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Gaston Tourn, CMO of Appear Here, recently joined us on CMO Convo to discuss the benefits of being a great storyteller as a CMO. Gaston shares his passion for storytelling, his tips and best practices for putting storytelling to good use in marketing, and common pitfalls, plus his hopes for the future, and more.

You can listen to the episode here, but read on for a write up of what we discussed.

CMO Convo | CMO Alliance
A podcast with one central question in mind: what does it take to be a great chief marketing officer? And there are no better people to answer this question than those who have lived the CMO life.

Gaston's background and approach to the CMO role

Hi Gaston, before we get down to business, maybe we should get into your background, how you became a CMO, and how you approach the role, especially if you have a philosophy into how you go about your business?

Yeah, definitely. So I am the CMO of Appear Here. Appear Here, the easiest way to think about it is kind of Airbnb for retail, what we do is we make it super easy to book a retail space. Before use, it could take up to six months to rent a shop.

Although it sounds easy, actually, it was a lot of bureaucracy bulk. And what we do is really simplify it. And some brands are launching with us in less than one day in a physical space. Before Appear Here, I worked at Google.

I started my career in big tech, I had different multiple marketing roles in Argentina, where I'm from, I also worked in Brazil, New York, and London. I also have some startup experience, I worked at Badoo and Bumble, I was CMO for that company. I was also CMO at Emma, which is a D2C company.

You've also got a background in creative writing, which leads into what we're talking about today. Do you bring that into your CMO role? Is that something that has helped you with your role?

Yeah, definitely. It's quite interesting. I have always been a nerd. I love studying. And when I finished my undergrad and started working, I always wanted to do a Master's. I think it's quite common for marketers to think "I'm going to do a master's in marketing".

I thought, what's actually the skill that I really want to do, and what's actually a skill that I think the marketing industry is going to need because there's a lot of talk in marketing around storytelling. What I've found is that usually there's a lot of bullshit around storytelling, not real, interesting storytelling advice.

I felt like the best place to really get good storytelling advice is probably taking a course with other writers and screenwriters. I have always loved writing on the side and I thought, if I can improve those skills, it's going to help me not just personally, but also in my marketing. It has been life-changing.

It's been a really good experience. I did this marketing part-time at Oxford and I met a lot of really good screenwriters, and also writers that contributed not just to improve my creative writing, but also to improve my marketing and copywriting.

The purpose of marketing is storytelling

A lot of people who get into the content and copywriting side of marketing, at the start of their career, they do it to tell stories. It's an intrinsic part of marketing.

Some of the best adverts that ever have a great story to them. That's the kind of stuff that a lot of marketers want to do. But do you think there's maybe some that are getting lost in the weeds with a lot of CMOs? Do you think they're losing sight of that?

I think the whole marketing industry has lost a bit of sight of what's the purpose of marketing and business, particularly I think, with obsession around technology and data. It looks like sometimes data becomes the purpose and the actual goal. Where actually I think data and technology are just means to do what only marketeers can do. I think in the end marketing is all about influence.

What we're here to do is to bring the voice of the customer, the voice of the user, to the heart of an organization, to try to influence our organization to deliver value to that customer or that user. And at the same time, I think is influence that customer or user to use our product or services.

So it's all about influence. And I think communication, language, creativity probably are the most effective tools and technologies to achieve that. It's not really about technology. It's about understanding human behavior, understanding what's inside, behind any campaign, and then delivering on it. I think this is the most important focus that we can all have as marketers.

And I think we can learn a lot from writers, writers are probably one of the professions that it's all about people watching and really trying to understand human behavior and motivations. I think if we probably learn from any other profession it's that one because as marketers we really need to understand the motivations behind human behavior in order to do great work.

And a really good way to understand human behavior is to construct a story about it. If you think about Catcher In The Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird, they weren't written by the protagonist of the novels, they weren't written by an adolescent or a preteen girl, they were written by writers who understood how to get into those mindsets, and they're still held up today as great examples of getting into those demographics' mindsets.

