Telling Stories

February 2016

The imitation game | Loser part II

Charles Caleb Colton said “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Umberto Eco said “every story tells a story that has already been told”. Pablo Picasso said “good artists borrow, great artists steal”.

Milli Vanilli did exactly that (they stole voices, in fact), although I don’t think they’ve gone into the history books as great artists, and people who blatantly half-inch your creative ideas probably won’t either.

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Close David Thompson | February 2016

The imitation game | Loser part II

Charles Caleb Colton said “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Umberto Eco said “every story tells a story that has already been told”. Pablo Picasso said “good artists borrow, great artists steal”.

Milli Vanilli did exactly that (they stole voices, in fact), although I don’t think they’ve gone into the history books as great artists, and people who blatantly half-inch your creative ideas probably won’t either.

I wrote about our experience of losing a credentials pitch several months ago in this very section (have a read if you’ve got the time), and the disappointment of putting so much effort into a client that we knew we could make a big difference for, but in the end it wasn’t to be.

Little did I anticipate that the feeling of disappointment would turn to a feeling of injustice though, now that the brand project we missed out on has recently been launched… and ouch, it’s like a poke in the eye.

I know what you’re thinking, this is just another rant from a sore loser, and it is… a rant I mean, but not necessarily from a sore loser. In a way we are winners here; we ended up contributing to the resultant project anyway, without lifting a finger.

That would be an impressive feat if it wasn’t for the fact that said client and the ‘winning’ agency took a large dose of inspiration from a previously launched brand project we had talked them through (as part of our credentials pitch).

Because this is what we do in a creds pitches – we get a handle on a business’s problem and demonstrate how we’ve solved similar-ish problems in order to convince the client of our ability to take on the challenge.

The prospective client was impressed, “I like that” he exclaimed as we showed him the idea and how it worked to communicate a difficult technological solution in a very simple and engaging way (making difficult things look simple is usually very difficult).

He must have liked it an awful lot, because now he’s using it!

Or a big part of it anyway. But actually he’s not using it, he didn’t get it at all. It’s a graphic style that has some relevance to his business, but it isn’t telling their customers anything, it’s not highlighting their strengths, it’s not showing-off their skills, or services, or intelligence, or determination… it’s just there, existing for it’s own sake… blandly, and obviously – a watered down version.

So it’s a very poor interpretation of our original idea, and that’s almost more annoying than being ripped-off. As Pablo suggested, if you’re going to steal – at least do a great job of it.

But what about the designers who ‘created’ the work? I haven’t mentioned them yet, why am I pushing my ire on to the client and letting the designers off the hook?

Well, I know that the client has seen our work, but I don’t know for sure that the designers have – so maybe I should give them the benefit of the doubt. There are many ways in which similar work can be created, I’m sure we ourselves have unwittingly created work that has a similar idea to something created before. Like Umberto said,“every story tells a story that has already been told”.

Maybe the client suggested the idea without even realising that they had seen it somewhere before, we all do it I suppose.

Perhaps the designers were struggling with a very difficult brief (it was very difficult) and were happy/relieved for the input from the client when it arrived.

This stuff happens in our world. It’s not worth calling our solicitors about, it’s not worth worrying our own clients about, and it’s certainly not worth picking up the phone to the designers either… I guess that they’ll not be feeling much pride about their/our achievements anyway.

I also imagine that in the near future they’ll be rethinking their solution anyway, because it won’t help them solve their problem… If they even know what their problem is.

That was a proper rant actually – I feel better now, thanks.

 

 

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October 2015

Telling porkies

While driving through a street with a friend, each bar we passed was followed by “Remember when…? Yeah, that was rubbish”. The street felt like a graveyard of disappointing nights out. Everything looked great from the outside, but always fell short of the mark. The gulf between fancy furniture and not quite cooked chips was just too wide…

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Close Alice Worthington | October 2015

Telling porkies

While driving through a street with a friend, each bar we passed was followed by “Remember when…? Yeah, that was rubbish”. The street felt like a graveyard of disappointing nights out. Everything looked great from the outside, but always fell short of the mark. The gulf between fancy furniture and not quite cooked chips was just too wide.

We’d long since found a scruffier street to go out on, and stopped feeling like we had anything to complain about. Had everything just been too sparkly for its own good? Can it really be considered a problem if a brand is “too good” for what’s being sold?

