“Great storytelling? I think it’s beautiful. But someone had to have the idea to do that first.” Sean Aylmer, Former senior editor of Fairfax joins Mark Jones for a special morning event on World Storytelling Day to share an insider’s insight to what makes a cracking good yarn.
“If you’ve got a great story, you don’t always need media outlets anymore. You did ten years ago, but you certainly don’t now. That’s scary for the media outlets. Thing is, everyone’s doing the same thing, so you have to have great stories.”
So how do you stand out, and most importantly, how do you tell a cracking good yarn?
This World Storytelling Day, Filtered Media’s Chief Storyteller + Founder Mark Jones sat down with Sean Aylmer, a former economist with the Reserve Bank turned Fairfax senior editor for more than 20 years.
Telling a moving and original story is hard work, and Sean cautions against letting the storytelling process overshadow the idea itself.
“The problem is that storytelling can be quite laboured if there’s process. You always have to put a process at some point, but you need the idea to begin with.”
He identifies recent Qantas campaigns as examples of great storytelling. The tagline shifted from ‘Still call Australia home’ to ‘Bring me home’ and suddenly “people are ringing their mother, and then everyone’s hugging and crying…It’s totally creative. And there’s no doubt that great storytelling is hard work at the end of the day.”
Sean believes that the audience must be at the centre of everything marketers do. As technology advances, more power is placed in the hands of the consumer. People no longer want to be told what to think, and as a result all media agencies need to evolve to become customer centric.
“If you want to have people to read your content you have to have a good story,” Sean says. “You need to drag people in… One of the challenges for brands in a communications and storytelling perspective is radical honesty. To say that ‘my turf product sucked’ or ‘I didn’t get the market right’ or whatever…That’s difficult.”
Sean recommends following the example of “inventor of a generation” Warren Buffet, who is famous for his brutal honesty and admitting when he’s stuffed up. He also recommends following the example of ABC’s Australian Story, which is highly memorable due to its brilliant storytelling.
One of the great creative challenges is recreating that sort of heart-stopping drama and applying it to a business or commercial context. According to Sean, the commercial distinction doesn’t actually matter.
“Great stories don’t come from media organisations,” Sean says. “Great stories come from individuals in businesses. It’s just a matter of how you tell it.”
The CMO Show production team
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Participants: Mark Jones (MJ)
Sean Aylmer (SA)
Heather Jones (HJ)
Audience members asking questions
MJ: Thanks for joining us on the CMO Show. My name is Mark Jones.
NM: I’m Nicole Manktelow, and you are joining us today for something pretty special.
MJ: It is a very special edition. I feel like we say that about a lot, but this one really is very special. Our guest is Sean Aylmer, who used to be one of the head honchos at Fairfax and a man actually that I used to work with back in the day – you know when I was at Fairfax and he was there for quite a while, in fact, many many years, and really developed a reputation for being one of the great guys in media. We invited him to be a special guest here at Filtered Media, and I got to say it’s pretty exciting for me too. It was World Storytelling Day, so we invited a number of our clients, and some friends and some media to come into the office for our very first quarterly breakfast event and we called it ‘Storytime @ Filtered Media’, obviously, and he was our first guest.
NM: You know, I have to say Mark, it was a stroke of genius to get our guest to come in for breakfast, not only for the breakfast pastries but, you know to start the day off with someone of that calibre talking at length – and with such candour – about what it’s like to be in a media organisation at a time of such change and how the principles of storytelling still remain the same, and I loved it. I think you should bring back more of your former colleagues and editors. [Laughs] Bring ‘em!
MJ: Well, yeah, and speaking of length, this is a long one so some of things we’ve got to talk about actually do dive into what’s going on with media, generally-speaking, so the future of media and the role of storytelling.
NM: One of my favourite subjects.
MJ: Exactly right. So we do indulge in that. In fact, we did get a bit of media coverage for the same conversation about what’s happening with Fairfax. And we also go into some practical tips about ‘how to write cracking yarns’.
NM: It’s all the good stuff.
MJ: Yeah, so if you want to know how to be a great storyteller – plus you want some like cheeky insights into the world of media.
NM: Frank, cheeky and memorable.
MJ: Turn in and let’s listen to hear what Sean has to say.
NM: Oh and hey don’t forget to stick around to the end because there was a Q&A session that was fantastic and had a lot of people asking questions and Sean was pretty candid as we say.
MJ: Indeed, and what we’re going to do now just before we have a listen to Sean, the other thing that I was going to add is that Sean had a 20-year history at Fairfax, and it’s interesting. As we began our conversation, he started talking about the fact that he had a chat with his boss six months prior to October 2017, so October last year.
He’d actually been in conversations with Fairfax for a little while about his future at the organisation. Unfortunately, he was made redundant in October, but this had been a conversation that’d be going on for a little while, so Sean began by speaking about that and saying, look, he’s got no hard feelings with Fairfax and they’d been really good to him, but it’s an interesting reflection to say, “Where do you go too in your career from here because you can’t stay at a big media organisation for 40 years?”
We went from that, we feel like, career reflection into a thing that fascinates me. What’s it like when you’ve been in the news business and you write the news stories? What happens when you become the news yourself? Let’s hear how he responded, and we’ll pick up the interview from there.
MJ: Indeed and what we are going to do now just before we have a listen to Sean, the other thing I was going to add is that Sean had a 20 year history at Fairfax and it’s interesting when we began our conversation we started talking about how he had a
Mark Jones: If you’ve got a question you’d like us to answer on the show, just tweet us @CMOShow or use the hashtag #TheCMOShow. We’d love to hear from you.