Is that something that marketers can really benefit from? Building that story to get to understand people?

Yeah, definitely. I think one of the most exciting marketing jobs is probably targeting a campaign to an audience that is completely different from who you are. I think it's something that allows you to put yourself in the shoes of a completely different human being. But in the end, I think we're all humans.

So I think you can really understand what's the motivation here because I think you're never too far away from the experience of another human being. I think empathy is incredibly important for that. But I think we can learn a lot from particularly I think what writers do very well is avoid having assumptions about people, it's really holding judgment. I think good writing is all around holding judgment.

You're not here to write a political manifesto, when you do fiction, you actually hold judgments so much that sometimes it can be very controversial. If you think about one of the best novels of the 20th century, like Lolita, it's very controversial, it's the mindset of a pedophile like, Oh, my God, like, I'm completely in opposition.

Everyone will be completely against that kind of sexual behavior. At the same time, I think what that book does really well from a fictional point of view is that the whole judgment is not really telling you this character, what he's doing is wrong. And I think that's why it's so effective as a piece of fiction.

For sure, from a morality and ethical point of view, it's a terrible example but I think what it does very well from a writing perspective, is really hold judgment, it really allows itself to explore a completely different mind. I think it's something that you need to do also in marketing, if you are going to be, for example, marketing to old people.

Today, I saw a campaign that I thought was fascinating. It was actually talking about sexuality when you're old.

And I think probably a common sense of judgment is like, well, that demographic doesn't have as much sexual activity. What this campaign did is completely hold judgment and actually explore what are the motivations, what are the hopes and fears of that group. I think that's why it feels so real because it allowed itself to go against the norm, hold judgment and really tell the truth from the point of view of the target audience you're trying to picture.

Lolita is an interesting reference point, because one of the big things with that book is how beautiful the prose is, it's very well written. That kind of draws you into the mindset a bit more, because it's such artistic, beautiful prose.

Is that something that we need to look at more as marketers? Like SEO seems to restrict a lot of the way we're able to write about things. Is there a sort of middle ground we can reach where we're ranking well on Google, but we're also able to write good prose in our content and copy?

I think if you're writing copy, just to rank on Google, I think probably you're doing a disservice to your own marketing. I think, first of all, I used to work at Google and one thing I can guarantee you is algorithms change all the time so it's really hard to predict what's going to be ranking highly on Google. I think what you need to do is amazing content.

If you do amazing content, people are going to be interested in it and the algorithms are at some point, are going to favor what you're doing.

Sometimes we underestimate the importance of content and the importance of writing great content for the audiences that we try to influence. I think, in a way going back to what we were discussing previously, it's all about influencing your target audience and then using the insights from that target audience to influence the way your company operates. I would focus on that rather than trying to trick the system.

If you do amazing content, that influences your current audience in the end at some point that's going to really pay off. If you tried to trick the system by adding one keyword here, one keyword there, you're just doing a disservice, I think to your brand, but also particularly to your customers.

Collaborating on stories with other departments

Thinking about this from a CMO perspective, how do you communicate those ideas to the rest of the C-suite? They want to see data, they want to see facts, they want to see you presenting this all planned out with a strategy that they can understand.

You can't just go into the boardroom and say that "'Beauty is truth. Truth is beauty'. This is what we're going to do now", you kind of do need evidence to back up what you're advising.

Yes, definitely, you always need to have very clear KPIs that allow you to understand, are you making progress or not towards the goals that the business cares about? I think then the way you go about it, the how is up to you, as a CMO. My current company, for example, I have two clear KPIs that everyone is aware of.

That's probably the first piece of advice I would give to any CMO. When you join a business, your responsibility is to really, really try to nail down what's the impact that marketing has for their reputation. Don't expect someone else is going to tell you that, it's up to you. And really you will have to even corner your CEO and tell him or her, what are you expecting from marketing? What do you expect marketing to deliver for the business?

