Storynomics, the Book: Truth in Marketing?

After several years of teaching a one-day seminar on “story-driven marketing,” screenplay writing coach Robert McKee (together with digital marketer Thomas Gerace) has just published a book: Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post Advertising World (Hachette Book Group, $19.49 on Amazon.com).

The essence of the book is the application of McKee’s model of Hollywood film plot development to marketing. The model, explained initially in McKee’s 1997 book Story and repeated in Storynomics, is that the plot begins when an inciting incident throws the protagonist’s life out of balance. To restore balance, the protagonist undertakes a quest for an object of desire. The movie depicts the quest, in the face of numerous obstacles, usually of increasing difficulty, to grasp the object of desire. The plot culminates when the quest is fulfilled or fails.

McKee and Gerace recognize two major differences between plot dynamics in Hollywood films and marketing. Unlike film, in which witnessing the film is an end in itself, marketing is purpose-driven. The objective of a marketing campaign is to have the audience re-enact the experience by buying the product again and again. Second, a standard two hour movie provides lots of scope for the development of complex plots containing many challenges and turning points. Marketing films, however, last no more than a minute if broadcasted and no more than five minutes if posted online, and necessarily must be simpler, with at most two challenges or turning points.

The post-advertising world referred to in the subtitle is the idea that, with the decline of network television and growth of online broad- and narrow-casting, traditional broadcast advertising is being replaced by online marketing.

In addition to the exposition of the theory of Hollywood plot dynamics (McKee’s contribution) and marketing trends (Gerace’s), a dozen or so examples of effective ads and marketing campaigns are discussed, as well as one or two failures. These can be found on the resources page on the Storynomics website.

Mark Twain once said “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Twain’s point is absolutely relevant to “purpose-driven” narratives. The last three words of the book are “write the truth,” the slogan McKee uses in the courses on screenwriting for which he has achieved some renown. In this context, “write the truth” really means “write your truth,” an admonition to the aspiring screen-writer, especially of fiction, to produce a story that personally rings true.

Truth in marketing is a different matter. McKee and Gerace advise creators of story-based marketing content to adopt the corporation’s stated values as those driving their stories. The problem, however, is that corporations are complex organizations, and at any given time, some aspect of the corporation’s behavior may not reflect its values. Recent examples are Facebook and Volkswagen. Using the emotional power of stories to promote values corporations may spectacularly dishonor negates the credo of writing the truth.

Co-authoring is challenging, especially when the authors have differing points of view. McKee makes clear in his Storynomics seminar and in this book that he prefers storytelling to what he calls “rational communication” as a mode of persuasion. He is a critic of quantitative evidence-based appeals, particularly when embodied in a Powerpoint deck. But Gerace is a proponent of that approach. As a result, this book has a stitched-together feel. McKee has written the parts expositing his model of Hollywood storytelling and Gerace the evidence-based parts about marketing and they don’t combine seamlessly.

Finally, and this perhaps is a quibble, the book’s charts and tables are deficient. The authors have not followed the standard practice of numbering them and calling them out in the text. What is more frustrating is that the print in many tables is so small as to be almost illegible.

What is my overall assessment of Storynomics, the book? It is written primarily for marketers, and I am not a marketer. It seems to me that story-based marketing is a valuable form of marketing in addition to other approaches, but I would be interested in what marketers think.

I approach this book as a student of narrative (a word McKee hates). I think McKee’s exposition of traditional Hollywood-style plot development is valuable and relevant to quite a few Hollywood movies. That said, I think he pushes his approach too far and can be reductionist and Procrustean. Not all movies and other forms of narratives fit his framework. Documentaries are most likely not to fit. Not all story-based marketing fits his framework. (I have given examples of other effective ads that don’t quite fit the framework in a previous post dated March 24, 2016 about the Storynomics seminar.) Indeed, it isn’t clear to me that all of the ads included on the resources page of the Storynomics website fit that framework.

This brings me to a final question. Now that you can read McKee’s story in a book retailing for $20 US does it make sense to hear him deliver his story live in a seminar for $649 US? (Following the publication of his book he will be giving seminars in Washington, New York, Moscow, Beijing, and Boston in the next few weeks). If the one I attended in New York four years ago is any indication, the “seminar” is more likely to have 200 participants than 20. If you want the concepts, the seminar, supplemented by watching the ads on the resources page, is sufficient. At the seminar, McKee will likely show some other ads and discuss them at length. You may also make useful contacts with other participants in the seminar. If your employer has the resources available and you have the time, you might want to attend.

Take it or leave it, for better or worse – I’ve written my truth.

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