SA: I think probably a third of the people love being the news, a third of the people hate it, and a third kind of are somewhere in between. I have never wanted to be in the limelight, and I’ve always found that I was editor-in-chief at BRW, I’m even editor-in-chief for The Sydney Morning Herald, and the hardest part of that for me was the people thought more of you than what you actually are, in a sense, and…
MJ: That’s very humble, but what do you mean?
SA: I mean, I don’t want stories about me. Like, you know, I’m…
MJ: It’s about the publications, about the stories and all that stuff…
SA: It has to be, it has to be. And the reason things or stories were about me was because of my job title. It wasn’t about me. I’d go and see prime ministers and those famous people, and they’d love me for the half hour they saw me. But when I walked out that door, potentially they didn’t even remember me, right? They remembered my job title. It’s really important to keep that in perspective.
The other thing I find when you are actually in the news, you have to be brutally honest all the time because otherwise you will get caught out. For me, what I was doing was effectively making people redundant and downsizing and trying to explain this to a newsroom of cynical smart journalists, as soon as I lied or I mean I never lied but as soon as you stretched the truth, you’re in all sorts of trouble. And I’d stand before those newsrooms and it there came a climate to the world and Richard Baker, Nick McKenzie, Adelle Ferguson, you know, really great investigative journalists, as soon as they’d put their hand up to ask me a question, it was like, “Oh dear, I’m in trouble here.”
MJ: “How’s this going to turn out?”
SA: Yeah, and a guy called Jake Saulwick who’s a political writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, unbelievably smart, and every time he asked a question, I knew I was in trouble. And the thing about being in the news, you have to be really honest because you’ll get caught out otherwise.
MJ: Yeah, and I guess you’re talking about they’re like slang or management speak or those sorts of things, right?
SA: I think if I had a skill, it’s actually making it simple, and Fairfax and News would be the same; ABC’s a bit different because it’s government-funded, but certainly the free to air TVs are exactly the same. The revenue model is broken. It simply is not as much revenue as there used to be. Therefore, you have to cut costs. It’s hard to say that, but that’s just the truth of the matter. And everyone that I dealt with knew it deep down. Now, where the rubber hits the road and it’s actually them that might lose their job or not get the promotion or whatever, it’s really difficult, but you have to be upfront with people and tell them that.
MJ: Yeah. It’s interesting, from a storytelling perspective, there’s always two narratives, right? So there’s the narrative that the company brings to a situation, whether it’s downsizing or upsizing, you know growing, etc., and then there’s the story that the staff have. So what did you learn from your media days that allowed you to sort of step into that role?
SA: It’s hard, because anything I said to the journalists at Fairfax immediately appeared in News Corp publications. Right? We leak like a sieve. You’d stand there and say, “Look, let’s just have it just between us, we’re Fairfax, rah rah, let’s not tell anyone,” and they’re tweeting it as you’re actually talking to them. And it was a really amazing kind of experience and so suddenly…
MJ: On Twitter I actually saw a photo of the screen of an internal memo. Like they just photographed the screen.
SA: Yeah. At the end of the day, journalists are really critically-minded people, and they’re a miserable bunch. They really are, and they’re insecure, and it’s exactly why you love them. Because they’re worried that they haven’t got a good story, they think everything in the world’s wrong, and that’s how you employ them, because you want them to be really good at their job, and they’re smart.
So what I found eventually is you kind of have to pull back a bit from being too honest, you’re never dishonest, but you just can’t say everything you want to say and then I went to the one-on-one conversations. And if you had a one-on-one conversation, it never leaked, because the person thought it was probably, “I’m the only person having this conversation potentially” and so I kind of went from the big mass thing to literally thousands of one-on-one conversations to get the point across. But that is the trick in running a business though; it is communications. And no one, if you are honest with them, they may hate you briefly, but they never hold it against you.
MJ: Is there a story in that whole part of your career that really sort of sticks out for you in terms of a time when you think, “I really got it right” in terms of the way you communicated? Do you lean on the news day as you find a great metaphor, you think of another example or…?
SA: You have to tell the story all the time. There is no point in saying from on high, “This is what we’re going to do,” because it just doesn’t wash. So you always have to tell the story. What I’m really proud of is we negotiated two EBAs without a strike. Now, Fairfax had a three-day strike every EBA negotiation for umpteen years until we did that, and that was all about telling the story. It was beginning the story six months before the negotiation began, just continually reinforcing it again and again and again, they kind of understood where you’re coming from, and if you can tell the story, and you have to tell it quite a few times, you can get there.
MJ: I’m actually going to pick you up on the journalist mindset for a minute. One of the things that we’re talking about today is, “How do you tell a great yarn?” Being a former journalist myself, I can understand the mindset, and I’m actually fond of thinking about journalists in many cases, we tend to be introverts. So even though you have to go out there and gather news, actually there’s a security in coming back and writing a story. But within that mindset, that’s not universally–you can’t replicate that to everybody. But is there an essence in there when it comes to storytelling–creativity, writing, digesting information–that’s if you’re like part of that makeup, how do you distil that creative essence?
SA: The greatest journalists are hungry, and that’s the only way you can describe it. They are never satisfied with what they’ve got. Kate McClymont is a spectacularly good journalist in Sydney; Caroline Wilson, spectacularly good, she’s in sport out of Melbourne; Joan McCarthy, out of Newcastle, who set off the children abuse inquiry.
