply embedded in our culture, from author Philip K Dick to the Occupy movement.

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In the other corner we have Lazarsfeld and Katz’ canonical opus of 1956 – Personal Influence – which says that while big media may be good at starting conversations, what really matters is those conversations themselves. It seems obvious: the things people share and have conversations about have eager audiences of primed listeners who are highly likely to take action on the recommendations of people they trust.

In short, as media studies and audience research have found for 80 years, mass media doesn’t influence behaviour, conversations do. The revolution we are witnessing in media is this simple: the conversations have become mass media.

It’s a less easily boostable marketing premise, as it depends on brands and agencies focusing on what audiences need and want instead of just on what brands are adamant to broadcast. Agencies built on brand-centric broadcasting and message control have been understandably sniffy about all this. And, besides, the $500bn traditional advertising industry continues to work in some ways, if you can afford it. But the old ways are expensive and inefficient, and the case for the power of mass media is becoming increasingly quaint.

End of the trad-ad programme

Why? Consumers aren’t so biddable anymore, especially millennials. A simultaneous collapse of societal passivity, the balkanisation of dreams, and a tsunami of new technologies, especially on the web and mobile, has crashed the trad-ad programme. Waves of recent research prove Katz and Lazarsfeld have won the argument.

As quoted in the Harvard Business Review recently, Jacques Bughin and David Edelman of McKinsey & Company predict: “The need for relevance will drive consumer demand and shape advertising supply. There will be billions of interaction points that will place enormous demands on brands to create and deliver just the right piece of content.”

Nielsen research in 2012 asked consumers: What media do you trust? What most influences purchase decisions? The top answers were:

1. People you know.

2. People’s opinions posted online.

3. Editorial (content).

4. Websites.

5. “Emails I signed up for”.

Working these insights is what we do and they are the motor of successful content advertising campaigns. A client said to me the other day: “You do that Obama stuff, right?” I said: “Ye-es, we do that kind of thing…Paid, owned and earned media is us, but (sadly) Obama’s re-election wasn’t our work.” But it showed how the content message is getting over: a brilliant US election campaign built on persuasive content, a deeper-than-surface understanding of the Facebook API and the power of personal networks can elect a president, trouncing old-school media.

WGN America

Story has its own case studies that prove what we do works. Our work for WGN America promoting the TV show How I Met Your Mother is an incredible success. It inspired massive engagement, with Facebook’s people talking about this (PTAT) scores typically more than 13 per cent, 25 times greater than the average sub-1 per cent PTAT on branded sites.

It has built a community that just passed the 2 million mark and has generated more than 70 million hits over six months.

And this Super Bowl-sized audience and all this sustained engagement has sprung from a base of only 25 “Superfans”.

It has also been fuelled by a budget that would never have funded even a single Super Bowl ad for 30 seconds. Better still, there has been incredible return on investment, lifting WGN’s Nielsen ratings by over 10 per cent.

The best ads are no longer ads

As Ronda Carnegie, head of global partnerships at TED, says: “The best ads are excellent content – driven by ideas. Culturally relevant content with strong storytelling has the power to spark change, raise awareness, and communicate new ways of thinking.”

Today, everyone, even networks, is talking about the power of stories. Today, great advertising is about brilliant paid, owned and earned campaigns that drive ongoing, editorially rich, socially fuelled content programmes.

Therefore it is surely better to hire agencies with people who already understand what makes a great story and have made lives from producing content audiences care about : journalists, writers, musicians, comedians and artists.

The hero’s journey – the great meta-narrative that scholars have discovered uniting all storytelling in all cultures – is never undertaken by a Mad Man.

Client advisory:

  • A real story isn’t product placement.
  • A real story isn’t talking about the history of your brand (with a few noble exceptions like Jack Daniel’s).
  • A real story isn’t a PR-originated stunt or event that’s boosted over social media: this is just broadcasting in short trousers.
  • A real story embodies the brand to provide an overarching communications platform which delivers a narrative arc with integrated, consistent, emotionally rewarding content through all media, everywhere, all the time. Delivering $100m of impact with $1m spend.

Story’s advice:

  • Emotionally engaging stories deliver a disproportionate share of an audience’s attention.
  • Influence influencers by creating contagious content which audiences care about and want to share.
  • A great story reaches the parts other advertising cannot reach.

Jon King

Story Worldwide
91-94 Saffron Hill

T 020 7492 9703



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