November 15, 2016 Andy Green

The changing world of brand storytelling – an interview with Jim Hawker


I am blessed with knowing some really good people whose ideas and thinking inspire me, and I believe will inspire others.

In this new series I talk to leading thinkers and doers in marketing communications and PR on the changing world of how we tell corporate stories and brand stories.

The interviews aim to provide the latest insights from the lips of outstanding and original practitioners for the benefit of other practitioners, academics and students.

We start our series here with Jim Hawker, co-founder and Creative Director of leading London-based integrated communications agency Threepipe.


Andy: What ways do you do ‘storytelling’? How is that different to what you used to do, or how other agencies claim to do it?

Jim: PR is often seen as publicity, which is equal to media relations, delivered by ex-journos.

Inevitably, PR becomes pigeon-holed in an ever-shrinking media landscape, or traditional media landscape. PR budgets are flatlining at best. Digital budgets are, however, increasing. That presents huge dangers to PR, but also opportunities.

You get plenty of what I consider ‘good content campaigns’ being delivered by media agencies, SEO agencies, digital marketing agencies. PR is finding itself not the discipline of first choice to start that creative work. Many PR agencies are failing to respond to these challenges.

The danger is that people in charge of budgets are going to a digital first approach, with PR getting the crumbs.

We are doing more content-led campaigns where we get the opportunity to tell a story.

Our storytelling varies massively from humour to factual – depending on the client, subject, message and audience.

The trend is to offer more visual, richer, engaging content that is designed to be shareable and also measurable. We do what others can’t do in terms of tracking and linking. This gives us the ability to track leads to sales, to close the loop.

We are doing, for example, more cinegrams, with animated gifs that are visually appealing, interruptive and engaging.

We look to deliver messages across a range of platforms.


A: Are you witnessing any overlap between ‘PR’ and ‘advertising’?

J: That’s the really tricky thing, as it’s not really telling a story in a two-way approach. We can be so targeted in the content we are creating that it becomes much more relevant and less interruptive.

We’re witnessing advertising agencies now using the same techniques as well. They’re doing more media neutral campaigns that look like ‘PR campaigns’.

Some of the work for example that Carlsberg is doing, to make their brand more relevant in cultural and lifestyle circles, by doing more experiential activity with the drinkable billboards. This is work I would classify as ‘PR’ but is being masterminded by an ad agency. They are responding to a changing media landscape and are responding in a better way than PR has been.

It’s a real threat to traditional PR market models because they have access to better skillsets that PR agencies don’t have, to make their campaigns a success.

Ad agencies tend have better access to talent, and also have more of a background in data analytics, understanding better how to buy media, how to measure the impact of that budget spend or content activity, or how to even create content in the first place.

It is a new thing for PR agencies to work with video production companies. It’s only in the last two or three years that PR agencies are working in close conjunction with video production companies, whereas ad agencies have been doing it for decades.

It is a different skillset in knowing how to manage that work, how to manage the production company, how to storyboard stuff, tell stories in a more visual way. That’s a new skillset for PR people, whereas they have been more focused on, say, the print media.

There’s much more thinking along the lines of media neutral campaigns. But at the same time we are also taking advantage of much more targeting to very specific audiences.


A: What is the role of ‘brand’ in your thinking?

J: I always thought brand was central to what we do, whether it was in the old world or the new world we face. You need to know what the ‘brand’ stands for. Brands do a lot of work in this area on their values and create a set of parameters that gives us the space to play within.

Some struggle to differentiate their brand, and so a lot of our work is looking at the landscape, looking at trends and seeing what the consumers are interested in, or look at what the competition is doing.

I see ‘playfulness’ as a quite interesting area to play in, as it allows brands to be more innovative, more creative to pull their audiences in, especially in the B2B space. A lot of business brands are moving much more into the consumer channels, this whole area what you being seen is called as the ‘Human to Human’ space, H2H. Talking to people as consumers, they’re realising that you need to engage with their target audience as real people.


A: Any examples of your storytelling in action?

J: We’ve just finished a campaign with the Food Standards Agency for example. We’ve been using Facebook and Instagram to tell and share a visually-led-story of the pitfalls to a restaurant if it fails its food quality standards. We’re doing that in a real innovative way with cinegrams and gifs, which are essentially 10 seconds of video that allow us to tell a story about food preparation in a visually appealing [way], and I don’t like using the word ‘interruptive’, but it is […] quite enjoyable and gets a nice message across.

That’s where the social platforms are able to get a story across in a much more visual way. They’re enabling brands to use more video which enables us to tell a story in a much richer, more engaging way.

Hiscox Insurance is a good example of a B2B brands reframing their engagement. Doing this very well, talking to people as consumers.

Mersk Shipping, for example, links with different audiences via Facebook. There’s some interesting work out there. I think consumers are wanting business brands that stand for something.


A: Does the PR industry need to change in how it does ‘storytelling’?

J: Ironically the tech sector is still dominated by ‘old school PR’. The B2B programmes that you did 20 years ago are probably still being done today.

New releases are still useful for what we call ‘calendar hooks’, but we now think of them within a context of content planning. We will map out a content plan and we’ll identify what we call interesting ‘calendar hooks’ or opportunities, hijacking opportunities, and we’ll create content around those moments, as well as the reactive opportunities.

News generation is very competitive, operating in a finite space. The challenge when you do it is how to measure it. So when we do news generation we […] create much more ‘social assets’ to sell into traditional media alongside new stories. If we do, we then create richer, engaging opportunities through infographics with embedded links, so we can track links, cinegrams, animated gifs, quizzes, polls, so we can identify value.

After all, what is the value of editorial, particularly to a brand that people may not know? That is why we need to go down a more visual, more engaging opportunity than just a piece of print.


A: Is content marketing a subset of PR?

J: You could say that PR is a subset of content marketing, because content marketing can be used for many different purposes, although I’m not really interested in definitions […] to be honest. I’m not an academic. I’m more of a practical person, more interested in finding new ways to reach our clients’ target audiences.

We now tend to start from a content marketing perspective. Our focus is that we have one target audience to reach.


A: What major trends do you see ahead?

J: Moving forward there is a school of thought that brands should create less content with more content created by influencers, with much more emphasis on collaboration.

You look at YouTube, the top 20 or 50 content; there’s not many brands sitting there, it’s all by influencers. We will see less brands creating content themselves to reach their audiences but instead, much more collaboration with individuals and groups – i.e. influencers.

As the influencer model becomes much more prevalent, the influencers model will be the only real way to reach consumers, especially Generation Z, who are hard to reach because they are not on open platforms but closed platforms. Along with greater media fragmentation, the only way to reach them is through an influencer-led approach.

That means brands having to collaborate with third parties, and that means huge issues in brands being more relaxed, because they don’t have any control or sign-off on how those influencers will communicate that brand. This will be very interesting how this will pan out with content marketing.

[Editor note: Two years ago, as part of my work promoting my ‘Tubespiration’ venture, I coined the term ‘Brand Kultura’ – which means content independently created by a brand’s fan community – to describe this new dimension of collaboratively created content.]

A: Jim, Thank you for a most insightful discussion on the changing world of storytelling.


What do you think of Jim’s ideas and views?