SA: They are the hungriest people you will ever meet, and they never rest on their laurels. They’re always keen for the next big story or the next angle, and they work nonstop. So they get the best stories. If you want to have people to read your content, right, you have to have a good story there. There’s no point, the old pyramid they used to talk about, the what, when, where, how, why, and you read newspapers of the ’70s and ’80’s, and they’re quite turgid. They really are. You need something a lot better than that. You need to drag people in.
Some of the great stories – there’s a woman called Caroline Overington who works out of The Australian; she’s a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful writer. She can make me read stuff that I have no interest in whatsoever. The New Yorker is the greatest magazine in the world to me because that can make me read 10,000 words on an issue which does not interest me. And the way I think they do it is by having the best stories and it’s anecdotes all the time. It’s first-person all the time. My mentor at Fairfax, a guy called Ross Gittins, he’s a very well-known economics writer, Ross’s thing was you only write the first sentence to get someone to read the second sentence, and you only write the second sentence to get them to read the third sentence, and then the fourth and the fifth.
[So that whole storytelling thing is the essence of great journalism. Even if you don’t have much. I’ve written stories though, and I’m sure you haven’t, Mark, but I’m sure you have, which you actually had nothing to say. But you needed a story and there’s 400 words to fill and maybe it was on page eight, but then your writing skills need to come into it, and it is all about just telling a story, and you get through that way.
MJ: One of the stories that I remember is we used to write these feature articles for the AFR Weekend. So it was a “big read,” as we call it, and you’ve got two days or three days to knock out 1200, 1500, 1800 words, and…
SA: You used to have two or three days!
MJ: Exactly right. And then I was fortunate enough to have the editor at the time, Paul Bailey, went into his office, I wasn’t in trouble, he said, “Mark, can you come in?” I thought, “Oh gosh, what’s wrong?” But actually, we edited and worked on this story together, and that idea of going, he actually started at the beginning and we went through it sentence by sentence and he picked each sentence apart and we sort of worked through it. Is it that easy, in the sense of how you train, how you educate, how you mentor, how you get better at writing, storytelling? Is it that level of detail?
SA: Yeah, it is. It’s hard work. If you think of the weather is bad today, right, or it’s bad weather. The word “inclement weather” is a much better word than “bad weather” and if you were writing that sentence and you’re talking about inclement weather, someone’s going to stick with you more than you say “the weather’s bad.” That is a line-by-line process, working out what adjective sits properly, that type of thing. And it’s hard work, and to write beautifully is hard work, and I think the best writers read a hell of a lot, so if you ever want to be a great writer, read. And read good writing. I’ve got kids and they’re hopeless readers, and I would love them to read, because once you read, you can write.
And the best storytelling is the right words you use – there’s a woman called Liz Sexton who was a great writer, and she was the person who sat down, and did the equivalent of Paul Bailey with you. Sat down with me when I wrote one of my first features and said, “Why is the first part of this paragraph related to the last part?” And clearly it wasn’t. How are you going to end the story? And the trick Caroline Overington told me was “always end a story with a quote” because it sums it up. There’s a woman called Jane Cadzow who writes for the Good Weekend. Watch the way she writes, the same theme comes through the 2000 words she writes or something. It is hard work, you know?
MJ: Yeah, and it’s actually that concept of linking sentences or linking ideas. And we talk about flow, right, and keeping something together. But sometimes it can just be like a word, or a concept, but how do you do that?
SA: The way I would do it, I would always write a story–and you think it’s magnificent, you finish it, you spend eight hours on it, this is great, walk away, come back the next day and you think, “Oof. Ouch, that didn’t work very well.” Make sure someone else reads it, and make sure someone else who’s critical reads it. Because they will come and say, “I just don’t understand this.”
A woman called Pam Williams who’s one of the greats of journalism in Australia–I had the pleasure of being her editor once, which was wonderful in the sense that she would send reams of copy and you could always go back and say, “Pam, I don’t get this” and her initial thing was “well it’s obvious,” but then in her mind she’d think, well, okay, if that reader doesn’t get it, no one else will. You have that to-ing and fro-ing the whole time. I think the essence to doing it well yourself is do it first, walk away, come back, and then get someone really critical to look at it.
MJ: I think there’s an aspect of this that we can all relate to which is, it doesn’t matter whether you’re writing in news or in business in some contexts, we always have some sort of time pressure. You have, and I’m not quite sure what the law is, but you have the amount of time that you have is the amount of time that you’ll fill.
MJ: Whether it’s any task, whether it’s writing or whatever, right? The further away the deadline is, that’s how long it’s going to take you. When that deadline comes right in close, how do you still apply the, if you like, second rule, do you just rush off and get a coffee and come back and look at it? How do you deal with that pressure? because that’s actually an entirely different mindset.
SA: Yeah, so when you’re working a deadline, and particularly on features, you actually need to give yourself time. But if you don’t, you kind of that second rule of walking away, you probably have to give it to an editor and get them to do it really quickly. And I have never had an editor come back on my work and I’ve just thought “you’re totally wrong.” You may, at the margins, disagree, but someone else looking at what you do always works
What I used to find at Fairfax when you’re really busy, and you had a three o’clock deadline, I’d always finish it by, my goal was 12:30 or whatever, I’d go for a run, and then you’d come back, and just getting out of the office running around, the most productive hour I had on that whole story was the one between two and three when you’re trying to write it get on deadline but you hadn’t thought about it for a little bit, and then you come back to it.
