Tell the Story – and Learn from It – With a Biography of a Campaign
This is about learning from your mistakes and triumphs, and from the mistakes and triumphs of those who came before you. It’s about crashing through the stubborn veil of novelty and unfamiliarity to reach new heights of creativity. It’s about remembering what worked – and avoiding what did not. That’s what a biography of a campaign is meant to do for those who participated in the process, and for those who will join the team in the future. Ultimately, it’s about making things simpler for everyone by creating a concise, detailed story that records the highs, the lows, and all the lessons learned.
Since process simplification is the goal of the biography of a campaign, it might seem a little incongruous to start out with a piece of high-flying rhetoric from one of the great mythologists and scholars of the 20th century. But Joseph Campbell captured the sense of the biography of a campaign with this quote from his 1987 collaboration with Bill Moyers, the PBS documentary, the Power of Myth:
“These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religion over the millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. ”
The Power of a Story
Campbell’s passion was story. He made it his life’s work to dig deep into the ancient mythologies of the world, to decipher their similarities, to discover their convergent “guide signs” and make their meanings accessible to modern humanity. The idea wasn’t to find a meaning for life, he said. The idea was to glean lessons from the stories of mythology in order to know how to live well.
Similarly, a biography of a campaign tells the story, warts and all, from birth to post-mortem, of your campaign. It goes far deeper than the typical campaign report which, like any eulogy, tends to emphasize the positive. The biography of the campaign is written as a way to identify what Campbell might call the guide signs. This is particularly useful for people who are new to the company, who might come in knowing “how” to do the work, but have not had the time to decipher “why” things are done the way they’re done at their new place of business. It’s also helpful for those who’ve been around for a while, because it’s not always easy to remember the stage-by-stage details once a project has been put to bed.
The Turning Points
The actual day by day process of writing a campaign biography helps managers recognize the turning points in a campaign, the moments when decisions were made that set the campaign on the path to success. Turning points occur in the form of obstacles, anticipated or unexpected, that must be overcome. Chances are, especially in cases of recurring campaigns, those obstacles are going to reappear – again and again. With a campaign biography committed to memory (or at least near at hand for perusal), the story of how these obstacles were overcome can serve the same function as a recipe for an amateur chef. It’s one thing to be familiar with all the ingredients of a gourmet dish (or the familiar stages of your particular type of campaign). It’s another thing entirely to know how to put those ingredients together in order to create a meal worth eating (or a campaign that returns real value).
Create New Recipes From Old
The biography of a campaign is also like a recipe in this respect: It is a living document, shaped and enhanced by those who are inclined to put their personal imprint upon it. As you learn the lessons imparted by the campaign biography, you and your team should “spice it up” by implementing what you have learned according to the unique requirements of each ensuing campaign.
In other words, follow the guide signs, but don’t be afraid to veer onto a different path if the moment calls for it. In fact, creative growth depends on the willingness to question the solutions of yesterday. On the other hand, creativity unguided by the knowledge of what came before is often an exercise in banality. For example, the impressionists and surrealists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries would’ve been laughed out of Paris if they had not already demonstrated their deep understanding of the traditional forms given to art. They knew intimately what had been done by their predecessors, and for the sake of creativity and truth they decided to do it different – and, depending on your point of view – better. The point is, they built on the successes and mistakes of others, which were well-documented and hung in the salons of Montmartre and the galleries of the Left Bank (not to mention the Louvre).
That’s why we create the biography of the campaign. It’s not just a to-do list. It’s not just a creative brief. It’s not just a dry campaign report or post-mortem. It’s a story we build today to be told tomorrow. It’s a historical record of our thought processes, our internal struggles, our epiphanies. It’s a way to improve the process of campaign development and implementation, and a way to do better work for our clients. And that, after all, is what it’s about.