This is what I think marketing should deliver, do you agree or not? Then based on that discussion, define at least two or three KPIs that are super clear and really show the impact of marketing and get an agreement with the rest of the C-suite to make sure that everyone is on the same page.

I think after that the "how" is up to you, it's your own remit, for sure, you're going to consult and make sure everyone is on the same page. But I think what you need to really focus on is getting agreement on the high-level metrics.

Going back to your question, I don't think being creative and being bold with your vision means not caring about KPIs or analytics, if anything, I think we need to focus on being amazing at creativity and storytelling because it's a much more efficient way to make sure you hit those targets, and you really hit those KPIs.

Having that focus on creativity as well means you're going to attract better talent as a team builder, people want to work for companies that allow them to be creative. Having that focus, having that guiding light means you'll be able to attract better talent, surely?

Yes, definitely. A lot of companies, unfortunately, are so focused on the short term that they don't allow themselves to be creative. I think sometimes you need to use your common sense. Sometimes, yes, that creative that you did that is really bad probably is going to deliver more installs or downloads or whatever is your KPI.

But just take a step back and as a human being ask yourself, what do I think of this brand, after seeing this creative? If it's not something positive, then start questioning the data. I think a lot of startups particularly, almost become slaves of data without being able to have any kind of critical thinking around, does this make sense?

I think if it doesn't make sense, then question your data. Because if you believe in your data just blindly, again, you're not really focusing on what marketing should do. Because what marketing is all about is not about data it's about influencing people. Data is just a tool that allows you to understand if you're doing that effectively or not.

If you look at some of the best adverts of all time, it's doubtful there was data to support what they went with but when you look at the connections between the story they're telling, and the brand, it makes so much sense.

The Guinness Surfer ad is widely considered one of the greatest ads ever shown in the UK. Apologies to any American readers, it's well worth checking it out on YouTube, it is amazing. But the idea of a surfer doesn't make sense in terms of data in connection with Guinness, but in terms of the anticipation, the imagery, it works perfectly, and it stuck with people.

It's one of the reasons many people are in advertising and marketing to begin with.

But being willing to tell those kinds of stories takes, as you did say before, the willingness to take a bit of a risk with what you're putting out there, with the types of stories.

Do have direction in how you can communicate the need for those risks to the C-suite and to your team as well? If you've got a big idea that you think is definitely going to work, how do you get that idea across the line?

Yeah, I always use a quote actually from Andrew Lang. I love when he says, "Most people use statistics like a drunk man uses a lamppost: more support than illumination."  I think that's something that happens a lot in marketing, I think a lot of marketers use statistics or data, just to support a previously held belief, rather than trying to illuminate a new truth or a new insight.

What I always recommend marketers, particularly, when you join a C-suite, and you're a new CMO, I think it's important to spend a lot of time on this, is really trying to understand how your specific team or function can contribute to help other functions or teams. One of the best pieces of advice I got, when I became CMO, was "You're not part of the marketing team anymore." I was like, "What are you saying? I'm actually leading the marketing team, I am the CMO."

They were like, "No, from this moment, you're not part of the marketing team anymore your role is to be part of the executive team." I think that was a really big shift of mentality because it allowed me to think, okay, if I am part of the executive team, then I need to understand the motivations, and also the needs of my colleagues.

That allowed me to start communicating with them in a more effective way. It's quite interesting to see that marketing is all about, as I mentioned, influencing customers and users. But in general, most marketers and most CMOs, we're pretty bad at influencing our own internal organizations, we don't do a lot of good marketing around marketing within the companies we work for.

I think it has a lot to do with the fact that something we all know is in order to influence your target audience, you need to understand the motivations and needs and then you need to speak the same language. Yet, when we're working inside an organization, we don't do that. We go and speak to a CTO, and we talk to them about our new campaign without even questioning why would the technology and engineering team care about a marketing campaign?