MJ: Let’s take another tack. Let’s go back to the beginning. I wanted to tap into your economist days. What was that first role that you had?
SA: From school, I went to the Reserve Bank, and then I got a cadetship and I did a degree in Economics from New South, and I was an economist at the Reserve Bank. The funny thing was, I wasn’t a very good economist. I probably wasn’t a very bad one either, but the Reserve Bank was the sort of place where if you were a brilliant economist, it was the place for you; if you were a really average economist, it was the place for you. It was the middle rung that left. Now all my peers in the Reserve Bank went into financial markets and made a lot of money. I went into journalism. That sort of sums it up.
But, you know, that middle rank, the great thing about the Reserve Bank–it’s a bureaucracy, the people that were my peers then, now not so necessarily running the country, but I certainly the guy, Phil Lowe, was a few years above me, he is the head of the Reserve Bank, Wayne Byres, was one of my peers, he’s the head of APRA, which is a banking regulator. All the chief economists either went through the Reserve Bank or Treasury, so it was the best contact-making place, particularly when you’re a banking writer or an economics writer, as I turned out to be.
When I was 16, I lived in Orange, I grew up in Orange, and I went and worked at the local newspaper for your work experience in year 10. From that moment, I wanted to be a journalist. I went to the Reserve Bank, I did economics, because it was a sensible thing to do, and I got to about, I think I was 28 before I actually got a job at Fairfax, and I just thought, I actually thought, “Fuck it, I just want to do what I want to do. I don’t want to be an economist, I don’t.” You know, those guys that went into financial markets–they made a lot of money, but they didn’t see their families, all that stuff. And so, I just did what I wanted to do, and it turned out to be journalism, which I’d always wanted to do. You have the same story, though.
MJ: I do have exactly the same story. That’s it, yeah, it’s a passion, right?
SA: Oh, totally.
MJ: When it’s in you, you just got to do it. Was there a moment when you made that shift from, was there sort of a story around that, where you said, “I got to get out of here”?
SA: I mean I always knew I wanted to get out. This guy called Ian Macfarlane, who was a Reserve Bank Governor, very famous guy in that world. I left the Reserve Bank to the University of Wollongong to do a Master’s of Journalism in the hope of getting into journalism. I worked at the Renaissance Hotel in town as a waiter while I went back to uni. And I remember waiting at one lunch and taking a tray of drinks around and running into this Ian Macfarlane, who was the big boss of the Reserve Bank. And he looked at me and he goes, “Well Sean, you’ve done well, haven’t you?” It was…oh my God. I cringed.
The flipside of that was that only about three or four years ago, there’s a story about currency which was this business the Reserve Bank had. They were having real trouble in the media, and I was the head of the Herald at the time. I went to the Reserve Bank–Glenn Stevens was the Governor at that point–whenever I worked at the Reserve Bank, I just felt intimidated by the brains there. I felt so stupid. I walked into the elevator, went up to the Governor’s floor. In the elevator ride on the way up, I had that same feeling came over me, and now I’m a 45-year-old man, scared of going into this building; it was stupid.
We sat down with Glenn Stevens, we talked about the coverage of what was going on and all that, and then we came back out, and we were going to get in the elevator, and I was with my boss, a guy called Gary Linnell at the time, and I said, “You know, he knows a hell of a lot about economics, but he knows nothing about media.” And I suddenly felt really good about myself on the way down. The point is, whatever you’re good at, you specialise in, you are the expert in, and that’s a good thing.
MJ: What did you learn about economics that you’ve applied to your media career and to storytelling? What got me thinking about this was, I’ve actually thought the primary role of an economist is to be a storyteller. Ostensibly, they narrate the economy and they give us context and they explain things. A bloke that I saw–really very impressive–Craig Bloxham, who’s the Chief Economist at HSBC–I was at an event and he spoke for an hour with no notes, no presentation, just went for it, and he explained the whole last 12 months in incredible detail. I was like, “Do you think about anything else? Probably not.” What is it…
SA: Ask him about the footy…
MJ: I know, exactly, got nothing. What is it about that analytical mind that digs into the story behind the story as to what’s going on and then being able to take all of this complex data and then simplify it into something that most people a few floors down from the top of the Reserve Bank can understand?
SA: Economics is an interesting one because it’s a hard topic. The lingo is ridiculous. It’s really hard to get your head around the jargon. Anyone who ever did economics at high school had to read Ross Gittins’ columns, because he could put it in English. Paul Keating was kind of the original great economic storyteller. Economics is interesting. I think it’s a fantastic discipline to have, because it teaches you about the world, and if you can somehow explain that in English, you’re in front of most economists, because they really struggle. There have been a bunch of people, Craig James, Ross, Alan Kohler on ABC is very good at putting a chart up and saying “this is what you need to look at.”
I think the great thing about economics is it allows you to put context around anything. It’s really hard, though, to put into English. I think that’s what those guys do really well. I’ve always been happy I’ve had that, because even in my more recent years, where it’s basically about running a business rather than being a journalist, I always come back to basic economic principles of supply and demand, or marginal propensity consumed. Seriously, how many of you buy a newspaper every day? I’ve got my hand down.
MJ: Well, we do.
SA: Well, okay, outside of work, John does.
Male: On my iPad.
SA: No? That doesn’t count, newspaper.
Male: Yeah. I have mine home-delivered.
