by Joe Frontiera
Every since he was a kid in Woodstock, NY, Jonah Sachs told stories. As he explains, “a best friend and I used to amuse ourselves by making up stories, making up worlds, creating games, and we just got deep into invention through story.” So it makes sense that the author of Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell (and live) the best stories will rule the future (2012, Harvard Business Review Press) is now regarded as a master storyteller. But his stories have matured, and rather than making up worlds that a young boy would find appealing, Jonah Sachs and his Free Range Studios are now helping organizations large and small create their own stories in a more genuine and compelling manner.
In order to put Sachs and his Free Range studies in context, it’s important to understand how they got started. Just out of college in 1998, Sachs saw the world was changing. As the internet grew and gained in popularity, Sachs couldn’t shake the feeling that “something inherently interesting was happening.” He saw the broadcast model of advertising, the predominant method of advertising since the advent of TV and radio, was changing quickly. Rather than corporations simply sending their tired messages to a passive audience, “the means of distribution was falling into the hands of every single person.” And Sachs couldn’t help but wonder, “what happens when everybody becomes a broadcaster?” In other words, amongst this new clamor, how could anybody get a message to stand out?
So with youthful exuberance along with a dash of naiveté, Sachs and his friend, Louis Fox (that same friend from childhood), started a design firm, Free Range Studios, focused on creating messages for non-profits that would go viral. Their focus was on non-profit because they wanted to “work with people who were trying to change the world.” And in the early days before YouTube, Sachs recalls, “you could easily gain a half a million views.” In some cases, up to 25 million people saw their videos about issues that “nobody wanted to hear about”, and Sachs attributes those early success to the basic idea that they were telling a story.
Free Range soon exceeded Sachs’ early and modest goal to earn $35,000 per year for both founders. And as the company grew, they also came to an important realization. “At the beginning of the whole social responsible wave, and the beginning of our lives, we weren’t that sophisticated in understanding that tax status doesn’t say that much about what an organization’s trying to do to change the world.” So Free Range started taking clients outside the non-profit world. Now, Free Range defines its entire client base as “visionary change makers”, and they can fully get behind their clients because the “leadership team discusses every project that comes in our door, and if the client isn’t telling some core truths about their world, or isn’t capable of living these truths out,” Free Range won’t accept the business. At the end of the day, Free Range doesn’t simply want to be a mouthpiece. And that comes down to one of Sachs’ core beliefs – “people don’t really have a right to put messages out there unless they’re standard bearers for that message.”
The question remains, though, why is Free Range so successful, and why are the stories they tell so powerful? For one, it’s the way that they look at stories. Sachs acknowledges that what you learned in grade school is true – every story has character, conflict, and plot on the surface. And, in a good story, the various themes “illustrate a key point about how the world works.” And if the themes point back to a core truth that you stand for as an organization, then the message starts to become more powerful.
Yet, stories aren’t simply about plot, character, conflicts, and truths. The best ones go even deeper. Sachs calls most of the stories we hear today – the marketing campaigns, political ads, radio ads – inadequacy stories. Essentially, “they instill a sense of fear, or lack, or need for something we don’t have.” In inadequacy stories, the “audience becomes the damsel in distress, and the brand is the knight coming to save the day.” In tracing the history of marketing and ad campaigns, Sachs came to a startling realization. Despite the prevalence for inadequacy marketing, “the most iconic ad campaigns, the Volkswagens from the 1960s, Apple, Nike, Obama 2008, all run totally counter to that.” So rather than inadequacy marketing, empowerment marketing is the dominant force.
This has shaped a core belief of Free Range, that they “need to tell stories that give people agency.” Contrary to the industry’s conventional wisdom, Sachs knows that marketing isn’t about how great a company is, or how great its product is. Instead, it’s about how great the audience can be. “The hero of the story is not the company, but the people that you’re trying to move to a higher action – your audience.” And this circles back to the original insight that Sachs had just out of college. Now that everyone has the power to communicate in this new era, what messages will stand out?
Sachs has learned, over time, that the messages that move people “from consumer to citizen” will resonate long after we squelch our anxiety to fill whatever it is we think we’re missing. Whether we run a small business or are simply caught in a consumer mindset, that’s a truth worth exploring.
Joe Frontiera & Dan Leidl are the managing partners of Meno Consulting, and co-author a regular column in the Washington Post’s On Leadership section. Dan and Joe are authors of the book, Team Turnarounds, (Jossey-Bass, July, 2012).