Robert Aho isn’t your average creative. For starters, the Republican media consultant holds a MBA in Marketing from the University of Pittsburgh. After getting his start in Pennsylvania politics in the 90s, he later did a stint at an ad agency outside of the industry which, combined with his more than two decades of experience in campaign advertising, gives him a unique perspective on last cycle’s creative output.
What he saw from Republican candidates and groups alarmed him — for one compelling reason. There wasn’t enough compelling storytelling.
C&E: You delivered a stern talk to Republicans at C&E’s recent Reed Awards & Conference. Can you sum up your main concern?
Aho: If you look at any criticism of anything in the industry, whether it’s left or right, political or public affairs, or just advertising at large, everything has changed. Like, everything has changed. And we all know that. We all keep talking about how everything has changed, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that advertising, at its core, is about telling a compelling story. I think everybody can get a little too enthralled with the latest shiny object and forget that.
The real creative connection impacts the success of an advertisement much more so than the targeting aspect does. That was the point of my talk: real creative connections happen through stories. As much as it’s fun to talk about the latest, greatest widget or the newest technological breakthrough that we have in targeting or modeling or any of this stuff, we can’t lose sight of the fact that reaching and persuading voters is more about storytelling than anything else.
C&E: Do you think of it like, good creative can make up for an ad that might be poorly targeted because, say, people could share it across social media?
Aho: Targeting is really, really important, but I think there’s a treatment among a select few folks in the industry that creates this belief that targeting is the end all, be all. You can target perfectly, but it doesn’t matter if the story isn’t right, if the message isn’t right.
So it’s kind of a yin and a yang. It’s the perfect combination of the perfect story to the right audience at the right time. And too often I think there’s a lot of time spent on thinking through the targeting, and then everybody has to hurry up and get through the scripts or the copy to tell the story. And it’s like, ‘You know, maybe we should spend a little bit more time trying to gather people’s interest, because every time that there’s a focus on that, it pays off.’ Not that the targeting isn’t important, but perhaps it’s overshadowing the storytelling some days.
C&E: What’s driving this shift of focus away from storytelling in campaign spots?
Aho: I don’t know what’s driving it. I don’t know where it’s coming from because I think there’s some really creative work that gets done, on both sides of the aisle.
But we don’t remember the polling cross tabs. We don’t remember the PowerPoint presentations. We don’t remember talking about the size of the audience. What we remember are stories. The best in the business inside of politics, and outside of politics, are always the storytellers because we see such vivid pictures in our minds when we’re inside of a story. I think to win Republicans have got to be better at telling their story — better than their competition.
C&E: Isn’t it harder to tell stories in an age of super short attention spans?
Aho: The traditional story arc has changed radically. And the folks that don’t understand the changes to the story arc are not gonna be successful for very much longer. The [new] story arc looks a lot like a racing heartbeat. It’s moving around a lot. It’s got multiple peaks, unexpected shifts. And I believe that understanding how the story arc has changed is what it takes to hook voters and create a lasting connection with them.
There’s a temptation to be like, ‘Look, everybody’s got a really short attention span now, and everybody’s on TikTok and Twitter, and there’s no time to tell a good story.’ But one of my slides [during my presentation] had Jesus Christ on it and talked about how I would look at him as the ultimate storyteller. He spoke in parables, which is just another word for stories. And some of his stories were one or two verses long.
And so I think when people hear the word stories, they think it’s got to be this long-winded book, or novel. But all that it takes to tell a good story is to have a narrative that pulls people in and interests them, and that’s what they’re going to remember.
Voters don’t want data. They want stories. And if we tell them really good stories, they will remember our data. They just won’t think of it as us spitting data at them.