SA: There you go, so one. How many look at a media–it doesn’t matter, not Fairfax necessarily–a media website on their iPad only or primarily? How many on your phone? It’s really interesting how people consume.
SA: The economics of business–how you get an ad on a phone is really, really hard. Now, Fairfax has just redone all its sites…
MJ: Well, the issue is it’s a small one. Compared to a full-page print ad, right?
SA: Yeah. I remember Gail Kelly from Westpac; she used to run Westpac. Her thing was, when I’m turning the pages I can see my Westpac ad; when I’m swiping, I don’t notice it. I don’t know whether that’s right or wrong, and certainly my kids would notice it more than I would notice it, but the economics of business have been thrown out the window totally. The majority of people here get their news via their phone.
MJ: Of course, that affects the way you write. And I would also say that applies to business. We’re producing content, video, written, etc in our work and we have to be thinking mobile first.
SA: You have to be. Mark may undersell himself a bit–but when I worked with you, you were the first person in the AFR/Fairfax that really thought hard about video and that was kind of your thing. It was well before video was prevalent, and if you think now, I mean I think of my kids and they get so much of their news from video or from audio or from that type of thing, and written words will always be there, so that’s not the issue, but in terms of quick news, or things that you remember and stuff like that, the audio and the visual thing I think is more important almost, now, than the written word.
MJ: Connecting the economics and the video and the written word, one of the things that I think we all relate to as I said is we have business stories that we want to tell. Whether they’re economics stories, they’re plans for the future, they might be our origin story, where we’ve come from, they may be a vision of the future, you’re trying to distil all of these ideas into a way that is instantly understood, and video really kind of brings that to the fore. Is there a process that you go through in order to get that simplicity?
SA: I suppose it is. The problem is that it can be quite laboured if there’s process. Great ideas actually are what work best, and a great idea can come from this conversation, or it might be something that you mull over forever. You always have to put a process at some point, but you need the idea to begin with. And if you think of Qantas ads where they went from “Still call Australia home” to “Bring me home” or it’s the people in England that are ringing their mother and then it’s all visual and then they turn up and everyone’s hugging and crying and stuff like that. Great storytelling I think it’s beautiful. But someone had to have the idea to do that first. And I think…
MJ: It’s a creative idea.
SA: It’s totally creative, you know, then you put a process behind it. I think it’s really hard to have a process to come up with a great idea. I think you just have to think laterally and creatively and talk to people and stuff like that initially, and then you need process. And there’s no doubt great storytelling is hard work at the end of the day. You can’t just do it the first time round, you can have a great idea, it can work really well, but you need to go through layers to make…
MJ: Maybe you just need to go out for a jog and see what comes to mind.
MJ: I wanted at the risk of hinting or maybe even making any reference to America, but I will, I wanted to take on this fake news thing and your thoughts about that, because I think this is a very interesting insight into how we think about agendas and it’s directly related to brands and businesses and marketing, because we have a commercial interest in our storytelling in marketing and brand storytelling. There’s an agenda there to obviously connect with customers and provide content and stories that they’re going to relate to, the end goal being of course leads and sales. That’s marketing, right? Creating these opportunities. That’s a very clear agenda, but in the media world, there’s been this confusion over different agendas, and who’s right and who’s wrong. So I’m interested in your take on how you process this change, if you like, in the consciousness of storytelling?
SA: Yeah I mean I think if you look at the Australian media–leave the free to airs out of it, because they don’t really do news as such–everyone would have thought Fairfax was centre-left, News was centre-right, maybe a bit more right, ABC was left, I think they’re all overstated anyway. I think there is a lot more centrism generally. Having said that, it’s a good business strategy for News to be centre-right, and it’s a good business strategy for Fairfax to be centre-left because it kind of meets your market so long as you don’t go too far in that.
MJ: In other words, you’re audience-centric.
SA: Yeah. Your audience has to be at the centre of everything you do. 20 years ago, the great thing about being in the newspaper is that you didn’t care what the audience thought, right? You’re a monopoly, you can tell them what they should think. What technology has done is give power to the consumer. That’s all that’s happened. So they can choose what they want and as a result, all media organisations have to be much more customer-centric, and many of your organisations probably just grow up being customer-centric, but as a Fairfax person, suddenly to actually have to listen to the customer and look at the data and look at what their reading and viewing and stuff like that, was so difficult and such a fundamental change for the newsrooms.
The fake news thing–I don’t think it’s a bad thing because it’s just called out what people perhaps thought. It’s also highlighted how scary Facebook is, and Instagram, and Snapchat, and how wrong a lot of that is, whilst Donald Trump talks about fake news in terms of CNN and New York Times and I think by far the vast majority of people don’t agree with him on that and what it has done is put the spotlight on the need for really great journalism.
The Washington Post–I haven’t seen numbers, but up until about June or July they’ve put on 500,000 new subscribers in the first… must have been the first half of last year, of 2017. That’s the Washington Post. New York Times had done more, I think. Fake news has been a boon for, and Donald Trump, has been a boon for the New York Times, and the Washington Post, and I think…
MJ: In the sense of interest in his story; is that what you mean?
SA: No, in the sense that people suddenly realise he’s an idiot and we actually, we need to know what’s going on.
MJ: So the flight to quality.
SA: Totally. Total flight to quality. I think fake news is actually a good thing for journalism, funnily enough.
MJ: What does it mean for companies, for brands?