In a perfect world, every company’s branding would be broadcasting what they do well, without fibbing. When branding tells the truth, it helps people find what they like faster and saves companies from the ire of customers who were never really after what was on offer to begin with. “That’s exactly what I’m into” customers would swoon (potentially subconsciously) before falling into the pub of their dreams. Managers would gloat over pages of loving comments on social media as they divvied up the wads of cash tips. For companies and consumers, branding should be the ultimate matchmaking service. But when a brand is punching above its weight, customers are left feeling cheated.

It’s debatable how much of a problem this is for the companies in question. On a busy street where you’re trying to steal foot traffic from your neighbour, being eye catching is always going to help. If you’re not relying on return trade, it could work in your favour. But broken promises annoy people. “This looked great, and it wasn’t” is always going to leave a bad taste in the mouth and you can safely assume those customers won’t be back with friends.

Designers can’t control whether their clients are doing a good job or not, but making an effort to find out about a business, product, service and the people who make it work (the research) should quash the need to make anything up. Being creative is one thing, but being creative with the truth is another – where misleading and inappropriate branding will only lead to problems further down the line. Any designer would find it difficult to create an enticing (and honest) brand when the gospel truth is “we’re super trendy, but you might get Salmonella”.

Branding should reflect the promise and can only be as successful as the business, product or service allows it to be. So when branding aims high, it’s even more important for a product to keep up its end of the relationship.

 

 

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August 2015

Loser

In the last eighteen months we’ve been fortunate enough to win every credentials pitch which we’ve taken part in. Reading that back, it does sound impressive and also perhaps a little bit boastful (for us), but our progress certainly hasn’t been a cake-walk and there’s several reasons why we’ve being doing pretty well.

Firstly, we don’t do many pitches really, perhaps seven or eight per year on average…

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Close David Thompson | August 2015

Loser

In the last eighteen months we’ve been fortunate enough to win every credentials pitch which we’ve taken part in. Reading that back, it does sound impressive and also perhaps a little bit boastful (for us), but our progress certainly hasn’t been a cake-walk and there’s several reasons why we’ve being doing pretty well.

Firstly, we don’t do many pitches really, perhaps seven or eight per year on average. In many respects we’re a relatively young company, we don’t aggressively target potential new clients and our growth so far has relied mainly on recommendation and word-of-mouth. We like the romantic idea that producing good work will attract good clients.

So we don’t chase the numbers and we aren’t happy to adopt a one in three mentality, meaning we can commit quality time and effort into a new pitch opportunity because if it’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing your best.

Secondly, we’re quite choosy about the projects that come our way. We’ll listen to opportunities, do a bit of research on the people and the challenges of the company in question, and do a lot of chatting before we decide whether they would be a good fit for us and ‘the thing we do’. As we progress, we’re finding that there is a certain personality and ethos in a business which we are really attracted to, and in turn – the feelings are often mutual.

Finally, having the right ‘fit’ with a potential client’s personality doesn’t mean that we need to have had much (or any) past experience in their particular line of work. We are constantly looking for, and thrive on, new challenges – we don’t want to pigeonhole ourselves into a certain type of work and we absolutely do not want to be seen as ‘market experts’… if you’ve been there and done it, time and again, you’re less likely to bring anything new, fresh or surprising to the table.

So, if we’ve not got too much on our plate already and the timing is right, if the personality of the business fits with the way we see the world (as people), and if there’s a really toothy problem to solve – we’ll jump in with both feet.

The caveat to all of the above is that we don’t participate in creative pitches, but that’s a different conversation all together.

Why are we losers?..

Well, we’ve just lost one…. a pitch I mean. We’re pretty philosophical about the competitive nature of what we do, lovers rather than fighters, that kind of thing. But, it’s not an enjoyable feeling to lose out on a project that you’ve put so much effort into. Perhaps this is why a lot of agencies take a pragmatic approach, play the percentage game and don’t get too tied-up in the emotion of it.

But we’re emotional people, and we don’t like the feeling at all.

Why did we lose?..

After some very attentive and well-considered feedback, in the end it came down to not having sufficient market sector experience and being pipped to the post by a competitor who had (more) experience in the client’s sector – and of course we sent our heart-felt congratulations to the winners, as it’s nice to be nice after all.

So whereas recently we’d been winning work based upon our fresh approach and our overt commitment to new challenges and new ways of approaching those challenges, our ethos became a bit of a barrier in this instance (for this potential client anyway).