But then if you can frame it in a way that it becomes more interesting to those stakeholders, and also shows them the impact it's gonna have for them not for you it's probably the most effective way to get buy in from the rest of the C-Suite.

So it's getting them involved in the storytelling process as well. It's making it a shared story that you're all telling together as a company.

Yes. And I think particularly as well, going back to their own experiences, I think the more you know them, the more you can be like, "Oh, do you remember that time that you told me about this? Well, I thought about it and this is how I developed this new idea. And more importantly, I think, if we launch this, it's going to have this positive impact on your KPIs and on your team".

Try to always show how you care about them, not just care about you and your team. I think that's something that as marketeers, we do all the time, externally, but it looks like internally we forget about it.

Well, even within marketing teams, you can have those kinds of conflicts, such as between copywriters and design teams there can be a bit of conflict in what's possible. Being able to communicate that philosophy through the rest of your team has got to be important as a CMO, encouraging that collaboration within the rest of the marketing team. Is there a way you go about that specifically?

Yeah, it's important to have the end goal and particularly our customers in mind in order to solve any issues. We're not coming to work to defend our ideas no matter what we're coming to work to do amazing work for our customers or our users.

I think in those cases, it's important to always put that at the center of any discussions, I think sometimes we just get a bit lost with our own egos. But I think when you let your ego calm down and actually focus on what's the end goal, what our customers want, usually you can find much better collaboration and most conflicts become quite easy to solve.

CMO reading lists

So, circling back to the idea of great storytelling and how we can incorporate it more into marketing, what should be on a CMO's reading list? What should they have on their bookshelf? Who do you draw from for inspiration when you need inspiration?

My first recommendation is if you have any marketing books, or any business books on storytelling on your bookshelf please throw them away. Burn them, because actually, they're not going to give you any good advice. The best book I have found for storytelling advice is a book from Hemingway that is called On Writing.

It's the advice that Hemingway gives to new writers on how to tell better stories. I think it's fascinating because that book is now a bit old but a lot of the recommendations that he gives to writers really apply to contemporary writing, but not just to contemporary writing, they also apply to marketing.

I think one of my favorite pieces of advice from that book is how important it is to focus not just on the positive side of things, but also show the negative side of any character or negative side of life. Because "if it's all beautiful, if there's nothing ugly in it, we cannot believe it." And I think that's probably where 99% of marketing storytelling fails.

We're always trying to show the shiny side of things, we're always trying to show people running for the fields, having ice cream, and being happy. That's not life, life can be miserable. But actually, when you show that side that's is a bit more negative, and it's a bit more, perhaps less nice, you connect with your customers at a deeper level and a more meaningful level.

What does a great story look like?

Yeah because they'll just get that brief serotonin boost from seeing that happy image, but it's not a memorable image, you remember the conflict, you remember the emotion that you have from seeing something more effectively than the image itself.

Even just humor relies on conflict, essentially, so even humor can be a good way of getting that emotional connection. You think about the ads and pieces of marketing you see that stick with you is the stuff that has maybe a bit of sadness to it.

The big thing in the UK, of course, is the John Lewis Christmas adverts, and they always have a little bit of sadness, a little bit of nostalgia to it. They've got it down to an art form and they're a great example to look at in terms of storytelling from brands. Would you agree?

Yeah, completely. And I think one word that you used that is completely the focus of any good storytelling is conflict. Conflict is a story, if you have to say like, what's the story? It's conflict. I actually love a quote from John le Carré, he died last year, unfortunately, but he says, the cat sat on a mat is not a story.

The cat sat on a dog's mat is a story. You need a dog, you need conflict, to make a story interesting. And actually, one of the questions I always ask my team, whenever they present me an Instagram post, they present me a press release, I always ask them, who is the dog?

Because obviously, without a dog in that piece of communication, there is not a story, it's not going to be interesting. So always think who is the dog in your story? Who is the dog in your presentation to the board? Because if there is no conflict, people are going to probably switch and turn off and go to the next post or the next website because you need conflict to make people interested in what you're saying.

