Episode 194

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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.