Episode 194:

My entreé into agency life was as a copywriter. I loved digging around and finding the story underneath the story. That love was the foundation for my belief in the power of a strong and smart brand. For decades my agency has helped clients define, develop, and deploy their brand both internally and externally. It’s still some of my favorite work to do.

Understanding your unique story is a powerful competitive advantage for our clients and our own agencies. Without understanding what makes us unique – we have to swim in the sea of sameness and that’s definitely swimming upstream!

In this episode, we’re digging into storytelling by understanding it at the root level. There is an architecture to stories and I have gone to the expert to learn more about that structure and how, as agencies, we can better use it to build our clients’ brands – and our own as well.

My guest is Park Howell. For 25 years, Park ran an agency in Arizona called Park & Co. At a certain point in his career, he pivoted his agency to become a storytelling consultant, helping clients learn how to tell their own story. Park founded his consultancy, The Business of Story, on January 1, 2016, so he could partner with leaders of purpose-driven organizations and help them clarify their stories, amplify their impact, and simplify their lives.

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • How the hero’s journey has been with us since the beginning of storytelling
  • Why story is one of the most powerful tools in your brand building arsenal
  • How to help clients live into their most powerful stories
  • Who should be the hero of the story (the answer might surprise you)
  • Why it is so hard for agencies to discover and tell their own stories
  • How storytelling connects with something so primal in all of us
  • How to use storytelling to help customers fulfill what they wish, will, and want
“When you are telling a brand story, you want to tell it from the perspective and framework of your customer. They are at the center. They are the hero in your story.” – @ParkHowell Click To Tweet “As you go through the brand story, you are asking who is the hero of the journey, and what is it that they wish, will, and want?” – @ParkHowell Click To Tweet “It’s often hard for agencies to discover and describe their own story. There’s no harm in asking for help and an outside perspective.” – @ParkHowell Click To Tweet “When was the last time you were bored into buying anything?” – @ParkHowell Click To Tweet “There's actually something to the hero’s journey story framework that's been around since the beginning of time that is all around us in our lives.” – @ParkHowell Click To Tweet The stories you tell are not about what you make, but what you make happen in people's lives.” – @ParkHowell Click To Tweet

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast, now in our third year of bringing you insights on how small to midsize agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. We’ll show you how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. With 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency, and this is going to be a great conversation, but before we dig into that conversation, just a couple of housekeeping notes that I want to make with you. Number one, just a reminder that we are always trying to encourage our listeners to leave a rating or review for us at iTunes or Google or Stitcher or wherever it is that you download the podcast. That really helps us get other folks listening to the podcast. It helps elevate people’s awareness that we’re out here so we can help more agency folks just like you.

And as a reward for a thank you, if you will, for you doing that, please take a screenshot of your review because a lot of you have Bumblebee 792 or whatever as your screen name and I can’t match that up with your agency name or your name. So anyway, take a screenshot of the review and shoot me an email with it, and then that way we will put you in a drawing. Every month we are giving away one seat to either one of our live workshops or one of our on-demand workshops. We’ve had people choose both. We’re happy to offer both of those or whichever one you prefer. Every month, we’re giving one of those away. So those have a value on the low end of $18.95 and they escalate up from there. So, it’s a prize worth winning. We would love to have you at one of our live events or have you enjoy one of our courses on demand if travel or the timing doesn’t work for you, but all we need you to do is leave a rating as a review. So, we super appreciate that.

Second bit of news or noteworthiness is, we have launched our fall workshop schedule, so we’ve got AE boot camps, both the advanced AE boot camp and the entry level AE boot camp in September, and we have Money Matters, which is two days of talking about everything from pricing to profitability, to taxes, to proposal writing, all kinds of elements tied to the money of your business, and making more of it and keeping more of what you make. That’s going to be in October and then we’ve launched some great workshops for January of 2020 focused on biz dev. Those are both going to be down at Disney World in Orlando. So, head over to Agency Management Institute and check those out. I expect that they well all sell out sooner or later. So, if you are so inclined, we’d be happy to have you on the roster and see you at one of those events.

All right. So, let’s talk a little bit about this week’s event. Sorry, [inaudible 00:03:18]. Let’s try that again. All right, so let’s talk a little bit about this week’s episode. So, agencies are known for the fact that we help our clients tell their story. It’s one of the things we talk about with clients. It is certainly one of the things we either help them tell their story, craft their story, amplify their story, and I know storytelling is sort of a word that is a little bit like synergy and paradigms that we’re using it so often that perhaps we’re tarnishing its meaning, but at its core, I believe many of us started in the business because we loved to help people tell their stories and because we were natural storytellers, whether that was visual storytelling or from the strategic side or the writing side. I know for me as I came up in my career as a copy writer, that was one of the things i really loved was sort of digging around and finding the story underneath the story, which was really what led me to being such a big believer in brand.

And so, that’s why I’m super excited about our guest today. Our guest today is Park Howell, and Park for the last 25 years has run an agency in Arizona called Park & Co, and Park at a certain point in his career, and I’ll let him tell you a little bit more about it, at a certain point in his career he shifted, he pivoted his agency to being all about storytelling. In a very interesting and scientific and framework sort of concept… There are sort of elements that are always there and he’s done a lot of studying around this idea of storytelling and how to bring it to life with the brands and the clients that we work with. And so, I am going to dig into that. I’m excited about this conversation. I think you’re going to get a lot of takeaways from it. And so, I don’t want to delay it any more. Let’s just get right to the conversation. All right, without further ado, Park, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Park Howell:

Drew, thanks so much for having me here. It was great to finally meet you in person and spend some time together about a month or so ago when you were in Phoenix. That was great fun.