Key insights from the CMO Summit speakers
CMO Alliance’s first event, CMO Summit is coming up fast and we couldn’t be more excited! Want a snapshot of the insights our speakers will be sharing? Well, we’re happy to provide, as they lay out some highs, some lows, and some key advice from their role as CMOs.

Going back to Hemingway, he's a good example in terms of writing style, as well, for a lot of content writers because he started off as a journalist, his writing style was based on the journalistic standards from The Kansas City Star newspaper.

But does that mean every writer has to write in the same way? Is there room for stylistic differences? Are always stuck in this homogenous way of writing content or is there a way to break out of that mold?

No, I think for sure, you need to find your own voice and your own style. There are some I wouldn't say principles, but there are some elements of good writing that tend to hold true no matter what's your style. But also maybe your style is actually trying to completely disrupt those rules or elements of good writing. I think one that Hemingway does really, really well, he calls it the iceberg theory.

I think any writer should know about it, you only want to show the tip of the iceberg in any good piece of writing. Sometimes, again, it's another mistake that a lot of marketing makes, we're just too explanatory. I always like to say, when marketing teams say we need to educate our audience about x, y, z, nobody wants to be educated.

Nobody wants to know more about your bank app, they don't care. Honestly, as a user, I don't care about your product or your service, I just care about what's in it for me. So I don't need to be educated. Just show me the tip of the iceberg, show me what I need to learn about that product, that there is value for me, but don't explain the whole thing.

Because as a user, or as a target audience, any target audience, they don't want to be educated, they don't have time for you, they only have just one minute or two minutes to really get value out of the advert or the piece of communication that you're putting together.

You're letting them fill in the gaps basically, with the possibilities of your product. So in a way, you're giving them a way to tell their own story in their own head, giving them a framework, and then letting them fill in the gaps basically?

Yeah, exactly. And you mentioned the John Lewis ads, how they're probably the most important examples of good storytelling in the UK. I think all of them if you think about them, don't tell the whole story, they're really good at omitting some parts of the story, and then letting you come up with that whole story.

I think one of the most beautiful ones is the one about Elton John and it's just beautiful because it doesn't tell you the whole story, it just shows you some moments of that life.

But then you can see how they connect. You don't need to explain why buying a piano from John Lewis is going to create the next Elton John in the UK, they just do it by suggesting that story, which has some pieces of the life of Elton John.

But then that does kind of rely on the audience having preconceived notions about Elton John? Everyone in the UK knows who Elton John is, and everyone's got some kind of emotional connection to his music. Would that story work as well, if it was just a random concert pianist?

Probably you will need a bit more of what writers call the setting. You will need to elaborate a bit more on the character. But I think, in general, there are some archetypes that we can all relate to.

I think the archetype of the underdog, which in a way this story has a bit of that, that kid who was not coming from a privileged background. Nobody probably believed a lot in him beyond his Mom, who bought him a piano and then becomes one of the most important singers and one of the most important musicians in the world.

There is that element of the underdog, which is quite universal in a way. I'm not from the UK, for sure I know, Elton John. Elton John is almost a universal musician, but I think I can still relate to to this story because there is that element that goes beyond just a specific cultural context.

It has more that element of someone that nobody believed in suddenly succeeded. That's probably a story that is pretty much universal. Even if you think about some of the stories we have been telling for centuries, like Christianity, it has that element, Jesus Christ was probably also the underdog role...

Born in a stable.

For 2000 years we have been telling that story now.

That's an interesting point. The reason we have these archetypes and cliches in storytelling is that they work, people do respond to them. We have this similar idea of personas in marketing. Are they that different from archetypes? Should we be marketing to archetypes rather than personas?

Well, I think we need to advertise to people. And I think although archetypes work I think you need to make sure that your marketing is as nuanced as possible. I don't use personas at all in marketing. I always think they're fake.

