Seeking Inspiration – August 17, 2014

Seeking Inspiration – August 17, 2014

Welcome to Seeking Inspiration, an irregular column where we talk about the things that inspire us as artists. 

This cool short comes to you courtesy of alcohol and clothes. Have a look…

So let’s talk a little bit about this short. Yes, it’s an ad for Johnnie Walker whiskey and clothing retailer Mr. Porter. As ads go, though, it’s a pretty compelling one. It might not make you want to run out and buy a bottle of JW Blue or pull out your credit card on the Mr. Porter website, but it will most likely make you appreciate the effort that went into the film itself. Aesthetically, it’s a lush, gorgeous bit of video, and I did find myself tapping my foot along with the music as I watched Jude Law and Giancarlo Giannini dance away.

Okay — it’s a nice short. But outside of the aesthetically pleasing aspects, why is it inspiring?

Not too long ago, Stefan Sagmeister, founder of the Sagmeister, Inc. design agency in New York, went on a bit of a rant that got picked up by a few websites. Here’s the video – and beware: it’s definitely NSFW in terms of language.

In the video, Mr. Sagmeister rants against this modern trend of everyone calling themselves a “storyteller.” He also makes the claim that (only?) novelists and feature filmmakers are “real” storytellers.

One of my favorite blogs, Creative Review, kind of agreed with him.

Storytelling is universal and as old as the human race. But that doesn’t mean we are all storytellers in everything we do.

In the film, Sagmeister rages about a rollercoaster designer who referred to himself as a storyteller: “No f**khead, you are not a storyteller, you’re a rollercoaster designer!” Being a rollercoaster designer sounds a pretty cool job – surely that’s enough? Why the need to dress it up as something else?

This, I think, is the crux of the matter. The ad industry is searching for a role for itself in a communications world that has become very complex. The old certainties no longer apply. It has leaped on ‘Storytelling’ as a means of defining what it offers that none of the data geeks or algorithms can.

So thank goodness for Sagmeister for puncturing this particular bullshit bubble with such alacrity. Of course it helps if you’ve got something interesting to say about your product or organisation, of course telling a powerful story will stick in people’s minds and make them feel positive toward you. Yes, we now have lots of different ways to tell such stories. Didn’t we know all this already?

I think that statement contradicts itself to some extent. If you tell stories, why aren’t you considered a storyteller? Is the bone of contention here the label “storyteller?” Are Mr. Sagmeister and Creative Review claiming that that title ought not to be taken up by the “ad industry [that is] searching for a role for itself?”

If so, I call BS to that.

Back to the film that inspired this post. That’s an ad, folks. But it’s an ad that’s presented in the form of an entertaining story wrapped in a visually beautiful film that more than one person (judging by the YouTube comments) has found surprisingly appealing.

So why would it be wrong to call the filmmakers behind it “storytellers?”

I submit that it would not be.

One more thing. If there are photographers and videographers out there who are not storytellers already, I’d encourage them to become storytellers. If this ad is any indication, being able to provide a compelling narrative will be a competitive advantage.

If you shoot stills, think about shooting series of work. Our own Alexandria Huff has an incredible series she shoots on cemeteries around the world, for example. If you’re a videographer, you might assume you’re already telling stories in some way — and you are — but think of how you might flesh your work out even more. Philip Bloom’s video postcards are a first-rate example of storytelling through beauty films.

What about you? What have you done lately that’s a great example of storytelling, either through stills or video? Toss us a link in the comments below…

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter. You can find his blog at and his work on 500px.

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