Drew McLellan:

It’s crazy, isn’t it? We’ve known each other and known of each other forever, and it just happened. And I don’t know about you, but I didn’t even know you were coming to that dinner until somebody who… So, for the listeners, another agency owner and I decided to bring mutual friends together for sort of a get-to-know-you dinner, and so we each agreed to invite three folks, and Park was one of the invitees of the other guy. So, until we compared lists like the day before dinner, I didn’t even know you were on the list, so I was super excited when I found out that you were going to the show. So, I agree it was awesome to meet you and actually get to spend a lot of dinner chatting about our mutual experiences.

Park Howell:

And you guys were in Phoenix for baseball. You came out to see the Diamondbacks play.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s one of the few ball parks that I have not seen a game at yet. I’m down to three now that I checked the Diamondbacks off my list, so he was kind enough to meet me there to do that and we got a little work done too, but it was mostly about baseball, yeah.

Park Howell:

The folks at run Chase Field out there, that’s ball park’s almost 20 years old now. They said if they were to build it today, they’d take out about a third of the seats that are in there because it’s so ginormous. It was big when baseball was super popular back in the day. It’s not that it’s any less popular, people just aren’t going as much, but I don’t know how your crowd was that night.

Drew McLellan:

What’s weird about that ball park… And then I promise listeners we’ll actually get to the show. What was weird about that ball park, I’ve never been in a baseball park where there were more people wearing shirts for other teams than the home team. So, [inaudible 00:07:10], they were playing the Red Sox, so I knew there would be a lot of Red Sox fans there, but I saw Twins T-shirts and Dodgers T-shirts and Tigers… So, there were a ton of baseball fans there, but not very many Diamondback fans, apparently.

Park Howell:

Yeah, you get that in pro football too when you go to a cards game and sometimes you see… Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

I think Phoenix is such a… And keep in mind this was in April, so you had a lot of the snowbirds were still there, and it’s such a melting pot of people who’ve come from other places that I suppose those college allegiances stick, right?

Park Howell:

[inaudible 00:07:40] the brand allegiances. Are they really? I mean, they grew up with them. They’ve got emotional ties to their team and so when they’re out here, they’re happy. I’m a Sea Hawk fan because I grew up in Seattle, and I go to Cardinals games. I’ll gladly wear my Sea Hawk outfit because I was in the ninth grade when we got them as an expansion club and I love NFL, so they’re always going to be my number one pick. They’re my number one NFL brand.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right. Well, and actually that is a nice segue into what we want to talk about. So, for listeners who are not familiar with your story, I want to start in the beginning, which for you is not the start of launching your agency but what happened in the 2015/2016 when you literally woke up and said, “After 20 years of being a successful agency owner, of winning awards, of being named ad guy of the year, of making money,” because it’s not like you were in poverty or you were not being successful, but in spite of all of those success metrics that would make someone say, “Well, Park’s going to do this forever,” you woke up one morning and said, “I don’t think I want to do this any more.” Tell us about that.

Park Howell:

Oh God. I’ll never forget it. Yeah, September 5th, 2015. Because I started Business of Story, January 1, 2016. So, I had a little over three months to wind down my agency of 20 years. And yeah, I had a lot of friends and family go, “Park, what the hell? I mean, why’d you sell it? Are things going south, whatever?” And I go, “No, it’s just not what I want to do any more.” I’ve kind of fought with it for the last five years. I was 55 then at the time, so middle-aged, but a very young middle age.

Drew McLellan:

Very young, right.

Park Howell:

Yeah. And the idea of, “Well, why don’t you just sell it?” And I go, “Because then I’m handcuffed to somebody for five years and I can’t go and do what I really, really want to do.” And it wasn’t like I joined the circus. I mean, I was already in the circus, being in the advertising game. I just simply pivoted away from running a traditional ad agency to hyper, hyper focus on brand story strategy. And I know man. Storytelling is soup du jour, this day and age. I get that. People go, “Oh God. Another brand storyteller.” But I started studying it back in the early 2000s. It was 2006, Drew, that I saw… I noticed that our agency at that point was 10 years old, and the branding work that we had done, the advertising we had done, just wasn’t being as effective as it had been before and I didn’t know why.

And about that same time our middle child, our son, Parker, was going to film school at Chapman University in Orange, California. He’s been in Hollywood ever since as a VR director, so he was all in. And I told him, I said, “Dude, I’m trying to figure this out. Send me your textbooks when you’re done with them since I’m paying for them. I want to learn what does Hollywood know about communication in attracting audiences and hooking audiences in sequels like Mission Impossible and James Bond over and over again. That maybe we, in the advertising branding marketing world, are missing.”

And this is too about the time when story just started kind of creeping into the edges of branding and marketing world. And that’s when I started studying it and went screenwriting books, and I learned about Joseph Campbell, Americas foremost mythologist, and this hero’s journey template, and I’m like, “Holy smokes, there’s actually something to this story structure, this story framework that’s been around since the beginning of time that is all around us in our lives. We are consuming the hero’s journey in the movies we love, the books we love, even the songs we listen to.” And I thought, “How come no one’s ever taught us this? How come us, branders, most of us don’t know about Campbell and this mythology and why in the world has it not been applied to brand strategy?”

