Thoughts 21.04.22

We need better stories | Dave Billing

By Dave Billing, Executive Creative Director.

Today, according to the UN, is World Creativity and Innovation Day (WCID). You might think that the UN has its hands a little too full at the moment to be worrying about creativity, but actually, the timing couldn’t be any more resonant.

On its website, the UN talks about the transformative power of creativity and innovation in terms of income generation, job creation and export earnings. It argues that on WCID the world should embrace the idea that innovation is essential for harnessing the economic potential of nations. That creativity can provide solutions to some of the most pressing problems such as poverty eradication and the elimination of hunger.

And none of that is wrong. But in a high tech, short attention span, transactional culture, we increasingly think of creativity and innovation in terms of technical, material ‘fixes’ that can improve humanity’s wellbeing. We think of products and platforms – things, not abstractions. 

As an industry, too, we get the power of products and platforms. But we also excel at an ancient, vital and perhaps unfashionable aspect of creativity – storytelling. And I’d argue that right now, as well as material fixes for the world’s woes, we urgently need better stories.

For the most part, our world’s grand narratives have been entirely discarded, or are under greater threat than ever – from the Resurrection to the American Dream, from the Enlightenment to Democracy, it’s almost impossible to find a story we all believe in any more. And what’s rushed to fill that vacuum? Horror stories, powered by the rolling news cycle and the allure of clickbait. We’re far more likely to reject narratives we don’t like the look of than actively believe in one ourselves. Whether it’s your newsfeed or the Daily Mail, negativity sells. It’s telling that the grandest political narratives of our time, Brexit and Make America Great Again, defined themselves more by what they rejected and stood in opposition to, rather than what they stood for, which remained elusive, ill-defined and, at best, dangerously sentimental.

Although stories are just words, they act on a physical level. From the fabric of nationalistic lies that’s been offered up by the Kremlin to justify the invasion of Ukraine, to the insidious tale of white supremacy that underpinned slavery, stories can be a matter of life and death. It’s sad to think that, despite the centuries that have passed between the invention of the printing press and Web 3.0, it’s still alarmingly easy for those in power to control the narrative.

We are poised at a time of incredible jeopardy and incredible opportunity. The threats we face, and the solutions we must dream up if we are to overcome those threats, are the work of a species, not individuals. Practically applied human creativity and innovation will be a big part of the answer. But so too will be the new stories we must weave, and believe in, as a civilisation – what do we want? Where are we going? How can we be responsible, adaptable, kind? What does a better planet look like? What does a fairer world require? It’s up to all of us – as individuals, family members, governments, brands, countries, and as an industry – to stop peddling the same old stories, and start defining a future-fit narrative – a positive narrative – we can all believe in.