I think whenever you start putting together personas you always come up with Cindy who lives in Manhattan and she goes every morning to have a latte at Starbucks. You know what? Cindy doesn't exist, nobody is Cindy. I think it's much more effective, one thing that I do all the time with the marketing teams I lead is I try to identify 10 to 15 of our key customers.

Within the team, we have a discussion where we start putting out some hypotheses about those customers, but they are real customers. Like Sarah X who works at this company, and she used our service last month. We start just guessing like, what do we think Sarah likes when it comes to content? What do we think Sarah likes about our service?

What do we think Sarah hates about our service? We do almost a session where we brainstorm and we have some hypotheses around this real customer. Then what we do, in my case, it's more like a B2B service, we contact Sarah on LinkedIn and we're like, "Hey, Sarah, we love working with you, we would love to have a coffee just to get to know you a bit better".

Literally, in that first conversation, we tell her, "Look, you're one of our core customers. I know this is a bit weird and creepy, but we have some hypotheses about what kind of content you like, we would just like to validate them if they're true or not".

And what you see is usually that whatever you thought Sarah liked is probably the opposite of what she likes. I find it a really, really useful exercise because it helps me tell the team that stereotypes don't work.

What we assume our core customers like is not 100% what they like, and we need to get to know them better. So that's my recommendation as well, for marketing teams: don't use personas, you don't know your customers until you actually speak to them. Try for sure, to have some hypothesis about who they are, then go and speak to them and try to evaluate them.

Because you're going to find so many new insights, so many new ideas. I don't actually like even new channels, which earn a lot of growth for the company, because I spoke to customers, and they told me, "No, I don't use that channel, actually, I use this other one". Then I started advertising on that channel and saw tremendous growth for the company.

Sharing your story with customers

It's also a good exercise in terms of customer retention that you're giving buy-in to your customers into the direction you're taking the marketing, they'll be more invested, they'll be more likely to continue to be customers if they feel they're being listened to.

Yeah, definitely, I think everyone loves to provide feedback on services and products, if you show them that you care and you show them that you're interested in improving your product and your marketing, using their feedback, I think it's a win-win situation for everyone.

You're spreading that web of people who are helping you tell the brand story as well. So the more people you've got involved in that, there'll be more of a shared vision.

Agreed. Yeah. And I think going back to the beginning, I said marketing is all about influencing, and influencing doesn't mean talking. Probably one of the most effective strategies to influence someone is to listen to a person.

I think listening is so underestimated. Most marketing teams still are kind of like the chatty team that is all the time talking, talking, talking. But if you want to influence another human being, the best way to do it is probably to listen to what that person has to say, and then go back to them and deliver a product or a message that considers what they said.

Making them feel in a way part of the story is going to be much more efficient to influence someone than just talking without having that two-way conversation.

One of the things that can be quite interested in terms of storytelling at the moment is the potential with video games for storytelling, and how people get quite invested into being able to choose different routes and stuff and tell their own story. By giving customers that kind of buy-in to how you're telling the brand story, it will engender a lot more of an emotional connection to it.

Yeah, definitely. I think, particularly when it comes to interactive storytelling there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of room to grow in that area. I actually did my dissertation as part of my master's around interactive storytelling. It has worked particularly well for children. I think children like interacting with stories quite a lot.

I think for grown-ups a bit less and I think it's probably because as adults I think we have to make so many decisions in our everyday lives that whenever we watch a story, we just want to almost chill and be lead into a story that we don't even have to make decisions about.

But I think that doesn't mean that you wouldn't consider your audience's feedback before you put together that story. It's almost like perhaps the story doesn't have to be interactive but definitely, the production process needs to be interactive. You need to consider the point of view of your customer when you are crafting the story,

But then maybe getting customers involved in some kind of decision, while they're watching a story could be a good way to go. You don't want it just to be another piece of content they consume while they're relaxing, you want them to have that kind of emotional connection.