So, I literally, Drew, spent now 2008 as I was researching this two years learning it. The next two years running some experiments here in Phoenix with some of our brands on how to use this process. And I boiled down Campbell’s 17 steps down to this 10 steps Story Cycle System that we use, first and foremost, for brand story strategy development. The first time we used it was on Goodwill of Central Arizona, and over the course of the next couple years that time they grew by 400%, and I’m like, “Holy cow.” Tim O’Neil, the CEO, will say, “I’ll give your agency 50% of the credit on that because you guys really got our message straight, our story straight. We’re all pulling together.” And then I did it again with a company called Clinic Adelante with a free health care system here in Arizona refine their story after 30 years to Adelante Healthcare, and I was just speaking with [inaudible 00:12:25] just the other day. And they launched their new refined story in 2010-ish/11, and now fast forward eight years, they’ve grown by 600% and she will tell you, Drew, it was because of that story that everybody was bought into and pulling in the same direction.

Well, I’ve found something that was way more powerful than I had ever used before, and I wanted to get out of the day-to-day grind of cranking out content and in media plans and buying and selling and trying to compete out there and I wanted to focus solely on brand story strategy and Arizona State University came calling, I wrote a curriculum around it for an executive master’s program. Now, fast forward to that day in September 5th in 2015, I woke up with huge butterflies in my stomach. And I just said to my wife, Michelle, “I don’t want to run this agency anymore. I don’t want it. It’s holding me back from what I really want to do,” and that is to get Uber super-focused on really understanding brand story strategy myself and how to use the Story Cycle System to grow brands. And as my own personal mission is now, Drew, is to help people live in to their most powerful stories.

Drew McLellan:

So, I want to dig into the framework and all of that, but first I want to just pause and… Shutting down an agency, that’s no small decision. That affects people’s lives, that affects… I know you owned your own building at the time, you had clients, and I also think it’s a very personal decision. To shut something down implies that it’s not working. And so, when something is cooking with gas, that had to be a really hard decision.

Park Howell:

It was. It was cooking with gas and I was blowing up internally. It’s what ultimately it came down to and I just thought my agency… I mean, I call it Park & Co for God’s sake is egotistical as that sound. I want to defend myself. I was working for this guy when I was just a young, young, young, young AE back in the day. And one of our clients said, “Man, where did you get your name from?” I told him where I got my name from whatever. He goes, “If you ever opened your ad agency, you need to use that name because that’s a great name.” So, I did. I opened and then called it Park & Co back in 1995, but I also made the mistake with doing that and that it totally defined who I was.

So, even though we had had all the success and yes, we still own our building and we had to lease out a whole bunch of it after we closed down, had to let really good clients go, but we still help them here and there, but just change it as a traditional agency, Drew, I felt like a failure. Even though I was going off into this new direction, there were no guarantees I was going to be successful at it. I could go for three or four years and totally blow up doing that and people look at me and go, “Jesus, why did you shut your agency down just to go broke over here?”

Drew McLellan:

“Why did you kill the golden goose?” Right?

Park Howell:

Yeah, because the golden goose was strangling me.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Park Howell:

And so, it was difficult, but I was also very fortunate because my wife, Michelle, was completely onboard. She goes, “I think he should have done this five years ago. You haven’t been happy from five years ago.” “Well, I have,” but she goes, “You’ve been just way too stressed out.” And I think it was because I and we were trying to be all things to all people. Even as hard as we tried to focus the brand of the ad agency, I was really frightened about getting too focused and that I would lose business coming out of the recession for anybody that’s going to help pay the bills which we fall into that fallacy. That total fiction.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, got to make payroll, right?

Park Howell:

Yeah. So, yeah. We’ll do that job. Yeah, we’ll do that job. Well, what you end up with is a bunch of crappy clients. Clients that don’t respect you, don’t respect the work you do. And I’m not saying that we had that. We had some of that and that was my fault. Nobody else’s fault, but my own, but we also had really great clients that respected and are still clients today, but it helped me say no to all those that I was not for. I wasn’t really for those people being successful because maybe I didn’t completely believe in their offering or who they were, what they’re about. When I got my story straight, I go, “Oh, this is what it’s about.” The universe then started sending me the people that I could really help and be proud and helping them and charge a decent rate to do that.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think too. I think part of what gave you the courage to do what you needed to do is you had a place to go. You knew what you… You weren’t just shutting it down and you were going to sit in a cabana. You had something you were excited about doing as the next chapter, which I think makes it easier to walk away from the last chapter.

Park Howell:

Yeah, it really was because it’s… To your point, I didn’t just completely shift and go into used carwash sales.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right, right.

Park Howell:

I stayed in the brand world and I always really enjoyed branding. That was really my core talent in the advertising where I’ve wrote and I’ve been an AEE and I bought media and that, but I love this idea of trying to find that nugget that crystallizes what a brand is about, but I had never been taught or found a good way to do that until I started applying the hero’s journey in our own way with the Story Cycle System, but it came purely, Drew, out of my fascination and curiosity about creativity and frameworks of creativity and how those work on us. Give you an example. When I was growing up, I played the piano and I wrote songs when I was a little kid, and I got reams and reams and reams of songs. And I’m not saying that they’re any good, but I was always fascinated by how songs came together. So, I went on and got a degree in music composition and theory because… And knowing I was never going to make any money at it, but I was just fascinated on how this work on our mind.

I also got a degree in communication. So, I followed my career path in advertising, but I’ve been able to overlay my work in music composition theory throughout my life. Well, now with storytelling, they’re just very symbiotic with music and story and arts and the power of three and all the stuff I’ve learned all comes together. I call the applied science and bewitchery of storytelling and how it just works in the labyrinth of our mind, our limbic system, our lizard brain subconscious recognizes these patterns. And you can hook into those, I found, and take your audiences on a journey like you never have before. It’s just nobody ever taught us this stuff in school or in the branding world once we got out.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, now walk us through the Story Cycle System. Help us see how that framework works.

