A version of this post originally appeared in the March 26, 2020 issue with the email subject line "No sense of an ending."
It’s not business as usual, even if you’re still working remote. I’m thrilled to have the distraction of great projects to work on and cool clients to work with, but it’s foolish to pretend that it just like how it used to be, but remote. It’s not.
Routine is helpful, but it’s not everything. I have about six of solid work in me on a good day. I pace myself during those hours. I have an endless pile of tasks for “my career” outside of those six hours. Those are on hold. I can’t even fathom writing about creating a strategy brief for a newsletter during a week when 3.3m people in the U.S. filed for unemployment.
I apologize for breaking my content promise. Briefs! They will happen. I will write more on best practices someday soon, even if it’s only to distract myself, although to be fair: digital strategy relies on fairly predictable behavior, and all of our behavior is changing drastically and rapidly. I can no longer tell you how people will behave online in six months.
Outside of my work hours I welcome any and all frivolous entertainments. We watched Jupiter Ascending, a marvelously expensive and beautiful film with an ehh plot and bad facial hair for Channing Tatum. Jupiter Ascending’s failure to recoup its budget at the box office discouraged execs from investing in further new or original stories in the age of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Which is a shame. I would like to see more Jupiter Ascendings, just with a little more attention paid to the complexity and humanity of the script.
My career’s been built in the age of storyteller marketing, where we reduce all human narratives to clear heroes and villains with minimal B-plots. This approach gives men a reason to talk about Star Wars in meetings, a way to shape the narrative without allowing for much complexity. (Also, not shaming anyone who subscribed to this theory! It’s fun and it works!)
I’ve heard variations of “be the hero of your marketing story” and hero’s journey comparisons for fifteen years. It’s a helpful framework to:
Get businesses to think about how their customers perceive them, rather than about behavior they want to impose on customers. It’s important to get business owners to think of people other than themselves, since it doesn’t happen all that often.
Create a basic marketing strategy with boundaries that clients can easily understand, which is good for a scalable approach to business from an agency perspective.
Once I read a marketing strategy deck for a major hotel chain that claimed there were only so many types of characters in a story, and the hotel chain gave every guest the chance to be the hero of their story. I looked at the list of alternative characters, and I wanted to know what their stories were, especially the jester and the lover, but the marketing deck didn’t tell those stories.
When I book hotels, I choose based on amenities, location, cleanliness and price. I’m not a hero, just a rapscallion working on the bed (verboten at home) and watching a Fast/Furious film.
(Hotels! What a thought. Hotels!)
Those basic hero-and-villain frameworks shape advertising, news, tv narrative, and most magazine writing. They are bestsellers, blockbusters, stories intended to be universal. They shaped the mass media of the twentieth century, provided the I-beams for the systems of late capitalism, of optimizing toward one objective. The narrative theory behind it remains the same: hero vs. villain. Establish characters and conflicts, rising action, climax, then denouement. Then back to normal. It’s narrative that can be packaged easily and sold.
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