Yeah, definitely. And I think it's part of any good user experience, not just marketing. When it comes more to product, product marketing, user experiences, making sure that you personalize your content, you personalize the user experience based on the needs and based on the behavior of that customer, that user.

It doesn't mean that you need to ask them explicitly what they need, perhaps by using some signals and considering some interactions you can already start personalizing that experience without having to ask explicitly, what do you want?

Listening just means paying attention to them doesn't it, it doesn't mean you have to ask them questions, you can just be in the room with them and see what they're doing. Whether the room is your site, or your app or other interactions with your brand.

Yes. And I think particularly considering the gap between what people say and what people do it's really important. I think when it comes to testing messages, for example, I always prefer live testing over market research. I think that's something that a lot of startups are moving in that direction, I think is the right way to go.

Rather than telling people do you prefer this message or this other message? Rather than doing that, why don't you just run an A/B test on Google or Instagram, and you see where people are actually engaged and what kind of interactions you get from different messages. I think live testing helps you in a way try to reduce that gap between what people say and what people do.

Because most times as human beings, we're not completely conscious of what we need. We think that we need something but then, in the end, our behavior shows something completely different. I think it's important to acknowledge that gap because human behavior is not literal, human behavior is complex, and it has multiple layers.

You need to understand that. It's not that people are lying it's just we're not conscious sometimes of 90% of what we're doing, we just do it, but we're not even conscious why.

This all ties back into examples from great writers, take Shakespeare, if you look at the differences between the folios and the editions, how he'd tweak lines and stuff he was tweaking them as audiences were watching them, as audiences were responding to them.

We probably don't have every single rewrite he ever did but you could bet he was sitting in the stands, saying "that didn't get a laugh, I'm gonna cross it out, that didn't get the response I wanted and I'm going to change that". It's a living manuscript that you're working on, your marketing, constantly changing depending on the responses you get.

Yeah, completely. We have this stereotype of writers being like almost these romantic writers, alone, doing something that can inspire. It's not like that, you're always writing for someone, you're not writing in isolation.

Actually, the act of writing, the act of doing marketing is already a communication act, you're doing it for someone. And if you don't acknowledge that someone, probably you're going to fail because there has to be someone that needs to be considered.

I feel like if there's one thing that I learned, actually, from my undergrad, before I did this Master's in creative writing, I did an undergrad in communication in Buenos Aires. Probably, the biggest takeaway from that undergrad is that communication is always an illusion. It's always something that we think it happened, but then it didn't happen. Whatever message you put out there, people are going to interpret it in 1000 different ways.

I think your job as a marketeer is to almost predict those 1000 different ways of interpreting the message and try to narrow it down to whatever messages is more effective to the product or the company that you're promoting. But it's really important to consider that your message is going to be interpreted in 1000 different ways because communication is never straightforward.

Transcending boundaries through story

You mentioned your undergrad in Buenos Aires, do you think the fact you've lived and worked in so many different places has given you a bit more of a skill to get to understand different perspectives? Do you think it's something that all marketers should aspire to do is to have these diverse, different types of work environments?

Yeah, I think it's very important. For sure, I was quite privileged a company like Google really sponsored my international career. But I think everyone who has the opportunity to have an international career, I think they should 100% go for it. Not only because you learn how different we are, but also you learn how similar we are.

I think, usually, I find it quite interesting that in every country, people start almost assuming like, "Oh, this is the way that Brits we are". I live in Brazil, "Brazilians we behave in this way". But then, in the end, you actually find that they're all pretty much similar.

In the end, human beings are one species, and we operate in a very similar way. So it allows you to understand first of all how diverse we can be, but also how similar we can be as human beings. I think there are some, I wouldn't say universal truths, because I don't believe in universal truths, I think definitely cultural nuances and social constructions affect everything we do.

But at least you start understanding some human insights that I think can really become powerful for your own storytelling. No matter if you are British, or if you're Brazilian, or if you're American, you're scared of certain things. I'm sure no matter what country you live in, you're always trying to pursue happiness, and you're trying to pursue something better for your life.