Park Howell:

Yeah. Well, if your listeners really want to get a taste, it goes back to The Hero’s Journey with Joseph Campbell, America’s foremost mythologist and if they go online, then go to the business of story and download an illustration of the hero’s journey there or just search Google Images. And it will take you through a PDF you can print out and it’s going to take you through Campbell’s 17 Steps to the Hero’s Journey, and then sit down and watch the very first Star Wars. And you will see that that movie hits beat by beat by beat on The Hero’s Journey in the order that Campbell recognize it that has been around since the beginning of time. That was been around since Gilgamesh, the very first story ever told and recorded The Hero’s Journey is the framework for it.

Then what’s even more fascinating to me is go back and then use the same PDF, Hero’s Journey, and watch the Wizard of Oz. And you’ll see the Wizard of Oz follows it exactly the same way. And that was produced and written before people even knew what The Hero’s Journey was. So, here we’ve got this template, this framework, the story that is an archetype within our brain. It’s just the way our brain seems to knit together meaning of the madness of being alive. I simply saw that and boiled it down to 10 steps that really totally relate to business and brand story development and created a science project of, “I’m going to try to apply this Hero’s Journey to brand story creation to see what would happen.” And we just had amazing success with it. It blew my mind really when I just saw the power of it. It just has a way of connecting on a very primal human level that nothing I’d ever done in branding ever had before.

Drew McLellan:

One of the things that I find interesting about your framework is I think in a lot of traditional brand work, the brand is the hero of the story, right? It’s all about sort of how they came to be and why they exist and sort of the whole “Find your why” kind of thing. And in your construct, the brand is not the hero of the story. So, who’s the hero and why are they the hero in your opinion?

Park Howell:

Yeah. Well, the brand actually plays a much more important role of the mentor or guide. So, we’ll get to that in a minute, Drew. The hero of every brand story is the audience you’re talking to. You need to understand the Hero’s Journey that they are on, that they are currently living, and where they are on within that. And you do that through, of course, customer personas and customer journey mapping and that sort of thing, but when you are telling a brand story, you want to tell it from the perspective and framework of your customer. Therefore, you have to by default place them at the center of the story.

Now, even if that story is about you or a different customer or something, you are the center of the story. What you’re trying to do is get your audience to live vicariously through you so that you’re going to build empathy. The difference between empathy and sympathy, sympathy is, “I like you.” Empathy is, “You’re like me.” And I want to get my audiences to have empathy, but I have to first have empathy for them and understand where they are. So, I always want to place them at the center of the story, for instance, on your great show here, we’re talking to agency heads. Those that are trying to figure out, “How can I grow this business and what I’m I going to do next with it?” So, all the stories we’re talking about certainly come and place them at the center of the story. Everything that they can live through and get nodding and go, “Yep, yep, that’s what that’s all about.”

Last week when I was in Washington DC, I worked with the Air Force. Brigadier to four-star generals, and I do have a story workshops with them a couple times a year. So, all of those stories are about leadership development and all the stories that are told are stories from their perspective in Air Force leadership and leadership in general. So, you have to certainly understand who your audience is and place them there first by understanding where they are on their Hero’s Journey, and then tell your appropriate brand story to show them how you are the mentor or guide to help them get what they want out of life.

So, if you’re going to put it in Hollywood terms, Luke Skywalker is your audience. You are Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda, depending on what you’re trying to help Luke Skywalker to get. If you’re in the Wizard of Oz, you are Glinda, Good Witch of the North trying to help Dorothy on her path, but it always starts with your audience as the center of the hero of the journey.

Drew McLellan:

And I know you were talking about how… The reality is everybody has either a wish, a want or a will. And that that’s what the mentor, the brand, sort of helps them get to or accomplish or achieve, right?

Park Howell:

Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. Brands are in the wish-fulfilling business. We’re problem solvers. What we are selling to people on an emotional level, we all wish to get something and that’s the emotion or feeling. We wish to look smart. We wish to belong. We wish to connect. We wish to be valued. We all have these wishes. We want to then buy something that helps us feel that or what we believe gets us there. So, I’m a big Apple fan. I pay their exorbitant prices because I wish-

Drew McLellan:

Is it awesome?

Park Howell:

… to be in a iconic class. Yeah, yeah. And a little bit disruptive and it certainly plays to my wish to be creative and it’s easy to use. And so, I want Apple products to get there. And then the third thing in this that we don’t always consider is the will. So, what are we willing to do that will knock us being the audience off of status quo and move us forward to invest our time and valuable resources and money into your brand’s product. So, as we go through the brand story, the Story Cycle System, it’s one of the big questions we ask right up top when you’re thinking about who’s the hero of the journey and what is it that they wish, will and want? What do they wish to feel? What do they want to buy to help them get that feeling? And what do you have to get them to wheel them to actually make that investment?

Drew McLellan:

So, all of that being… As I’m listening to you, I’m thinking about… So, when you’re helping a brand develop this story, they have different audiences, right? They might have an employee audience, they might have a perspective customer audience, they might have a long-time customer. So, does that mean that every brand has multiple stories?

Park Howell:

Every brand has a narrative, a singular narrative. I was trying to think of another word that wasn’t coming to me. So, it has this narrative arc that is true to them and who they are and it’s typically true to who the founder is. It gives a brand a simply an expression of the founder. If there’s a really old legacy brand, then they may have lost sight of that and they can get in trouble if they don’t. Then what the stories you use are simply stories that are truthful, authentic stories that support this overall narrative arc of the brand.

