The end of words? Let's hope not

Video is eating the web but good writing matters more than ever.

Working at Penguin Books in 2000, I recall plenty of excitement about a brand campaign featuring black-and-white documentary photography with the caption "be here" in Penguin orange. The striking images and absence of any actual books certainly made the work stand out from the mass of publishers’ marketing activity, which largely featured a book jacket and a quote. 

The campaign was a huge success. But perhaps there was a little ambiguity in the messaging. The intention was to imply that there was no better way of immersing oneself in a story, a world or a life than through the pages of a (Penguin) book. But such was the power of the image that, without the Penguin logo, "a picture tells a thousand words" could have been an equally valid interpretation.

I was reminded of this last month when Facebook’s Nicola Mendelsohn seemingly predicted the end of the written word – or, at least, on that platform. "The best way to tell stories in this world, where so much information is coming at us, is video," she told a conference in London, adding: "We’re seeing a year-on-year decline of text… If I was having a bet, I’d say ‘video, video, video’."

Of course, Mendelsohn has both data and Mark Zuckerberg on her side. Video content made up 64% of web traffic in 2014, had reached 70% by the end of 2015 and is predicted to reach 80% by 2019. At Facebook’s F8 developer conference, Zuckerberg told the crowd that we are "at the beginning of a golden age of online video", announcing a raft of tools for the production and dissemination of live video content. Twitter seems to be placing a major bet on – and investment in – the streaming of live sports. And Snapchat proudly opens into the camera rather than into anything as passé as a text entry box. 

In the meantime, traditional publishers are doubling down on video. Most major newspapers have created video production units and, just a few weeks ago, The New York Times (motto: "All the news that’s fit to print") picked up two Cannes Grands Prix – for Mobile and Entertainment – for its VR app and The Displaced VR film. Even The Economist has a documentary film arm, tautologically advertised as the place "Where the image is the final word".

Words, it seems, have had their day. It’s undeniable that the raw, unedited, as-live video that fills our news and social streams provides a more visceral and immediate storytelling experience than a passive, measured reading experience can. But (and this might sound a strange question from a publisher-turned-marketer): is storytelling all there is? 

Right now, given tumultuous events both at home and abroad, I would argue that there is a desperate need to propose, share, support, challenge and discuss ideas, not just tell each other stories. We need ideas that can change views, overcome apathy and suggest how we get to a better tomorrow. And words, carefully chosen and elegantly arranged, are perfect tools for the communication of ideas.

Certainly, the brand as storyteller is a notion that many dismiss nowadays. The 2016 brand needs to have a purpose and a mission, an idea of a better world and the role that a brand can play in helping us get there. The global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble has pronounced that millennials demand brands have a purpose. And it is purpose-driven ideas (that word again) that win pitches and awards.

So perhaps we should hope and expect to see more brands crafting campaigns with ideas formed out of words instead of stories crafted from video. History and momentum suggests the year-on-year decline of text on Facebook is an inexorable trend for that platform. But just as it’s not all about storytelling, it shouldn’t be all about video.

Our culture and our marketing needs ideas more than ever. We still, unambiguously, need to choose and use our words carefully.

Jeremy Ettinghausen is innovation director, Bartle Bogle Hegarty London and BBH Labs

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