The deep past and wild future of words & pictures
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." – Joan Didion
In the beginning was the word, and it was good. There was also the image, and it too was good. Each was good at telling stories, at doing what every one of us is forever doing with a fervor: making meaning.
But not good enough. Not for brands and marketers. Not on their own. So the wordsmiths and the designers moved in together and had a family, a family of storytellers using words and images to make meaning. And the fruits of their labors were so sweet and tempting they made more than meaning. They made desires. Whole orchards of desire took root across the land, and so the storytellers also were fruitful, and multiplied, across ad agencies, brand consultancies, and marketing firms.
Joan Didion penned her famous quote in 1967, smack dab in the cultural moment when admen and marketing mavens were discovering the power of tearing down the walls between the art studio and the copy room. It was the storytelling equivalent of splitting the atom, as the fissionable material of a few well-chosen words and just the right picture could lay to waste the defenses of stingy savers and purse-minders from Peoria to Peking.
Let’s look at the lab where that atom got split. Two people are pacing, sitting to draw or write, gesticulating wildly and then stopping to think. The sky outside grows dark, but their bulbs are burning. They are wrapped up in a conversation. That conversation is a story being spun. That story, and scores of others with the same genesis, are changing the world—little by little but undeniably.
Cultural moments lasted a little longer then, and stories blew like seeds on the wind, taking time to disseminate. The powerful stories that capitalism started to weave in those artistic engine rooms blew through border crossings and under the radar, literally. We watched the dominoes fall in the battle for hearts and minds. The Me Decade. The New Age. The opening of China in the 1970s. The fall of the Berlin Wall. Powerful forces tottered like wisps once the stories emanating from Madison Avenue and Malibu became so compelling.
It wasn’t the products that people were buying. Or, more accurately, every product was a bonus that came free with an idea. And stories are how those ideas and those products get tied together in people’s minds. Stories are the ligaments linking notions of freedom and happiness to particular products. Without stories, we are simply drinking soda or putting on a pair of shoes to protect our soft soles: so what. But add the story, and we are teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony, opening (to) happiness every time we drink a Coke. We are overcoming every negative voice in our head and the world at large to reclaim the power of our athletic bodies every time we just do it and lace up the Nikes to go for a jog.
The revolution will be tweeted
And then one day there appeared in the land a magic box, filled with pictures and words and sounds. And it allowed everyone to talk to each other, to broadcast to the world. The conversation that started when the designers and the wordsmiths began cohabitating was no longer a hidden dialogue they had before delivering their story to a waiting world. Now the world was in the room with them. The wall separating artist from copy whiz was nothing compared to the walls that crumbled when the Internet came of age.
Now everybody everywhere is talking to everybody else all the time, and the sound of the world in the ear of the creative writer or artist has gone from a whisper to a scream. We need to learn to join conversations that we can’t always control.
Meanwhile storytelling has come completely unmoored from its linear structure and is now happening all around us. Audiences encounter pieces of what your brand means everywhere they turn—at the point of purchase, on a Facebook app, in a product placement, and through their Twitter feed. The stories we creatives want to tell have never had to be so consistent yet so nimble and flexible, making meaning happen across a dizzying array of traditional and new media, echoing in time and space just in time for someone to hear it, and be moved.
This revolution in human communication and meaning-making has been brought to you by capitalism, no question. But where is it headed?
Capitalism has endured not just because it’s a good way to get products into people’s pantries, though that’s no small feat. Capitalism feeds our appetites, but it also inspires our imaginations, sending blue jeans, Zippo lighters, and rock n’ roll through the Berlin Wall, and sending Air Jordans and hip hop into the nooks and crannies of rough streets where poor kids latched onto the dreams at the heart of the products.
As creative professionals, we can align ourselves with the selling of the widget, the shifting of the unit. Or we can unify around moving ideas. It’s ideas, after all, that change the world. If you get that right, the bump in sales is the easy part.
The first brand idea
We like to use the phrase “in our DNA” a lot when referring to various attributes of organizations. It’s become a marketing mantra—and sometimes it’s even true. But what really is in our DNA is storytelling, making meaning from the raw materials of words and pictures. We’ve seen some of our forebears’ first ads, on the walls of the caves of Lascaux, in the pictograms of the Mayans and the hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt.
We should strive for nothing less totally and essentially human, every time we collaborate to help create a brand.
Picture yourself huddled in the shadows, watching the images flicker in the firelight, depicting the hunt that saw the tribe through another season. And the paintings alone could only convey so much without someone standing by the fire animating them with words, primitive though they may have been.
The words and pictures combined in that cave were not just about bone and blood. They told a story that connected the meat and the pelts—the products of the hunt—to a really profound idea: We will live, and thrive.