Now, some people say, “Well, we have an origin story. So, therefore we are the hero of that story.” And I would say, “No. I mean, yes, you do have an origin story and it is about you, but in the telling of that story, you want to understand explicitly the audience you’re telling that to so that they get to live vicariously through the telling of that story and it becomes the story,” but that’s where that empathy plays [inaudible 00:26:49].

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Park Howell:

When we look at it, we take them through the Story Cycle System. Chapter two is always about who’s the hero. And I ask our brands, “Identify your top three audiences in priority.” Quite often they’ll say, “We have way more than that.” And I said, “Yeah, probably so, but let’s just focus on your top three.” And then as we go through the first round with them, “Let’s take your very top one and build everything around that audience. And then we’ll go back and backfill the top two audience two and three,” and Drew, what we’re looking for is the thread, the theme. That narrative theme that is true for every single audience in there. Even though one’s a customer, one’s a vendor, one’s a prospect, one’s a employee, there’s still that thread that remains authentic and true. That singular thread that weaves through all of them, and that’s what you’re ultimately looking for.

Drew McLellan:

So, I know one of the things you talk about is that our audiences, it’s not about what we make, what we sell, the stuff. It’s really what we sell allows them to get. So, I want to dig into that a little bit and the whole features, benefits all of that in a minute, but let’s first take a quick break.

Thanks for checking out this week’s episode of Build a Better agency. I want to interrupt very quickly and just remind you that one of the services that AMI offers is our coaching packages and it comes in a couple of different options. So, you can do a remote coaching package where we would communicate with you over the phone or over a Zoom call or we also do on-site consulting where we would actually come to your agency and work with you for a day or a period of days to solve a specific problem typically that you’ve pre-identified and we’ve talked about on the phone. So, if you’re interested in either of those, you might go over to the AMI website and under the consulting tab, you will find more information about both our remote coaching and our onsite consulting. Let’s get back to the episode.

All right. We are back with Park. We are talking about storytelling and how we can help brands develop stories. One thing I want to get to, Park, is there’s also… You have a workbook that people can access, right? If they want to actually walk themselves through this process of developing a story.

Park Howell:

Yeah. It’s on the Business of Story website, businessofstory.com. And it’s a DIY workbook. It’s in our resources section that you can download. It’s $45, but I know people that have made that investment and are now literally out reaping millions from it because they got their brands so focused and [inaudible 00:29:20] takes you… Very simple workbook that takes you through the 10 steps of the Story Cycle System. And I use the Business of Story as the example brand, and you can see how I’ve used it on myself so that you could see the kinds of questions that I’m asking and the answers that I’m looking for out of you.

And people will tell me it’s cathartic. It’s a deep dive into their own psyche about why they do what they do. And it gets them super, super clear on what’s that problem they’re solving in the market. That one thing that they’re all about. I like to say that with the Business of Story, we are here to help you clarify your story, to amplify your impact, and simplify your life. And I found those all true in my own world.

Drew McLellan:

Well, if it weren’t for you, because in essence you’re just a different beast of agency. Agency owners who are listening, they… Because I think this is something agencies struggle with is, “What’s my story? What is my brand all about? How am I different than all the other agencies down the street?” So, this sounds like it would be a useful exercise for them to sort of answer those questions.

Park Howell:

Oh, it really is. And I’ve had a number of agencies go through it themselves. I’ve had a couple of agencies bring me in and I literally hand-hold them and take them through it too because having been in the brand ad agency world, I’m no longer a threat to them because I don’t have an agency and I helped them take through it, but… And I’m sure you see it, Drew, in your world all the time. It is so hard to operate on ourselves, on our own firms.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah. It’s hard to describe the outside of a bottle label when you’re inside, right?

Park Howell:

Dr. Vaughn, my Vietnamese dentist, who I love dearly, doesn’t do his own root canals. He hires someone else to come in and do that. And then sometimes with creating your own brand story is a little bit like a root canal.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. That’s not probably the best selling proposition, but…

Park Howell:

It’s not, but we’ve all been there. So, you don’t want to do it on yourself.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. And we’ll include a link in the show notes to the book, but before we took a break, I had said, I wanted to talk a little bit about this idea of “It’s not what you make, but it’s what you make happen” that your customers care about. So, help me understand that in the context of stories versus us pushing facts about products or services. Walk me through sort of behind all of that.

Park Howell:

well, it goes back to shifting that paradigm of the brand is no longer the center of the story. When it own mass media, it could afford to do that, but now that the masses are the media through technology, it can’t do that anymore. It just doesn’t work. So, I get people to stop thinking of their brand as the center of the hero of the story. And in that same breath, I say, “And the stories you tell are not about what you make, but what you make happen in people’s lives.” What you make, all of Simon Sinek, is just the how and the what that supports the belief of what you’re about, what you actually do. It goes back to that whole wish, want and will thing again. That they wish to feel something, therefore, they want your product to help them get there and you have to find the will to get them to actually make the purchase. So, it’s turning it on its head. Let me ask you this, Drew, when was the last time you were bored into buying anything?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. [inaudible 00:32:35].

Park Howell:

Let me ask you another thing. When was the last time you bought anything because of the data?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I can use the data to justify what I buy-

Park Howell:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

… but it’s not why I buy it, right?

Park Howell:

We buy with our hearts and we justify our purchases with our heads. Robert McKee, who is a legendary screenwriting coach. He’s been around forever. In fact that film with Nicolas Cage called Adaptation, he is the story coach that they have in there. And so, I went over and [inaudible 00:33:07] the Sheraton grand ballroom in LAX going through his four day story course. And I went through with our son, Parker, who is in film school at the time. Parker was going through it to learn how he could become better at film. I was going through it to figure out, “What does Hollywood know that we need to know in the advertising branding marketing world?” And McKee said something that really stood out to me in those four days. And he stood up there and he said, “You know what?” He says, “Our conscious mind is simply the PR department for our subconscious mind where all the real decisions are being made.”

