Storytelling in the age of Digital

01 Dec,2014


This interview ought to have appeared a couple of months back. Gaston Legorburu, Executive Director and Worldwide Chief Creative Officer, Sapient Nitro was a star speaker at the Kyoorius Designyatra in September. We met him there. Since this interview was not a very newsy one, we held it back for a few weeks back. And then came rumours and finally the confirmation of the Publicis-Sapient Nitro deal. We also read Mr Legorburu’s quote in some of the stories. So we held it back a little more. Realising of course that we were doing grave injustice to him and to you, dear reader.


So here’ s the interview from one of digital media’s most happening creative gurus. Read on…


While digital media is progressing in India, the pace of growth is very slow. Is this how it happened in the Web or are we seeing a trend that’s special only to India?

I think it’s happened in the West and a few other markets. There are some markets that behave slightly different in India. I’ll start with the similarities. I think that marketers have muscle memory. Any new and emerging medium has slow adoption and there’s always a period of time because the value is under estimated. I think there’s a lag in adoption of digital media that happened in the US, in Europe, not so much in Latin America. The challenge that’s unique to India has to do with large numbers. When marketers and brands, especially multinationals look, they say, it’s billions. They look at that and there’s a direct co-relation to mass media. If we sold all these people soap, how much can we…


Hey, you are talking of multinationals who are possibly more discerning than the homegrown players, or so we think!

Multinationals have blinders around understanding the Indian markets because the country is so diverse and because so large. But if you just dissect that, if you look at the total online population of North America and of India, it’s a little over 75 percent. So the size of the opportunity is just about what it is of all of the United States. If you’re a brand and you haven’t done business in the United States and you say that digital opportunity is just about identical, you’ll get much more excited than people have been about the Indian market. If you further deconstruct the idea and you say that the size of that population is almost as big as the United States, what does it look like? Well, it’s younger, growing more from an affluent standpoint, much more tech savvy and they actively participate. When you just look at that particular audience and then you have to think about certain products, services and brands that appeal today and will appeal to that audience, you have to get crazily excited! The opportunity is eclipsed by the billion people opportunity.


Could it also be because our creative agencies are not doing enough work on the digital media? The big bucks are in TV Commercials and hence the monies are much more there?

It’s a little bit of the chicken or the egg. At the end of the day, change lies with the clients. We give agencies too much credit. Agencies chase RFPs. I think we give too much credit there. It takes the CMO that is more digital native that sees the opportunities or it takes a few successes where somebody says, if I give you this much money, you give me these many clients and it’s more predictable. I’ll do a bit more of that. Personally from a career standpoint, I started really early in the digital space. I came from a traditional background. Being in the boardroom, fighting for the longest time, until it was just the tipping point.


And then there’s search.

Yeah, it’s like I buy this keyword and I get this much business. So it’s always the search guy or the email lady that were sitting on the second floor, not with the main marketing theme but they were kind-of doing something over there and they were just peeling away budget little by little and eventually somebody is like, wait a second, she’s got more money than I do.


With search, you can hardly get creative.

I see that as the challenge. The entry, where you start peeling away the dollars and the budgets, you start getting more and more shift of the overall market budget moving, tend to be more on a performance marketing stuff, first. In India too you see lots of little digital shops popping up, it’s not visible work. It’s not visible as a big re-branding or a TVC, but it starts doing the blocking and tackling of driving business. And then you end up hitting the wall.


Do you think all the tech jargon is a challenge in the process of storytelling?

I think you can’t build a brand on a spreadsheet. That is a silly idea and unfortunately, I was at a conference not too long ago and a CEO of a big company said that we don’t need more mad men, we need more ‘math’ men. I thought that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. I think we need, both. There’s art and science. Going back to storytelling, I think it will and still remains the single, most powerful tool we have as marketers to connect brands to consumers. Everything is driven by emotion, all the other stuff rationalises what you want and feel.


I’m a big believer in the art of storytelling and being able to make emotional connections. That said, I feel, the power story lies with you, not me. I could sit here and talk forever, you might forget most but if there’s something that connects with you, something you want to talk to with your friends, over dinner, then I’ve done my job. If I represent a brand, that should be my canvas, not a 30-second spot or a banner ad. It should be your story. And I think we quickly forget about that and focus so much on the creative product without recognising that the objective at the end of the day is to change perceptions or shift behaviours. It’s not just about telling a compelling story. It’s telling a compelling story that shifts perceptions or drives behaviors.


That’s traditionally been the objective of storytelling, to change perceptions and/or to persuade people to buy or consume.

We could step back to speak at that level since it makes a lot of sense. Think about stories and think about you and what stories have helped evolve who you are, versus stories that simply entertain or are pass time. When you look at all of the different story structures and everything we know about storytelling, there are some stories that are much more likely for you to see yourself in, for you to learn a lesson from, for you to take something away than others. If you think about Indian or American culture, what are stories passed from generation to generation? You look at Disney Films. What’s the structure most likely to get passed on in an oral society as opposed to a broadcast media world? This is a little bit of ‘Back to the Future’.


What according to you has changed from traditional to digital advertising? Any one thing you’d like to highlight.

There’s been something that’s been constant, but we have lost sight of it for a period of time because of broadcast media as it is. That’s storytelling. Stories are as old as time. It is the way we make sense of the world. Such a big part of just being human. Clearly, if you want to persuade or connect people, that’s the most powerful story. It was before television from the traditional storyteller’s time. It’s always been a big part of commerce, of persuasion. But what changed with broadcast media is that stories became less participatory. They became less about interpretation and passing on of the story. You now could sit back and just suck it up. You could sit down and watch a movie and it just entertains you. It doesn’t change your view of the world. In some cases it’s just profound stuff. This idea that if you can see yourself in the story, you’re much more likely to remember it and connect with.


What we’ve seen here in India is that the emphasis on an emotional connect in digital advertising. Is that specific only to India?

I think there are two things that are not specific to India. People are people. I said to you something funny or interesting and then you say it to a bunch of people. Think about what makes stories get passed on? If I look at your Facebook or Twitter, most of the stuff is either things about you or something you found interesting that you want to share with your friends, you want to be associated with. Funny, entertaining stuff. We always do that. A lot of it going through those social pipes is people wanting to share their story.


It’s all about me, me, me, me, me. There are stories that people see themselves in. Those are stories better suited for advertising, marketing, for connecting people to brands. Forget about digital, just look at television. Just a 30-second piece of a film. When it really connects with you emotionally, there are two things. You think that’s hilarious, that’s based on an insight, I remember that ad, that ad was really great and then you forget what brand it was from. There are those and then there are those others where you are like, man! They value the same things I value, I should feel good about being associated with that brand. I just had this experience, I need to share this with somebody.


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