Those elements I think are quite universal. I think if you can use those insights in advertising, I think they're going to be much more effective no matter the market that you're working on.

And great stories go across cultural boundaries and go across national boundaries. We said Shakespeare before, but there's plenty of other stories that are told all around the world. Even if it's not the same names, there are the same recurring themes, same recurring archetypes, and stuff like that. A great advertising campaign should be able to cross those boundaries as well, surely?

Yeah and I think it's even more important now than ever to cross those boundaries. In the last few years, the world has become a bit more protectionist in a way, I think there has been a rise of nationalism and a rise in anti-diversity or anti-immigration policies worldwide.

I think our role as marketers is also to fight for the world that we want to see. If we can try more conversations about how, in the end, we're pretty much similar, if you're Mexican or American, you have very similar fears and hopes, and you're pretty motivated by similar things in life. So building a wall, for example, between the two countries is not just inhuman, it's irrational.

I think if you can contribute to that conversation that tries to unite people rather than trying to create walls, I think it's something that brings even more value to any professional in the marketing and communications industry.

We can't really attribute too much ethics to huge multinational corporations, but one of my favorite campaigns in recent years was the Coca Cola "Share a Coke" campaign, very simple message, a very simple way of communicating this connectivity between people, and a great way to kick off stories because that was the whole point of it.

UGC, getting people out there posting about the way they're sharing a coke with their friends and stuff like that, different environments they could be in, and it was a way, going back to what you said, of giving people the space to imagine the possibilities of the product. It was just a really wonderful campaign in that respect.

Yeah, and also the purpose of that product. Because that product all around creating share moments. It reminds me of that purpose without having to be sales-y. It reminds you more why people use it.

Again, I don't want to attribute as well, a lot of success to a big corporate but I think it's a good example of how going back to some of those human insights can help you tell stories that are meaningful and hopefully also drive a positive impact in the world.

Final advice

Do you have any final advice about storytelling or any writers that people should definitely check out but beyond the people we've touched on so far?

I think my final piece of advice is to make sure that in your marketing, you're telling the truth of your product or service. If you go out of your marketing circle, I think most people have bad feelings when you say the word marketing. I think a lot of people outside our marketing community think that marketing is disingenuous, or marketing is something that is here to trick you.

And probably they're right, a lot of marketing tries to trick people and tries to be disingenuous about their own products and services. But I think the best marketing is probably the one that tries to use the negative side of your product or service to your advantage to create human empathy. Telling the truth, warts and all, I think is probably one of the best marketing strategies you can do to tell really good stories.

Just maybe to share one example that I love is from Kentucky Fried Chicken, not a brand that I would consume, but what they did when they ran out of chicken in the UK, I think the campaign they did was brilliant. Because a lot of corporates what they would do in that case... by the way for international audiences, KFC ran out of chicken in the UK and suddenly had a shortage across the whole country.

It was crazy. The whole country went berserk. It was insane.  

Exactly. Very bad for a fried chicken brand to run out of chicken. Most corporate brands, what they would do is try to hide and be like we are sorry, apologies, we had a shortage of chicken - very robotic and not actually human. Actually, if you were running a fried chicken shop, and suddenly you run out of chicken, what you would say is, "Fuck, we're sorry, we ran out of chicken".

And that's what they did. They literally had an advert that said, like, Fuck, the logo inverse FCK and then they were like, "We're sorry". I thought it was much more human and much more relatable because that's the way that probably you would react as a human being. So my advice would be, tell the truth, and act as if you were a human being all the time.

This is weird because we are human beings. But I think sometimes as marketers, we get so lost with technologies, tools, data that we forget what makes us human. I think if you go back to what makes you human, and what would be your reaction as a human being to certain situations, we will probably do much better marketing.

Want to hear more from Gaston Tourn about storytelling? Catch him at the CMO Summit, November 3rd, for “The Art of Storytelling”. Reserve your place today!