Modern Marketing: Why Stories Still Matter


“Use a picture. It’s worth a thousand words.”

Chances are good that most of you, at some point, have heard that phrase, or some variation. According to, the words above can be traced to a speech given by icon William Randolph Hearst’s favorite sensationalist editor, the legendary Arthur Brisbane, to the Syracuse Advertising Men’s Club in March of 1911.

Over a century later, I took part last month in a similar meet-the-media event at BuiltWorlds, sitting on a luncheon panel hosted by the Chicago chapter of the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS), a decidedly more gender-neutral group than the Syracuse boys’ club. Years ago, when I was at ENR, I had sat on prior SMPS chapter panels in Kansas City MO and Southfield MI. So, I figured I probably knew the drill this go-round. Today’s topic? Marketing in the Digital Age. Interesting enough, I thought. Certainly a subject ripe for discussion.

“Wait a minute”: The author grabs mic, mounts soap box.

But after the panel presentations had progressed for about 15 minutes, and after the first speaker (yours truly) had kicked things off in a casual, ho-hum way — “You want something published? Send me something interesting” — I soon found myself immersed in others’ talks about clicks and likes and social media engagement rates. Over the next hour, I noticed that my pulse was quickening and my chest was tightening. To my surprise, I was chomping at the bit to get the mic back. All the data-thick metrics had awakened a passion in me that I am not sure that I even knew was there. I tapped the moderator on the shoulder and whispered, “I’m sorry, but I need to say something. Please save some time for me before all this is over, if you can. Thanks.”

“Science and data make people believe…
Stories make people care”

— Jim Rogers, Former CEO, Duke Energy

I had to wait another 20 minutes or so, but for better or worse, they gave me the last word. I took the mic and to the assembled young marketing professionals, most of whom were looking at their phones, I said:

“Folks, just sitting here, a powerful thought has occurred to me… Even with all of this new technology and myriad multimedia platforms now, your jobs are still about telling stories. Your job does not hinge on how many more clicks or retweets you get on Twitter compared to your rivals.

A developer is not going to choose McHugh Construction over Pepper Construction, or vice versa, based on which company has more social media traffic… Likewise, a bright young engineer or architect just out of college is not going to choose to apply to your firm based on whether your company’s ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ video went viral!

Sure, those numbers are nice to have, and it’s fun to get people’s attention… but at the end of the day, the quality that owners and jobseekers are looking for is how you tell your own story… How you define yourself… your goals, your accomplishments… your approach to people and projects. That is the ‘data’ on which they will base their decisions… So, stories still matter. Remember that.”

And with that, I handed the mic back to the moderator… As I recall, there was applause.

Of course, I was later reminded that was also the same moment that the moderator thanked everyone who had attended or presented, and wished everyone a safe trip back to work. So, truth be told, I’m not really sure all the clapping was for me. Even so, I did receive a proactively positive reaction from several audience members, including a pleased Matt Gray, BuiltWorlds founder. (Whew!) Among those who also came up to me afterward was Deborah Hodges, president of Chicago-based Golden Square and former head of both the national Construction Writers Association and the local SMPS chapter. Hodges was in complete agreement with what I had said, and she hoped that her millennial colleagues in the crowd were paying attention. (If not, that’s why I went to the trouble of writing this all down!)

“We’re a research community… [collecting] data from 1,000 companies about their expressions of purpose”

— Andy Swindler re ‘The Science of Story’

Another person who approached me was BW friend Andy Swindler, president of ASTEK, a Chicago-based web design and marketing agency. (He is also a member in the local chapter of Conscious Capitalism.) By extraordinary coincidence, Andy told me offstage that he is currently participating in an ongoing study for a forthcoming book entitled, The Science of Story. “We’re a research community sponsored by (digital marketing firm) Mabbly to collect data from 1,000 companies about their expressions of purpose,” he explained. “We believe that is at the heart of authentic stories that grow businesses and that help all stakeholders to prosper.”

With that goal in mind, he says, the book will tell the stories of firms that are pioneering the next evolution of “purpose-driven business communication”, and how they are managing to build and to “maintain credibility and authenticity through digital storytelling.”

Wow. Who knew? Thank you for sharing, Andy. Can’t wait to read it!

But will your new book have pictures?


  • P.S. After this story was first posted, a retired marketing exec friend led me to this quote from legendary ad man Leo Burnett“Good advertising is a happy wedding of words and pictures, not a contest between them.”  (Those words just seemed too relevant to leave on the sidelines.)