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How do you tell the stories that grip the nation?

We started talking to ITV earlier this year. We were interested in 3 things.

The first is the Brexit bubble. The much discussed sense that we lost touch with half the country geographically, demographically and strategically.

It took that vote to wake us up and make us do something about it, so today is in part a response to that. A way of getting back in touch with rest of the country and getting lots of cultural and grist for the planner’s mill

The second is the of art story telling and how you to use story and character to make deep and enduring connections with people.

And within that, the amazing commercial and brand value value you get from enduring stories and planning for the long term.

As an industry we now have vast amounts of brilliant data telling us that we should avoid short term thinking. But we’re not terribly good at putting it into practice.

It’s hard to find to find better examples of long term story telling than the Coronation St and Emmerdale. And better examples of deep cultural connection than Love Island.

The 3rd is the debate about targeting – and in particular micro vs macro targeting in the digital age.

Lucy Jameson spoke at a recent APG Noisy Thinking event about target audience. Her rallying cry was macro, not micro targeting.

To get growth you have to increase penetration and brands are built over years not quarters, so go for the biggest audience you can.

Go wide as possible, target as many people as possible and EMBRACE WASTE.

Waste creates what she calls bandwagon effects. If you stand in the street and look up – so will everyone else eventually.

So go for lots of people, get them to copy each other and encourage them to express their tribal identities.

All things that soaps are spectacularly good at.

And they can help us get under the skin of our target audiences – what makes them laugh and cry – in a way that Google search probably can’t

So what did we learn from ITV?

John Whiston is ‘Head of Soaps’ for ITV and he spoke on a panel with writer Mark Bickerton and Mark Charnock, who’s been a leading actor in Emmerdale for almost 20 years. They had a fascinating discussion about how and why soaps work. Here are some of the insights I drew from the conversation:

  • Soaps are really good a holding up a mirror to family life and they’ve got really good at representing the reality of complicated, modern, blended families.

  • They are on at Tea-Time, and thus completely embedded in family life which means that the audience become emotional stake-holders in the show.

  • Writers work on long term narratives and one of the most powerful ways of keeping the audience engaged is to plant ‘unexploded bombs’ in the plot and see how long you can go without exploding them….

  • There is a science to story telling. The producer – like the planner- creates the narrative structure over time and makes sure that the writers stay on brief so that the shows like Emmerdale and Corrie have complete emotional (and geographical) continuity.

  • Writers spend their time talking to people to glean insight and slivers of life to apply to their work. They are like magpies. They do it at bus stops and in pubs and shops. They are good at getting out there. That‘s what we planners and strategists should be doing more of.

  • Moral and social issues are much used in the soaps, to great effect. But only when they come straight from the character; it’s no good deciding that alcoholism is a good dramatic focus and searching for a character to carry it as an issue – it has to grow directly from their character and experience in a natural way. And if you’re going to address these kinds of issues you have to be culturally relevant and correct. Alcoholics mostly don’t have steal to fund their habit when you can get three bottle of wine in ASDA for a tenner.

  • Social media feels as though it demands instant feedback and results. And soap audiences take to social media to complain when they’re unhappy about a character or plot twist. But don’t be fooled into responding to outrage unless it makes sense for the character or plot.

If you were there you got to take part in a story telling workshop with Mark Bickerton. It was enlightening and creatively inspiring for planners. But as I say, you had to be there ….

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