Drew McLellan:

I love that. Yeah.

Park Howell:

We buy with emotion and we justify our purchases with our logic.

Drew McLellan:

Right. So true.

Park Howell:

Yeah. And so, story gets you there. Story gets you to the fundamental, primal, emotional level in your customers. And quite often when I’m doing brand story development… I just got done doing one with a large commercial construction company here called Wilming. So, a lot of manly men in the room. The guys have been around. I got to tell them, “Some of the stuff’s going to feel woo-woo to you, but just hang with me. Don’t cast any dispersions until we get through this.” And once we got through it with them, they to a person were saying, “Oh my God. This is us. This is what we’re all about. We’ve never been able to put our finger on it and now we’re there.”

And it’s because story gets you to connect with that emotional subconscious of people. And so, you got to be very careful with it too because you can use it for good and you can use it for evil. And I want you to only use it for good, but it is that powerful. That’s why we call it the applied science and bewitchery of storytelling. Once you figure out the applied science of how to do it, you will connect with people like you never have before, at least that’s been my experience.

Drew McLellan:

So, I know one of the things that you believe is that we also have to be very intentional about telling the story. So, it’s not good enough to know your story, but if you want the story to have impact and early in the interview you talked about people had seen a 400 to 600% lift in their business, so what are they doing with their stories to create that sort of business success?

Park Howell:

Yeah. Well, I wonder how many of your listeners have experienced what we experienced. I’m going to say 100% have. And that is, you’re running a TV commercial. This is maybe back in the older days and you’ve got a campaign going and you have two TV spots that are running side by side. You love them both as your own children-

Drew McLellan:

Of course, because you created them.

Park Howell:

You created them. One of them pulls.

Drew McLellan:

Great.

Park Howell:

I mean, it’s just off the charts. It’s pulling well. The other one is impotent. It just doesn’t pull. It just doesn’t do anything. You look at them and you’re like, “What the hell? Why does this one work and this one doesn’t?” Well, in hindsight… And we’ve been there, so I was looking at a particular campaign we did for goodwill that grew very quickly, but this was a campaign we did before. I really understood the story. And I looked at it and going, “Oh my God. The one that pulled has beautiful story structure to it.” I’m not sure we intentionally did that, but we innately as storytelling apes put together a beautiful story and that obviously connected and resonated.

The other one was just a beautiful, creative, cluster that we thought we’re going to win some awards with it. And it was really cool, whatever, but it didn’t work. I could go and look at other campaigns we did and see that those that had an intentional or a story structured to always pull better than those attendants. SO, I thought to myself, “What if we got intentional about really understanding that story structure?” I set a problem, resolution inside and out, and then learning, “How does Hollywood tell them and how does some of the really great agencies tell those stories?” And that’s where I just saw this whole same theme coming back together of the Hero’s Journey and these tribal primal elements to a story that we can all follow and be really successful at it.

I mean, I’ve even seen some of my students from ASU, some of them that weren’t good presenters and they were never going to own the stage, but would come back to me and saying, “Park, I just gave this presentation yesterday and everybody came up high fiving me,” and said, “John, that’s the best you’ve ever done and da, da, da.” And what I realized, it wasn’t their showmanship, but the fact that they use story structure to make it really easy for their audiences to follow along and tap into this limbic system, hack into that subconscious that proved to me that it is about template and structure much more than actual delivery. And that’s why I’m now a huge, huge proponent in becoming an intentional storyteller using the applied science, understanding the frameworks that work to create the bewitchery that you are trying to connect with in your audiences to move them to action.

Drew McLellan:

So, I’m thinking about some of the earlier examples, the Star Wars, the Wizard of Oz, and they had 90 minutes or 120 minutes to fit in all 10 elements of the framework. Can you do that in 30 seconds?

Park Howell:

Oh yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Can you do that in a quick YouTube video? So, can you think of an example of either a TV spot or something that maybe we’ve all seen that-

Park Howell:

You know who does a really good job with this is Audi. And when they are doing storytelling in their spots, they’re brilliant. Venable Bell’s partners out of San Francisco are just brilliant at this. There was a spot I used to use called homecoming, and it was about a young man going to the homecoming prom, but he was going by himself and fighting all the demons and doing that. And if you go to businessofstory.com and just search “Audi homecoming spot”, you cannot only watch the spot, but you can see how I dissect it down with the 10 steps of the Story Cycle System. And it’s there. Each chapter is represented one way, shape or form. Sometimes it’s in a simple edit. Other times it’s in a little bit longer piece within that spot.

Now, [inaudible 00:39:13] that’s a 62nd spot, but we’ve done it in the shortest 30 seconds, but here’s the thing. You don’t have to get completely caught up in the 10 steps. I have found and I’ve learned that the 10 steps work on a strategy basis. There’s a couple of other frameworks that I’ve learned in this process. I went from hard, the 10 steps, to easy. One of them is called the “And, but and therefore” that I learned from my good friend, Dr. Randy Olson. Harvard-trained, PhD, evolutionary biologist, went on to film school, graduated from USC, created three documentaries on global warming and climate change, but maybe more importantly has written three books on helping scientists use storytelling to help communicate their big ideas.

One of his findings that I call the DNA of story is this “And, but and therefore”. And I actually kind of used it on you and your audience earlier, and anybody can use this and you can tell a story literally in under 20 seconds. So, here it is. You say a statement of agreement. Let’s just take the Business of Story or myself. Okay. I’ve been in the advertising branding world for 35 years. Statement of agreement. No one can argue with it, just is what it is.