SA: What’s scary for media organisations is whether you people need media organisations, right? I think serious news will be appreciated more and you will want to be part of that. The run-of-the-mill news though, you can get it on Facebook, you can get it I mean you don’t need a master’s…
MJ: It’s a commodity.
SA: It’s a total commodity. That provides a great opportunity for businesses that aren’t a media business to get their message out. And then that comes down to storytelling. I’m probably singing from the Filtered Media hymn sheet here, but…
MJ: Well, we did rehearse…
SA: If you’ve got a great story, you don’t always need media outlets anymore. You did ten years ago, but you certainly don’t now. That’s scary for the media outlets. Thing is, everyone’s doing the same thing, so you have to have great stories. You can’t be a commoditised version of it because you want to attract an audience. But I do think you have a real opportunity to actually do it a hell of a lot cheaper than taking big ads out or that type of thing.
MJ: One of the challenges I think for brands in a communications and storytelling perspective is radical honesty. To say that “my turf product sucked” or “I didn’t get the market right” or whatever. Those sorts of moments are difficult to…
SA: So Berkshire Hathaway is run by a guy called Warren Buffett, and Warren Buffett is the great investor of his generation, and he’s famous for saying things like, “we stuffed that up” for being brutally honest in everything they do. Now, if you’re telling a story, there’s stuff that you don’t really have to – you can omit stuff, clearly, but what he’s very good at is saying “We thought this through, we took this decision, but we were wrong for this reason.” And his investors have never left him.
MJ: We’ll get some questions in a minute but who’s the best storyteller that you’ve ever come across that’s inspired you?
SA: John Lee Anderson is a guy out of the New Yorker who he always writes about war stuff, and I don’t kind of get into war stuff, it’s not my genre…
SA: But just to read him, he gets me through a story. More locally, I mentioned Caroline Overington before. She is a beautiful writer and again, she writes about stuff which isn’t necessarily my thing but she gets me to the end of the story. There’s a guy called Peter Roebuck who is a cricket writer. Beautiful, beautiful cricket writer. Jane Cadzow out of the Good Weekend. Visually, it’s much harder to name someone because you don’t know who it is doing the work in a sense.
MJ: Yeah, right. Do you mean in terms of editors, and production, etc.?
SA: Yeah, yeah. But there are certain shows, which, like or lump Australian Story, it has a massive following and people remember that show more than most.
MJ: Yeah. It is brilliant at storytelling.
SA: It is. It’s amazing. And audio and podcasts and things like that–whilst that genre is very much into true crime it seems largely, there’s some of that stuff that comes out, which you just want to listen to the voice. It is amazing.
MJ: Yeah. I think there’s something within me that, as I hear you speak, it’s the love of story, and it’s the love of being taken on a journey somewhere. We love that, and I think all good storytelling has drama and tension as people, as humans, we look for that release, we look for the resolution to the drama that’s been in the story.
One of the great sort of creative challenges is how do you take that notion of drama and put it into a business context, a commercial context or other things? We know this from novels, we know this from great long feature pieces. In the cut and thrust of everyday, it’s actually, I’m finding it a really great reminder of how important that is, because people still want to regardless of the, you know, it might be a mundane piece of work, we actually still enjoy and want to be part of some kind of narrative.
SA: Great stories come anywhere. Great stories don’t come from media organisations. Great stories come from individuals or businesses. It’s just a matter of how you tell it. Even the mundane can be really, really interesting. I was at the State of Origin one year, right. A game, it was because of my job, I got an invite to the State of Origin and the guy behind me or next to me, I can’t remember was Kevin Rudd, who was the prime minister at the time, right? All good. Interesting and all that…
MJ: Fancy meeting you here!
SA: Yeah, I mean, it was clearly my job. It wasn’t anything else. And you just, I mean it’s not run of the mill, so I can’t play it down. It was great to be there, like I really enjoyed it. But I remember in the middle of it and New South Wales were playing Queensland. And New South Wales were going to win this game, right, and that hasn’t happened much in the last 10 years. So it was really exciting, at Sydney Football Stadium, and Kevin Rudd with three minutes to go kind of said, “Sean, I think in Capricornia”–I think it was Capricornia, one of the electorates in Queensland–and he started telling me what was going to happen in Capricornia, and I’m like…
SA: This is a football game! And he’s the Prime Minister, so it’s like, yeah, I’m interested in that. Like, to me…
MJ: Now, tell me about politics.
SA: …it’s a normal thing, but just that little kernel that he had no interest in the rugby league, but totally interested in what was going to happen in the electorate. It’s funny, those little things happen to all of us all the time, and it’s just a matter of grabbing it, and somehow running with it.
MJ: Yeah, I think that’s good. I always find that in storytelling, you need that metaphor, and you need a meaning, and as part of that, you need this story element, which gets injected in. Something that can actually bring it alive and maybe–Kevin Rudd’s not a bad metaphor, in that case.
SA: Yeah, I think that’s very true.
MJ: Regardless of the circumstances. Great chat; I appreciate your insights.
Questions? I’d love to get you questions here.
SA: Yeah, John, it was you, yeah?
MJ: Yeah, John.
John: Both of you, Sean and Mark, thanks; that was really interesting. I’m keen to understand how you think you can take the storytelling, as you would as a journalist, as you would put it into a newspaper or an article, and distil it down to business usage? Because today, we’re being pushed all the time to do things quicker, shorter, and you end up with a whole lot of the dot points, but you can’t tell a story in the same way with dot points. What’s your view on how to address that?
