News & Views

Idea Exchange 2013 / SapientNitro

by Contagious Team

Luminaries discuss the art of emotional storytelling

The London Film Museum on the city's Southbank seemed like an obvious, yet appropriate setting for iEX 2013, SapientNitro's third annual event on the theme of storytelling. 

A stellar line-up of keynote speakers included Freakonomics author and economist Steven Levitt, celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, fashion designer and climate change activist Dame Vivienne Westwood and Oscar-winning film director James Cameron.

From storytelling to storyscaping 

Providing context for the event, SapientNitro's chief creative officer for Europe, Malcolm Poynton, outlined the agency's shift in thinking from 'storytelling to story living'. After outlining the three principal spaces where brands and people connect - the emotional space, via TV; the physical space, in the real-world; and the virtual space, online - Poynton then warned against the dangers of telling 'disconnected' stories that limit themselves to one of these spaces. 

'Storyscaping is our answer to the need for storytelling to evolve to better connect with consumers in an always-on world,' Poynton later told Contagious. And as Nigel Vaz, Sapient's senior vice president and managing director of Europe put it, 'It's our way of threading the narrative through every single interaction.' 

Sensory stories 

Chef and author Heston Blumenthal then explored the psychology of flavour perception through his experiences at The Fat Duck, his three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Berkshire, England. Blumenthal explained the process he went through to create two of his most famous dishes, Mock Turtle Soup and The Sound of the Sea, and explained that both dishes use all of the senses in a bid to create an emotional storyscape. 

Contagious later spoke to Blumenthal about his approach to his work. 'Quite often my ideas start off as failures, but it's always worth pursuing something as these failures often trigger inspiration for other ideas,' he said. 'The important thing is to be aware of this from the start.' 

Blumenthal also explained that his biggest worry was losing sight of when to use technology to fuel his creative cooking: 'I don't want to be creative for creativity's sake. Sometimes new is brilliant, sometimes it's not. So when I see a new piece of technology I have to stop and ask myself, "What benefit is this actually having on my food?"' 

'The one true connector' 

'Rogue economist' Steven Levitt then took to the stage and emphasised the need for authenticity in business. He describes this as 'the one true connector today' and cited the authenticity in social media as the key driver behind its success. In a later interview with Marketing magazine, Levitt questioned the authenticity of big brands who employ agencies rather than keep their marketing in-house. 

Levitt also spoke briefly about the importance of data in his work with brands, saying that the best application is often when data is used for something that it wasn't intended for. He explained that he used ticket information for United Airlines to work out if people sitting in a middle seat were less likely to book with that airline again, for example.

'The cusp of the possible' 

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated keynote of the day was from James Cameron, the Hollywood director responsible for The Terminator, Aliens,Titanic, and Avatar. Cameron highlighted how technological development was an essential element in all of his films, and talked of operating on 'the cusp of the possible' - right at the cutting edge of what can be done in cinema. 

In his earlier films, the director had to devise new ways of filming in order to give the audience something that they'd never seen before. For instance, whilst making The Abyss, new diving helmets had to be engineered to facilitate underwater filming, and new light-rigging was designed that then became the industry standard for underwater filming. Cameron also finished writing Avatar in 1995, but had to wait until 2003 until the technology was at a place where he could film as he wanted to in 3D. 

The rapid technological developments in cinema, however, have now created an industry that is by no means constrained or limited. 'We can now do anything we want with technology, it's only our imagination that limits this,' Cameron said. And while the director admitted that none of the film-making techniques he learnt from the outset are actually relevant any more, he ended by reminding us that 'the aesthetics of making good pictures will never change'.