Now, I’m going to raise the stakes. And I have helped hundreds of purpose-driven brands grow through the influence of mass media. That’s act one, but now let me insert some conflict or contradiction because we’re all as brands in the world to be problem solvers. So, while I’ve done all of that, but technology has completely leveled the playing field. So, while brands used to own the influence of mass media, now the masses have become the media and they have created this cacophony of communication that we all have to compete in today. So, there’s the problem. That’s what we’re solving for.

Therefore. I transitioned away from traditional advertising agency work and now consult, teach, coach and speak on the applied science and bewitchery of storytelling to teach leaders of purpose-driven brands how to use the primal archetype of storytelling to combat the techno-driven world we live in today and actually connect on a very primal level and move people to action. So, there’s a setup, “And, but and therefore”. You can even make it half that long if you want to. Let’s actually work one on you, Drew. Let’s do yours. So, this is a real easy way to do it. Drew, how long have you been in the advertising branding marketing world?

Drew McLellan:

I have worked for agencies for over 30 years and I’ve been doing AMI for 10.

Park Howell:

And you’ve been doing AMI for 10 to help agencies focus and grow.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yep.

Park Howell:

Okay. But today, 10 years in, what is the main problem you’re solving for that they’re all up against? But what has changed in the world that makes you more timely and relevant and urgent than ever before?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. The business of agencies has gotten more complex, more crowded, and clients are harder to win and please.

Park Howell:

Okay. But agency owners are experiencing a far more complex, crowded, and I’m going to say annoying advertising industry because clients are so doggone hard to please. Therefore, what’s your answer? What are you solving for?

Drew McLellan:

Therefore, I’m helping them find best practices, comradery in the peer groups where they can learn from each other and support as they push through these difficult times so they can enjoy the success that they can and should have.

Park Howell:

Okay. Let’s even focus that down a little bit more. Therefore, would you say you or AMI?

Drew McLellan:

AMI.

Park Howell:

Therefore, AMI is their safe harbor in this noisy, noisy world where they can learn and grow and build the agency they truly want to build.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. I’m going to have to go back and get the transcript of that part. That was beautiful.

Park Howell:

But here’s it. Anybody can do this and it’s great in branding. “And, but, and therefore”, it is literally the DNA of story. When I first learned about this from Randy… And he’s going to be on my show… While I’ve had him on my show three times, I’m going to bring him back on. He teaches us everywhere that I looked at, I thought, “Dude, that’s too easy. It can’t possibly work.” And then I went and I looked and I found that the Gettysburg address is the perfect “And, but, and therefore”. [inaudible 00:43:42] and 70 years ago, but which is another way of saying, “Once upon a time, our forefathers did this and we built this great and mighty nation, but civil war essentially is tearing us apart, therefore, we can’t consecrate this ground unless we can bring this war to an end.” Now, I’m totally paraphrasing because I don’t have it right in front of me. But it is. You look at the Gettysburg address, it is the perfect example of brand storytelling because Lincoln did that in two minutes.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Park Howell:

Probably one of the most iconic addresses ever given by a leader, let alone a president. And did  you know at Gettysburg, Lincoln was not even the keynote speaker, that there was a speaker that went on before him?

Drew McLellan:

No.

Park Howell:

Do you know who that was?

Drew McLellan:

No, who was it?

Park Howell:

Nobody knows. Nobody knows.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Park Howell:

Edward Everett, former secretary of state, self-proclaimed order. Edward Everett spoke for two hours, 13,000 words-

Drew McLellan:

Oh God.

Park Howell:

… and the only people anyone remembers is Lincoln Gettysburg address, two minutes, 271 words. Perfect “And, but, and therefore”. So, what can we learn about that branding? This very noisy world.

Drew McLellan:

And also time compressed, right? That’s the other thing I love about this. No one’s going to listen to anybody for two hours a day.

Park Howell:

No. No. And it makes you focus your story. It makes you focus, “What am I solving for?”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Park Howell:

“What am I solving for?” So, I’d even ask you, Drew, to go back. Your setup is great, but get into that “but” and see if you can make that a little bit more…

Drew McLellan:

Oh, yeah.

Park Howell:

[inaudible 00:45:13] a little more [inaudible 00:45:13] and that feeling.

Drew McLellan:

I’m going to play with it. Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.

Park Howell:

Therefore, we’re the safe harbor that you get to convene and create camaraderie with fellow agency owners to learn and grow and build the agency you really want to build.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Park Howell:

That sort of thing. So, that’s what I do is, I first start with that and you can use the ABT in every possible communication you can think of and then you use that to develop your theme and then you move on to these five primal elements of story that I learned from these fabulous guys out of Melbourne, Australia with a timestamp, a location stamp, a character action, and surprise that happens, and then the aha moment that supports the brand point you’re trying to make. So, no longer are you out there just creating creative for the sake of creating creative. You’re actually telling stories about the true human impact you and your brand are having on the world. And then goes back to that whole thought of, “It’s not what we make, but what we make happen in people’s lives.” That’s what people buy.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and it’s so timely given the marketplace today and how skeptical consumers are and all of that. And again, so as you say the sort of the technical overload that if we can succinctly connect at an emotional level, both for our agencies and for our clients, that’s the win.

Park Howell:

And what’s interesting to me… And that is a great point you brought up. This cognitive dissonance that I deal with. So, here without getting too political, we have a president who, by the way, got himself elected with an ABT. What was his ABT?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right.

Park Howell:

What was his campaign platform?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it was make America great again, right?

