I am in a virtual room with 30 mustard-keen media types aged between 20–35. Generations Y and Z being addressed by Gen X (a moniker far more youthful than telling everyone I was born in the same year The Beatles’ White Album was released).
We’re here to discuss creativity, and how to incorporate storytelling skills so their work will resonate more strongly. This is a global consumer company renowned for its brilliant advertising and marketing; you’ll know all of their brands and what they stand for.
The problem they face — not unique — is that everyone has short attention spans, so many tasks and so little time that they need help in how they communicate. And today a journalist-turned-trainer is here to digitally sprinkle some storytelling magic dust.
Things, as ever, are going brilliantly. They’re captivated by tales of the newsroom, the mindset, process, pain and glory, the way journalism works. I then talk of my years at the Daily Mail where I was lucky enough to work for and with brilliant journalists whose talent I’ll always envy.
‘Well I’m not sure that’s right for us,’ someone says (neat beard, frayed t-shirt, earpods, guitar ostentatiously placed in screenshot).
‘What’s not right?’ I ask.
‘The Daily Mail, I never read it anyway.’
‘Thanks, I used to work there. Why not?’
‘I don’t approve of its politics.’
‘Well I’m not a big fan of its allegiances to be honest but I still read it every day. Along with every other national newspaper. Clients benefit from that breadth of knowledge. Why does the Mail upset you?
(I can tell we’re going to go round in circles and remind myself I’m being paid to run a workshop, not argue.)
‘Well, it has several agendas. One of them being to understand and appeal to the same audience that buys your brands. If you ignore the Mail — and the Sun, Express, Mirror, Metro — and just get your media fix from the BBC and Guardian, you’re basically ignoring 80% of your customers.’
Silence. Tumbleweed. Get back to the job, Grant, and don’t look so smug.
Except I’m not smug. I’m disappointed. Astonished even. Because this is happening to me all the time. Generations whose job is to understand consumer desires so they can get them to buy products that their bosses want to see plugged in those very same news brands, choose to ignore newspapers that will help them better understand their audiences.
Although I read the Daily Mail every day and still have friends who work there, there’s much of it I don’t enjoy or agree with. But it’s a brilliant product, packaged with enormous skill and energy (twice over, if you include MailOnline). Every national newspaper and digital twin has its merits and its faults, and the Mail has both in bucketloads. But if you want to understand British consumer life, you can’t ignore it, especially the full glory of its print product. If your job is to flog stuff to British consumers, well good luck doing that scrolling through Twitter…
Why do people hate popular journalism so much that they refuse to engage with it? It’s too simplistic to blame the narrow-mindedness propagated by schools and universities, the echo chambers of social media or metropolitan elitist tastes.
I think it’s down to laziness and an unwillingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to challenge oneself. Which is exactly how I find myself in the peculiar position of trying to persuade tomorrow’s CEOs that the more journalism they consume, the faster they’ll get to the top.
Following a series of accidents — most of them happy — I find myself in the heart of a business world I didn’t really understand a decade ago. In truth, I was hardly aware of the existence of many of these departments and skillsets. Market research, data analysis, marketing and insights — professions of only fleeting interest when I worked full-time on newspapers.
But I have grown both as a person and a professional by immersing myself in their worlds, learning from them, listening to what makes them tick and especially not-tick. Experiencing professions I once ignored has made me better at what I do. Which is probably the retort I should have opted for in that training session.
I’ve discovered that the skills we take for granted are invaluable within industries that need to make rapid decisions based on constantly-changing sets of data. Journalism can make sense of what they do, sift gold dust from iron pyrite and transform the way companies communicate internally and to customers.
I know, who’d think anyone could make a job of that? But I’m thankful for the chance to reinvent myself by consistently being pushed outside of my comfort zone.
Which brings me back to that opening scene. I am in genuine admiration for all that marketers do, for how data analysts collate and present insights, for how researchers uncover brand-building nuggets.
But bias is their enemy. If you’re convinced you’re right without ever asking why that’s so, or why that might be not so, you are failing not just your customers but your paymasters. You have to ask questions, see things in a new way, build stronger connections to the product, find new audiences whilst fostering greater loyalty in those you already have. The sorts of things editors and journalists attempt to do every single day.
That’s the real storytelling lesson my new career has taught me. That marketers, market researchers and data analysts are closer to journalists than we all might like to admit.
So the next time someone from marketing dismisses the Daily Mail in one of my sessions because they ‘don’t like its politics’, I’ll nod sagely, launch Spotify and let them sing along to 1968 John Lennon instead of listen to me…
‘You tell me it’s the institution
Well, you know
You better free your mind instead’