We respect their decision even if we don’t really agree with the reasoning. We don’t agree because we can apply our approach and thinking to any brand and comms challenge, developing our knowledge by using thorough research combined with our own creative intuition to become (in a small way) experts in each market sector we explore.

And don’t get me started on all this B2B marketing nonsense. Businesses are run by and for real people, not machines – so why would the people in a company who construct oil rigs be any less emotional than the people in a company who sells flowers? People are people, you’ve just got to get under their skin and find our what makes them tick, whether that’s the aroma of crude oil or fresh lilies.

Anyway, I digress.

I suppose this is me making myself feel better by writing about our loss, like some unrequited love. We could have been great together, I know we’d have enjoyed a great adventure and perhaps a really prosperous long-term relationship, but alas, it wasn’t to be.

Yes, there’s plenty more fish in the sea – but we’ll miss the one that got away.

 

 

 

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May 2015

Persistence, endurance & deliverance

Recently I’ve been thinking about the time and effort that it takes to make a brand project happen… and when I say ‘make happen’, I mean get it out there, living and breathing in the real world and not just sitting in a beautifully presented document in your client’s office.

On the one hand, time is usually against us. We have the urgency to complete a job once the button has been pressed to avoid the cost of delay (which costs)…

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Close David Thompson | May 2015

Persistence, endurance & deliverance

Recently I’ve been thinking about the time and effort that it takes to make a brand project happen… and when I say ‘make happen’, I mean get it out there, living and breathing in the real world and not just sitting in a beautifully presented document in your client’s office.

On the one hand, time is usually against us. We have the urgency to complete a job once the button has been pressed to avoid the cost of delay (which costs). There’s also budgets to meet (we’re a time recovery business after all) and the reality that there’s only so many hours to be squeezed out of the working day. In the end, whatever you do to earn a living – we all tread a fine line between burning the midnight oil and burning yourself out completely.

On the other hand, I’ve always felt the need to submerse myself in a client’s problem and take my time to get under the skin of it. The ‘business’ of managing the process; meeting, scheduling, researching, creating, planning and implementing – all take time. Even the time away from our desk is golden. Thinking about a job while washing the dishes, walking the dog (which we do a lot) or the old cliché of simply ‘sleeping on it’ can really help my subconscious mind to get to grips with a problem. Although I wish that I woke up with the answer a bit more often than is actually the case.

Although simply giving yourself more time doesn’t always lead to a Eureka moment, and we can’t always afford it – but for me, it helps. This isn’t a particularly dynamic observation of my working process, it isn’t cool or profitable to admit that you need more time, but there it is, I stopped trying to be cool (or rich) a long time ago.

And in terms of a brand project, having too much time can be dangerous for a whole host or reasons. It allows room to stray from the path, it allows doubts to creep in, stakeholders to lose focus and chip away at the big idea. So, how do we defend against and manage not just the monetary cost of delay, but the emotional cost of delay too?

I’ve boiled it down to three things…

Persistence

In late 2010 I visited Liverpool to hear Michael Wolff’s D&AD talk on ‘Branding The City’. There was a Q&A at the end of the talk, and amongst a distinguished group of design peers I plucked up the courage to ask Michael a question which was roughly along the lines of; With the current state of the economic climate [which was pretty bad at the time], how can we convince clients to continue investing in their brand?” I asked this because in tough economic conditions, usually the first thing to be cut-back is marketing and comms.

At the time, his answer confused me. He said that “in order to convince clients that they should invest in your ideas, you need to keep talking to them until they see your point of view”.

‘Just keep talking’… I didn’t get it then, but after running our own business for a few years since, I do now. He was talking about persistence, and staying true to your vision despite the obstacles that are put before you. If at first you don’t succeed, try again – and keep trying.

Endurance

Allowing more time for the conversation can be beneficial, if you persist and keep sight of your original aims. So you keep talking, discussing, defending, justifying… But what about your own motivation? This is where many a creative battle has been lost; the danger in increasing the length of a conversation is that it opens up the opportunity to dilute the conversation too.

Being able to stick to your guns, regularly reminding yourself of the strength and purity of a singular proposition, and not allowing anything to be diluted through round upon round of conversation  and deliberation. The more stakeholders are involved, the more opinions that are heard, the more likely you are to need that endurance to stick to the path.

Deliverance

Finally, once persistence and endurance have put you in a position to realise your vision (and God knows it can be a herculean effort to get to this point) – you’ll need to summon-up one last push to deliver the project with the same enthusiasm as when it was first conceived, which could have been quite a long time ago. They say ideas are cheap and it’s action that counts in the end, so after all the hustling, cajoling and corralling, it’s time to make sure you finish the job as well as possible and make all the hard work worth while.

Ultimately, our time is divided by persistence, endurance and deliverance – and then if it’s all worked-out, maybe a few drinks in the pub.

 

 

 

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February 2015

Standing the test of time

I’ve just finished reading Autobiography by Morrissey which, somewhat controversially, was catapulted directly into the Penguin Classics range to sit alongside formidable stablemates such as The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin to name a few.

As a result of this bold move, I assume that both Penguin Books and ʻMozzerʼ must think very highly of the book.

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Close Story by David Thompson | February 2015

Standing the test of time

I’ve just finished reading Autobiography by Morrissey which, somewhat controversially, was catapulted directly into the Penguin Classics range to sit alongside formidable stablemates such as The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë and The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin to name a few.

As a result of this bold move, I assume that both Penguin Books and ʻMozzerʼ must think very highly of the book.

I don’t really want to get into the pros and cons of the book, or even talk about whether I think it merits the instant praise and adulation that his writing must surely deserve after such a meteoric rise into the ranks of a bonafide ʻclassicʼ.

But a small part of it really struck a cord with an area of work weʼve being doing quite a lot of lately – namely, naming. Hereʼs the bit Iʼm referring to, where Morrissey recounts how they decided on a name for the band he fronted at the time:

“I suggest to Johnny that we call ourselves the Smiths, and he agrees. Neither of us can come up with anything else. It strikes me that the Smiths name lacks any settled association on face value, yet could also suit a presentation of virtually any style of music. It sounded like a timeless name, unlikely to date, and unlikely to glue itself to come-and-go movements.”

Naming is pretty hard work, not in the sense of ‘realʼ hard work where people lift heavy objects or are rushed-off their feet all day, but for a cosseted creative whoʼs life becomes unbearable if their coffee isnʼt the exact Pantone swatch colour they asked for (mineʼs a P730 by the way) – itʼs one of the toughest jobs weʼre asked to do.

The thing I like about Morrissey is that he understands the value of a timeless approach. Itʼs something we try to achieve here by avoiding transient fashion trends to hopefully create work which remains relevant and appropriate for a very long time.

Now, this is where it gets difficult because we donʼt have a crystal ball, we donʼt consume the latest 10 year trend reports, and only time itself can tell us whether we achieve our aims.

So it should be no surprise that one of our biggest heroes is the great American designer, Paul Rand, who was a master of timeless design. His work was always simple and reductive but at the same time, also very intelligent and emotional.

Now I don’t know whether Paul Rand had ever heard of, or listened to the Smiths before his passing in 1996, but I’m sure he’d appreciate the same qualities behind the bandʼs name, which was ultimately designed to stand the test of time.

 

 

 

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December 2014

Joining the flock

I’m only just starting out in my career after studying illustration at Falmouth University and then completing a graphic design course at Shillington College, right here in Manchester. Before I arrived at Telling Stories, I’d been given plenty of advice about ‘What to expect from a design internship’. Despite reassurances from friends that everyone loved their internships…

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Close Story by Alice Worthington | December 2014

Joining the flock

I’m only just starting out in my career after studying illustration at Falmouth University and then completing a graphic design course at Shillington College, right here in Manchester. Before I arrived at Telling Stories, I’d been given plenty of advice about ‘What to expect from a design internship’. Despite reassurances from friends that everyone loved their internships, the general consensus was that this would be the most stressful experience I’d ever had. I was told I would be crushed by deadlines and work all hours for little pay, or even no pay at all.

If you really want a job at the end of it, an internship will never be a relaxing experience – but fortunately mine bore no resemblance to the horror stories.

Faye and David were very concerned that I do things ‘properly and helped me get to grips with day-to-day jobs. When it came to creative work, they didn’t actually expect me to churn it out at lightning speed. Instead, I was asked (very consistently) to ‘make it more clever’. I soon learned that this can be just as daunting as ‘do it faster. But between a lot of head scratching, I found it’s possible to think of something new, hours after you’ve privately decided you are definitely out of ideas.

This feedback didn’t just apply to visual design. Having spent much of my time at college glued to Photoshop and InDesign, I was also surprised at the amount of time spent on words and ideas. Before setting foot in Telling Stories I’d admired their use of copy ideas, so perhaps I should have foreseen the hours and hours I’d spend on thesaurus.com trying to find that perfect turn of phrase. The mass of neon post-it notes that creep across the wall during a naming project can get pretty dazzling.