Park Howell:

That was his therefore, but how did he set that up? Perfect ABT. America used to be a great and mighty nation, but America is no longer great, therefore, I’m going to make America great again. Even though he stole it from Reagan, it is a perfect ABT. And does Trump know the ABT? Probably not, but he has tremendous narrative intuition. In fact, Dr. Olson worked with Hillary and the Democrats leading up to the election and he told them, “If you don’t get better at storytelling, you’re going to lose to this guy.” And they didn’t believe him. They kind of shrugged him off. Well, the day after the election, I called Randy up and he was down at NASA working with scientists on their storytelling and I said, “Dude, I got to get you on my podcast.” And he goes, “I can’t. I’m just too upset.” I go, “Exactly. That’s why I need to have you on the show.”

So, he came on that afternoon and he talked about the Trump’s narrative intuition and how that was more powerful than all of the other anti-stories you heard about the guy. And so, that’s how he got elected. And I can fucking tell you, Drew, after four years of doing almost… Well, 200 episodes of the Business of Story, that is the one and only show I’ve ever gotten hate mail on from friends.

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

Park Howell:

And people said, “How could you possibly be glorifying this guy who’s just taken over the office?” I go, “Well, we’re not glorifying him.” I came up with this line. I said, “You have to understand the magic if you’re going to combat the spell. You have to understand how he communicates to you if you’re going to see through the lies.” And I’ve changed that. I’ve gotten more positive with it now. And so, I teach people. I said, “You have to understand the magic if you’re going to cast the spell in the first place.” And so, we live in this day and age of “fake news” and people lying to everyone and it’s just gaslighting and you don’t know what to believe anymore. I am a huge believer that storytelling is what brings those two worlds together because what does a story do? It ultimately delivers a truth that creates the trust. And if you’re lying to me through a story, the truth is eventually going to surface. You just can’t hide it. It’s eventually going to surface. So, that’s why I think brands can use it to bring worlds together, not to pull them apart because it makes you become more truthful as a storyteller, as a brand, because that’s where the trust is created. And if you’re going to be solving people’s problems, you have to have that trust, first and foremost.

Drew McLellan:

And what a noble way to think about the work that we do. That we help our clients tell their truth so that they can create trust in all of the audiences that matter to them. That’s a noble business to be in, and I can see why you were drawn to it. And I can see why every agency that helps their clients with messaging and all of that can aspire to do that every day through the things that you’ve taught us today.

Park Howell:

Well, thank you for that, Drew. And you’re right. It also reframes what we’re all about. We’re not just selling stuff anymore. And I would say it even goes a little bit deeper. It’s not only helping the brand express its truth, but it’s helping the leadership really come to grips with their truth. Are they truly living into the brand story and what do they have to do to change the tweak to become that much better brand? Maybe more authentic and more honest in some ways or at least more honest with themselves, which I had to do in the wrapping up of my own agency. I honestly wasn’t having fun anymore. I needed to do something else. And that’s what we can do as brands is help those leaders first understand their truth and then how that gets expressed through the rest of their story.

Drew McLellan:

Yes, awesome. Park, this has been fantastic. I knew it would be a great conversation. I am a firm believer in all the things that you teach and talk about. And so, it’s exciting for me to be able to bring all of this to the listeners and to get them fired up about it. If they want to find your podcast, if they want to learn more about your work, I know you do workshops and other things like that, where can they go to get all that is, Park?

Park Howell:

Yeah. Just visit… Thank you by the way, Drew, for having me here because I love, as you can tell, talking about this sort of thing. They can find me at businessofstory.com. No “the” before that. Just businessofstory.com and I’ve got all my podcasts there, resources, a lot of free downloads and things like that. And I really like to direct people to the podcast because I’m in an enviable position. I think of/if talking to some amazing minds from around the world and by the way, I’m really looking forward to our conversation when I bring you onto the show because we’re going to be talking about how agencies can do a better job of really focusing their story from your perspective. So, I’m looking forward to that, but there are really incredible thought leaders on there. So, happy to have any of your listeners jump over and take a listen and share some of those amazing [inaudible 00:51:44] with the world.

Drew McLellan:

That’s awesome. We will include a lot of those links in the show notes guys. So, you will find them there. Park, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it. I’m sure you’re going to see a flood of traffic to your site after this episode because I think agency owners at the end of the day, most of them are brilliant storytellers and maybe they didn’t even understand how they were doing it, but I know that they’re going to all want to do it better. So, I suspect you’ll see a [inaudible 00:52:10] of people over your way, and trying to learn more of what you do and how you do it.

Park Howell:

Well, I love that and I hope the next time you’re out in Phoenix or any of your listeners are out in Phoenix, look me up, give me a call, give me a shout. We’ll go grab a beer or a bite or whatever and talk a little brand storytelling.

Drew McLellan:

I love that. All right, guys, this wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Thanks so much for joining us. Boy, this is an episode that you should bring everybody into the conference room. This will get your team fired up. Sometimes, I think we forget why we got into the business. And sometimes I think we get so quagmired in the deadlines and to-dos and all the stuff of our work that we forget and I bet 99% of us were drawn to the business regardless of what we do inside the business because we love to help people tell their stories. And this episode reminds you of that love, and I think also gives you some really great tools for how to do it even better for yourself, for your agency, for your clients. So, share this with your team and talk about how you can bring it to life in your own shop.

I will be back next week with another guest who is going to shake your thinking a little bit and get you thinking about your agency in a different way, hopefully. And in the meantime, as always, you know how track me down. I’m at agencymanagementinstitute.com. See you next week.

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build a Better Agency podcast. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode.