News & Views

Most Contagious New York / Emma Coats

by Contagious Team

'A film gets 90-120 minutes of an audience's undivided attention to tell its story, while a brand is dealing in years of an audience's intermittent attention.'

We've invited story artist, Emma Coats, previously at Pixar and now working with Rovio and Dreamworks, to join us on stage at Most Contagious in New York to share her thoughts on storytelling and what it means for brands moving forward. Ahead of presentation, we asked her a few questions.

You have a slightly unorthodox educational background and are mainly self-taught. How do you think that has influenced your approach to storytelling?

As a homeschooler, your own interests drove a lot of your education. When there's a subject you're interested in, you have to figure out how to learn about it, solve the problems you're up against: if you haven't got a teacher who can educate you about animation, what other resources are available? You build your own curriculum in service of your objective, and I don't think you ever grow out of it.

My approach to storytelling is similar. Identifying the objective of a story is first. What feeling am I trying to create? What concept am I exploring? Then the problem solving: What steps will it take to get there? Inevitably there will be missteps, but with the objective in mind I can get back on track. 

You previously worked at Pixar. Do you think that the way brands go about storytelling is or should be any different from how the likes of Hollywood story-tell? Does it make a difference that a product is involved?

I find the biggest difference is in scope. A film gets 90-120 minutes of an audience's undivided attention to tell its story, while a brand is dealing in years of an audience's intermittent attention. 

Storytelling over years is a different animal than what goes on in Hollywood, but along with the challenges come unique opportunities to affect your audience's world: if film is summer camp, advertising is year after year of school. Summer camp creates exciting and specific memories, but you really get to know your school friends, and they help define who you are. 

What is the most important piece of advice you'd give a brand looking to craft engaging stories?

Be brave enough to get it wrong! Sturgeon's Law posits that 'ninety percent of everything is crap.' That might look discouraging, but I find it inspiring. Generate ten ideas and you're guaranteed one of quality! 
How can stories help influence our behaviour? (Or, indeed, can they?)

Stories definitely have the potential to influence behavior. Stories can lend people emotional strength in dark times, or can be tools to see things differently. And stories absolutely influence our behavior!  Imagine two employees show up late to an important meeting. One employee was delayed helping a man who'd been hit by a car. The other had, nervous about the meeting, hyperventilated in the elevator and hidden in a supply closet to calm down. The result is the same: the meeting starts late. Your behavior towards them will be drastically different, due to their stories and your new perception of their character. 

In your 22 #storybasics you say you should challenge your characters and throw them the polar opposite of what they're good at and comfortable with. How would you apply that advice to brands?

This is a hard one! When applied to characters, it's an opportunity to see the character overcome challenges and grow as a person, to learn who they truly are under pressure. It creates an opportunity for us to root for them. 
When applied to brands, I think it's more about thinking outside the box: what are new and unexpected areas in which to express the brand's central values? This happens more and more, a brand organizing or participating in events which are aimed at creating positive emotions, not directly moving product. What can an audience root for? 

They say you can't be a good writer unless you're a voracious reader. What should brands be doing to become better storytellers?

Look for storytelling everywhere! If something catches your interest, there is most likely a story churning away in it. Expose yourself to art you don't understand yet! Often the effort to make sense of confusion leads to unique stories and ideas of your own. 

Emma is speaking at Most Contagious in New York on December 11. To find out more about the event or to book tickets, please email

Most Contagious will also be taking place in London on the same day, where Facebook's Director of Global Creative Solutions, Mark D'Arcy and Freestate's Co-founder and Creative Director, Adam Scott, will also be speaking on the subject of Storytelling.

For more information on the events, or to book tickets, email