Sagmeister and the ‘bullshit’ around storytelling

Stefan Sagmeister has vehemently dismissed the current vogue among creative types to label themselves ‘storytellers’ as ‘bullshit’.

In an uncharacteristically irascible interview for FITC, the organisers of the Camp festival in Calgary, Sagmeister attacks the urge for those in the communications industry to rush to re-assign themselves as storytellers, the theme of the conference. “Now everybody’s a storyteller,” he says, before dismissing the trend as “bullshit”

Some commenters on Vimeo, where the film was posted, disagreed, particularly with his definition of storytellers as only those who write novels or make movies.

Here, they have a point. Of course storytelling exists beyond those narrow confines, it always has. But I think Sagmeister’s thrust was directed more at the way that ‘storytelling’ has been latched onto by the advertising and marketing worlds to the extent that every corporate drone in chinos and a polo shirt is now spouting about it in their conference Powerpoint presentations.

It’s almost become as ubiquitously nonsensical as ‘content’, the misuse of which Gordon Comstock and Sell Sell railed against with great passion here.

At Cannes this year it seemed as though almost every session had a ‘storytelling’ theme as if this were some amazing new discovery. People like stories you say? Wow, amazing insight!

Perhaps some of these ‘thought leaders’ need to get their, er, stories straight. Here’s Mainardo De Nardis of OMD telling us that “Storytelling is the capacity to create and distribute content which is relevant for audiences across whatever platform” – it is? Wasn’t that ‘integrated’, or is that just what we were calling it two years ago? He also says that “without storytelling we go back to 30 second spots which is not the way our brains need to be communicated with to create real engagement”

And yet, at the same event, his peers on the jury were busy handing out award after award to this, a commercial (remember them?) that, in its form and content, could have been made at any time in the last 40 years (Solvite anyone?)

‘Storytelling’ has been at the heart of some of the greatest advertising campaigns. Like the famous BBH Levi’s ads were all about telling stories around some of the unique features of the product

Now we have online films with longer narratives about brands, their users and their community. And we have new, powerful tools to tell stories in multifaceted ways. Storytelling is universal and as old as the human race. But that doesn’t mean we are all storytellers in everything we do.

In the film, Sagmeister rages about a rollercoaster designer who referred to himself as a storyteller: “No fuckhead, you are not a storyteller, you’re a rollercoaster designer!” Being a rollercoaster designer sounds a pretty cool job – surely that’s enough? Why the need to dress it up as something else?

This, I think, is the crux of the matter. The ad industry is searching for a role for itself in a communications world that has become very complex. The old certainties no longer apply. It has leaped on ‘Storytelling’ as a means of defining what it offers that none of the data geeks or algorithms can.

So thank goodness for Sagmeister for puncturing this particular bullshit bubble with such alacrity. Of course it helps if you’ve got something interesting to say about your product or organisation, of course telling a powerful story will stick in people’s minds and make them feel positive toward you. Yes, we now have lots of different ways to tell such stories. Didn’t we know all this already?

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of conference bollocks, can we please all stop saying “learnings’?

What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

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