MJ: I have lots of views, but do you want to go first?
SA: This is more from my management experience at Fairfax, right. You can PowerPoint the place to death, right? No one reads them. Particularly, if you send them out on email, no one reads them. If you put it in front of them, you’ve got about 30 seconds before they get to their phone. Maybe if you put them on their phone… You have to make time to tell the story. But a story can be told in 30 seconds. The story can be told in 15 seconds; it doesn’t have to be 30 minutes, and if that 15 seconds of the story is good enough, then you’ve got them. I actually think you can totally tell a story in a really short period. One of the things we did when we shifted online at Fairfax was try and get the journalists to realise they didn’t have to write 1200 words, because most people only read 200 words online. The art of telling a story in 200 words rather than 1200 words became really front and centre.
MJ: And it’s actually harder to do…
SA: Much harder.
MJ: …in a short bite; you’ve really got to distil it down. It’s a bit like, I keep thinking of a soup reduction–it takes a really long time to sort of bring it right down, to use a metaphor, right, and it’s the same thing with the story. What’s the essence of this?
SA: Often, newspaper journalists are really good at telling a story really quickly, because they’ve only got dozens of words with a clip, and so people who have gone to TV journalism then come back to digital are often very good, because they know how to tell a story really short. I think the whole dot point, PowerPoint–I get bored by it. I force myself to read it because you have to. I’ve done a lot of work with consultants, and what I’ve noticed with them, they might have a hundred PowerPoint slides; they might only ever talk to three. And they’ll let you direct the conversation, and I think maybe that’s the way to go.
MJ: A point I’d bring to it is audience. So always ask yourself, “Who am I speaking to?” And if it’s externally, if it’s an audience… actually the narrower you get, the bigger you get. It’s one of these kind of, if you like, paradoxes of storytelling. So if you know that your audience is a customer who is in a particular segment with a particular focus, particular age range even, you might know some things about their background, you can create content that’s targeted to them. You’ll find that it actually really focuses your story in a way that is more appealing. You’re not trying to be all things to all people.
And then from there, you can amplify that story out. And we’re just finding that the more data you get–so data-driven storytelling is something I’m really passionate about–the more data you get allows you to know “how can I use this to connect with that wider group of people” and I guess from a digital marketing point of view, you know, get that traffic through your website, actually make it do a thing. That’s kind of where it’s gone.
And actually it’s probably being one of the biggest trends in written storytelling in the media, we’ve gone from ten years ago it was like ” I’ve got a great creative idea; let’s write the story about this; I’m the editor, I know what the market’s doing; I know my audience, right?” Well, and Sean’s intimated at that. Well, we’ve gone from those days to hyper-niche, super-focused, data-driven storytelling, and that’s the starting point for the creative process.
SA: It’s funny, every day at Fairfax–at the Herald in The Age at least, the reporters get reports on how many people looked at their story the day before. Which is frightening for some of them. And there are certain areas like transport always works, right? So people love reading transport; love banks, love retail stories; but then there are other areas where they don’t. It is pretty amazing for a reporter to every day be judged using analytics, but that’s just how it works.
Nicole: Where do you see that crossover between art and science? So you’ve got a lot of data now telling you what the audience like and are interested in, but how do you stop your publication from becoming full of transport stories? At what point do you draw that boundary of what people should read?
SA: Yeah, we used to say, “Audience-led, data-influenced.” You can’t just rely on data. Because it can be misleading; you’ve got to interpret it, and particularly, depending on your strategy… so I oversaw the Fin Review and the Sydney Morning Herald in The Age, right? The data on the Fin was far less. No one read anything like they did in the big metros. But we never worried about that, in a sense, because the Fin is a niche player, dominant in its market, still making a lot of money. We didn’t worry as much about the data in that particular… And it’s also still a newspaper, the Fin, more so than a website. Whereas the data at The Herald and The Age, we worried a hell of a lot more about it.
I think it’s a really good point–you can become totally data-driven, and I would say Fairfax website’s maybe five years ago was totally data-driven, because we only got paid on page impressions, and so the transport stories, you have too many of those, the Married at First Sight stories, you have too many of those; we sort of have pulled it back in the last few years to really make sure that the quality… I mean, you have to be up the value curve, in journalism at least, and probably most businesses. You can’t be a commoditised product.
MJ: I’ll just jump in to answer your question too, there’s always this balance we find with our clients whose… getting that balance between what’s the corporate message, the corporate story, the direction that you’re going as a company, getting a balance between that message and the audience message, right? And you’re looking for the connection points, this is where we’re in common, and maybe there’s a difference. So, do you need to change your strategy in some way in what we’re learning about the audience, or is it the other way–the audience can actually pick up an entirely new, different concept. But it’s that interplay, and that’s where you have this creative tension.
Mark: When you put in that data tactic, rather than strategy really, about telling the reporters how many people are clicking on, they interpreted that as the measure of their worth, didn’t they? How did you tell the story of why that was a good thing for them to be measured in that way?
SA: Some thought it was the thing; others didn’t. Some still just wanted their name on the front page of the paper no matter what management said, and in a sense, in hindsight, that was a great thing, because people still really still focused on the front page, no matter what you say, where Fairfax and News, win over everyone else is they have a print product which gives gravitas, while the ruling classes are my age or above, and Turnbull or Shorten stand in parliament and say, “Did you say this in the Fin Review?” Or “Did you see this in The Australian?” Right? It’s got great gravitas. It was very difficult to get reporters to jump ship and start looking at data. Some went too far. And there’s a couple of people I can think of at the Herald…
MJ: What, started obsessing over it?
