I grew up in the professional world of news reporting as a television producer, investigative reporter and anchor. And never once, in decades, did I have to explain my function or what I did for a living. For about 25 years, there was a series of one-word answers, universally understood.
Today, I operate a news and brand storytelling business. We’re in the disruptive and transforming world of all-things-media. And, in this industry, the nomenclature regarding who we are and what we do has a lot more complexity.
Rooting Your Brand In Authentic Storytelling
When I left traditional media about a decade ago, in the midst of its brutal throes of disintermediation and financial calamity, it was because I believed, going forward, the greatest opportunities for storytelling would be anchored by major brands. There are a few base realities behind the thinking:
• The very thing gutting traditional media companies (digital, social) would become a massive opportunity for brands
• Brands stand to be the last bastion of truth
• Brands can now BE the media
• Brands can fund storytelling
• Brands can increase their own relevancy with key customers by distributing pertinent, curated news on their own
• Brands with the best stories will win
Perhaps, most importantly, there are real consequences for brands who screw it up and do not speak the truth. Because in today’s digital and social world, it’s hard to get away with talking one way and acting another.
Stated in the affirmative: There’s a real incentive for brands to tell stories truthfully. The “humanity” of a brand has never been more important. It doesn’t matter whether your company is a B2B, B2C or whether it’s just for internal communications: Credibility and connect-ability in storytelling is everything. But positioning that in a new marketplace isn’t easy. We’ve seen brands struggle mightily with their own storytelling — often because they cannot get out of their own way.
Finding Your Words
Back to our nomenclature problem: How do you properly describe your role in this changing world?
Through a series of digital startups I was involved with over the last several years, I witnessed more navel-gazing than I could stomach: “How do we refer to ourselves? Are we an advertising agency? A storytelling company? A PR firm? A public affairs group? A digital agency?” It was a semi-annual ritual.
What’s crazy is there seemed to be a problem with everything after the word “A.” Both the qualifiers and the subjects were problematic. It’s like there were no good words: “firm” “agency” “group” “bureau.” What the heck? Some of the companies I’ve been with resorted to publishing long lists of what they weren’t. It was maddening. We seemed to be wasting so much time.
I’ve come to believe it’s more about where you are than who you are at this particular point in time. For all practical purposes, the historically pre-determined societal/professional segmentation of PR, marketing, advertising, communications and journalism doesn’t seem to exist anymore. And “digital?” That’s just extraneous.
It’s been a long and arduous road, but we’ve mitigated the battle over “which box might we be placed in?” You can do this, too, by developing strong narratives around the benefits you drive.
Finding Your Identity
There are a few ways my team has come to articulate our value proposition and assess ourselves. We talk a lot less about “who we are” and “capabilities” and talk more about the kinds of problems we solve. It’s not that your planning and identity are not important, but one’s business can be a lot like one’s child: You give them birth, aim them, steer them at times and invest a lot. But in the end, they take on a life of their own.
We’ve begun to learn a lot by how our clients deploy us. Among the most interesting things we’re learning from our clients, is what’s happening with them. Because this environment we’re in is changing them, too. For example, while we’ve historically worked with marketing chiefs or communications leaders, we’re seeing that more “growth agents” — people charged with achieving specific business results — are becoming our most common clients. Sometimes they’re formally called “Growth Officers.” What’s clear: The people showing up most to apply the benefits we’re driving are people charged with moving specific needles. Growth is their primary metric.
And growth is the ultimate metric for any business — not that gamey CPM stuff (sorry, the actual problem is too many Ms). It’s not about “likes” or “followers.” At the end of the day, it’s about the ability to do the following well:
1. Know your audience: Where are they? What do they talk about? How do they talk about it? Why do they do so, and when?
2. Connect the dots: Marry your brand’s narrative with the audience intelligence you’ve tracked.
3. Create content they care about: Produce content that will most resonate with your audience — truthfully.
4. Know when they need you: Manage distribution in the moments of greatest impact.
The rise of the growth agents is game-changing. This disruptive transformation thing is everywhere.