Another big difference from college was sharing projects – it seems an obvious way to work in a studio, but I wasn’t used to handing over work to be finished by someone else, or being given someone else’s idea to have a crack at. But two – or more – heads are better than one, and it’s always interesting to see how different people approach the same problem.

I’ve had a great first year at Telling Stories. Being part of a design studio that’s so ideas focused has made me appreciate different types of work, and realise what an impact well thought out design can have.

 

 

 

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October 2014

A bunch of charlatans

A lively conversation in the creative community was sparked after the world renowned designer, Stefan Sagmeister, was asked to comment on the current and rapidly increasing use of the term ‘storytelling’.

“Now everybody’s a storyteller,” he said, before going on to describe the trend as “bullshit”. You can read Patrick Burgoyne’s take on Sagmeister’s opinions and watch the interview itself on Creative Review’s site.

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Close Story by David Thompson | October 2014

A bunch of charlatans

A lively conversation in the creative community was sparked after the world renowned designer, Stefan Sagmeister, was asked to comment on the current and rapidly increasing use of the term ‘storytelling’.

“Now everybody’s a storyteller,” he said, before going on to describe the trend as “bullshit”. You can read Patrick Burgoyne’s take on Sagmeister’s opinions and watch the interview itself on Creative Review’s site.

Imagine the embarrassment for us? We’ve been telling stories for approaching four years and although we’re acutely aware of the terms increasing use around us, we always thought that it pretty much summed up what we did, and clients’ have always commented on how well it fits what we do for them.

So being the kind of people who question everything around us most of the time, from big decisions about brand strategy to little decisions about what we’d like for lunch… we now find ourselves questioning our own name (thanks to Stefan).

The thing is, he’s right… 100% right. The term is being thrown around like it’s going out of fashion, and I can understand why too. It works, it’s accessible, people just get it. It’s so simple isn’t it? Nothing about leveraging brand values, nothing about integrated marketing campaigns, nothing about digital this or technical that… We can all understand stories because we’re spoon-fed them from birth. From Little Red Riding Hood to the Bible and everything in between, they’re everywhere, and people love them.

So why did we come up with this name anyway? This name that’s now getting a rough ride from creative peers we really like and respect? They say it makes you feel better when you write stuff down, so here goes:

1. We couldn’t use our surname as there’s already a really good brand design company called Thompson Brand Partners – and I should know because I worked there for several years (although I’m not related).

2. Hatching my plan for world domination over the years, I always liked the idea of referencing Magpies as they’re a strong part of my heritage from growing up in the North East, and they’re known for stealing shiny things – which I didn’t do but liked the reference to collecting interesting stuff. Anyway, that idea was blown out of the water when this bunch of very talented folk got there first… www.magpie-studio.com

3. We wanted a name that gave us something to hang our hat on, something to give our clients an idea of what we do without being too obvious. Of course, the flip-side is that there are big positives to using a name which doesn’t mean anything at all – you can be whatever you want with a shift in flavour every now and then.

But knowing all of this, we were still driven to use an idea and think of a name that meant something to us, and putting aside the physical/digital manifestations of what we do – the most important thing we sell is ideas.

4. Myself and Faye have always approached communication in a way where the viewer/audience can enjoy a steadily unfolding idea, quite often using wordplay. Expressing a single idea but using playful permutations – our ChicSeats project is probably a good example of this.

5. Finally, in my younger teenage years I had a girlfriend who was originally from Manchester, and so I was introduced to the Mancunian music stable which included the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays and the Charlatans. While my mates were listing to Vanilla Ice and New Kids on the Block, these bands were a prominent feature on our homemade BASF mix-tapes and I particularly liked the Charlatans – probably because they seemed very exotic with their floppy hair cuts and baggy jeans.

By the time I went to University in Leeds I still really liked their music which had become a bit more toothy as they tried to keep up with Britpop and the guitar band genre of the time (Oasis, Blur, etc). Anyway, one of my favourite songs to drunkenly sway along to was Tellin’ Stories and it always takes me back to a time when the world seemed very, very big…

If you’re still with us after a brief history of my questionable music tastes – the point I’m trying to make is that naming is probably the most difficult job we’re asked to do. Choosing ours was no exception, but calling ourselves Telling Stories just felt right for us and what we’re about.

And when it’s right, it’s right.

 

 

 

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