SA: Yeah, and they only wrote for data, and they’d have great numbers, but at the end of the day, the stories were pretty average. And you’ve got to work out where you are on the value chain, and if you’re a quality organisation, it has to be more than data.
MJ: Back in the late ’90s, when I was at Computer World, we used to write a lot of stories about open source technologies, and Linus Torvalds, was the, or is one of the leading lights in that space. We used to call it “Linus World,” because we started getting all this data, all these open-sourced Linux stories were going through the roof, so of course you gravitate towards that. That’s where you need the editorial control to say, “Yeah, but we can’t ignore all these other topics.”
SA: Forbes magazine, which is an icon of business magazines, they about six or seven years ago, Lewis Dvorkin, was the guy they brought in, and he used to run TZ; TZ’s a sort of a trashy video thing; he went into Forbes and what he did was he outsourced all content and he paid content by clicks. But they had to be business stories. Where Forbes went was they ended up doing business stories of sport continually. Every week or month or however often it was, at least half were–I don’t know what the numbers were–but suddenly how much money is A-Rod making in baseball, or why is LeBron James shoes–because that’s what’s actually attracted the clicks. The problem was, people stopped reading Forbes, because, while it’s interesting, it is a business magazine, and they want to know strategy and that type of thing. So it was a really good example of going too far.
MJ: You’ve got to think about brand equity as well.
SA: Yeah, totally.
MJ: We’ve got a couple of minutes to go. We can sneak in another question, yes.
Male: Thank you, Sean; thank you, Mark. Is the picture today more important or less important?
SA: So picture and visuals generally, which may be video or pictures, undoubtedly, it’s more important.
MJ: What’s interesting in social, of course is that it used to be said in Instagram in particular, you needed a picture it’s now–I don’t know, it almost feels like it’s moving beyond that into this video, we touched on this video. The picture is still important in certain contexts, but video more so. And I’d also say from a blog point of view, though, if you’re going to do–we’re big fans of the definitive article on, choose your subject. If you’re doing a blog post it’s often to have a few of those definitive pieces. 800 words, 1,000 words of a definition of something that’s important to your industry, put lots of pictures in there and lots of links.
Those sorts of things go really well from an SEO point of view. Google loves it when there’s lots of images and you’ve tagged the images and they’re connected to other things in the world. So yes, images, but they’re starting to have more of an SEO function than necessarily the same visual appeal that they used to.
SA: And it’s interesting, words still give gravitas. I was flying back from somewhere recently, and I said, “Which seat do I get?” To my eldest son, who’s plane-obsessed, and he went and he sent me a photo and said you’re going to be in 40G or whatever it was. It was my way of connecting with him, he sends it to me, he said and here’s some words on it–he wouldn’t have read – well, not words, he said “Here’s a story on it”. He wouldn’t have read the words, I’m sure, when he showed me a picture of the seat I should have. But what did occur to me–words give gravitas, so if it’s just a picture only, or a video only, fine; but if there’s some story to it, people immediately identify, “Oh, they’re serious about it because there’s words to it,” I think.
MJ: Let’s wrap it up there. Thanks, Sean; let’s thank Sean for his time today. [Applause] Thank you for coming. We’ve got another event in June. Again, it’s been our pleasure having you at our place today, so thanks for coming, and we’ll see you next time.
MJ: So there we go a great chat for a breakfast event.
NM: Oh my god, it was so good to listen to somebody so entrenched, and yet so fresh on the view.
MJ: You should be inspired because it’s two journos – or at least a former jouno in my case – actually being coherent first thing in the morning.
NM: Well, I think coffee had something to do with that.
MJ: That’s right. And I just wanted to make great reference to this great quote from Sean. He said “if you’ve got a great story, you don’t always need great media outlets anymore. You did 10 years ago, but you certainly don’t now, and that’s scary for media outlets”, and he said the thing is “everyone’s doing the same thing, so you have to have great stories.” You know, this actually speaks to what we do at Filtered Media because we’re all about great stories, but we’re seeing that brands want to tell great stories, and they want to do it in authentic – I hate to sort of use a buzzword – they want to do it in ways that are real and you know, that are actually-
MJ: Exactly. They’re actually genuine. They speak to an audience need or you know, solving a problem or answering a question. So, you know, this idea of how brands can become better storytellers, this is obviously what gets us out of bed every day. So I wanted to leave you with that big, kind of, thought piece, because it was a good time.
NM: My brain just went.
MJ: And can I just invite you CMO Show-ers, we’d love to have you at our next event and you can just go to filteredmedia.com.au and check out our events page. Find out about the next quarterly Storytime at Filtered Media event. And obviously check us out on Apple Podcasts or your favourite podcast aggregator of choice.
NM: Love us. Like us. Give us some feedback.
MJ: Yep, send us an email.
NM: Hey, why not? If you want to be a guest, you let us know.
NM: Tell us your story.
MJ: So with that, thank you. Marathon episode for us, but I hope you’ve got a lot of value out of it. We will see you next time.
Mark Jones: The CMO Show is a podcast produced by Filtered Media and a quick shoutout to our incredible team Candice Witton, Charlotte Goodwin, Ewan Miller and Yael Brender.
Nicole Manktelow (sting): And our engineering wizards: Jonny McNee and Daniel Marr.
Mark Jones(sting): Thanks for joining us!