[I’m INFECTED: Life As a Virus, Inc. Intern] Frameworks and Focus, or, How to tell yourself a story.

2/5!  I’ll try to keep the next few shorter, as I read somewhere that an ideal blog article should be no more than 800 words.  Honestly, though, I’ve never been good with word counts and limits, due to my tendency to “ravel a thread” (If you don’t know that idiom, then gracious, child, you ain’t never read To Kill a Mockingbird, have you?), which, while it makes for entertaining storytelling, does not lend itself very well to cohesive ideas.

…Which brings me to the point of this journal: frame-working.

When I returned from my three-day thesis-induced work sabbatical, I was faced with a storm of pitches to assist on, all due on the Monday or Tuesday before the Holy Week–coincidentally, also the date of my thesis defense; what is it with pre-holidays and ramped up stress?–and one of them entailing a fully-developed concept that included conceptualizing a new campaign idea, instead of merely a digital strategy to be aligned with a campaign idea.  Unfortunately, since I had been thinking thesis all week, I entered the debrief for this campaign completely unprepared.

Sod’s Law being in effect, this meant that I was the one called upon to give her potential strategies for the campaign…and getting caught absolutely unawares, resulting in a (slight) tongue-lashing from our company President.  Thankfully, my emotional maturity decided to give a rare show of support, and so I did not cry, and, taking off from my previous lesson of “ask for help when you feel you’re in over your head,” promptly attached myself to Creative Director (a.k.a. Kitchen Overlord) Mark Cham, like a limpet, and proceeded to pick his brain.

You would think, judging from the connotation of the department title, that Creatives function on an airy-fairy, “inspiration strikes me” policy.  This could not be further from the truth.  Every campaign visual has serious thought behind it–a single line of text, a single phrase could be the result of days of brainstorming and weeks of “cooking” before it.  Advertising’s job is to make look easy what is in fact mercilessly hard, and encapsulating a full dossier of product benefits and qualities into a single campaign idea (of Twitter-length) is one of the harder things.  One that would be nigh-impossible if not for the trick I learned from Mark: the best way to think is to think in frameworks.  And the best way to think in frameworks is to tell yourself a story.

In truth, the first framework we ever learn–the one we know by instinct, rather–is the skeleton of a story.  The status quo, the problem, the solution, and the reasons why are all narrative “plot points” that we look for in any good tale, whether it begins with “Once upon a time” or in medias res.  As marketing is, at the heart, a storytelling art, it makes sense that to market effectively means to be able to think in stories instead of–and this was my rookie mistake in that disastrous first briefing–executions and gimmicks.  It was a mistake that Mark quickly corrected me on, not so much by pointing out what I had done wrong, but by leading me along with a breadcrumb trail of questions (because all great stories are about answering questions, really–this is what’s known as “conflict”) that ultimately led to my “Once upon a time” framework for this pitch.

It wasn’t the first time Mark did this.  Once, I was asked to come up with an effective digital execution for a client’s event, and was at a loss as to how to construct an experience that would make sense.  Mark sat me down and, instead of feeding me ideas, proceeded to ask me questions: “What is the event?  What is its purpose?  What could be missing?  How can you solve it?  What do you want your customers to feel?”

(I recall from an old lesson that playwrights ask themselves questions that are quite similar.)

Strategy and Creatives often work hand-in-hand, so if anyone has the delusion that being creative means to pull something out of thin air, well…no dice.  Genius comes from thinking outside the box, but not necessarily outside of a pattern.  Rather, it is constructing out-of-box answers for questions that aren’t unique at all–they’re universal to any problem, any story to be told, and, in this case, any campaign.  Having to answer those questions allows the frazzled, raveling-thread mind to gain focus, and from focus comes the framework that brings the strategy to life.

When the second briefing rolled around, I presented the story to our company president and to Rashmi (quick re-introduction for those of you who need one: She’s our Head of Strategy and one of my Virus mentors)…and this time was met with a gentler reception.  All that was needed, really, was that a story was told that made sense and got to a point.  From there, it wasn’t much of a quantum leap to a campaign idea, execution, and, finally, a deck.

So that is what I learned about being Virus’ Baby Strategist-in-Training: to think in stories, which create frameworks, which produce great ideas.  It isn’t always about waiting for inspiration to strike–instead, it’s more “If you build it, they will come.”  Inspiration strikes when you build a home for it, and that home is called a framework.



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