Recently, Latitude launched an innovation study on The Future of Storytelling. Why? So we can uncover the questions, challenges, and aspirations of tomorrow’s storytellers and identify how they can better align with audience’s changing expectations. Every week for the next several weeks, Latitude will share its conversation with a different influential individual. We’ll follow the series with a summary of best practices and insights for content creators and businesses from Latitude’s SVP, Neela Sakaria.

This week’s spotlight on David Deans:

David was an independent marketing consultant, industry analyst and columnist, prior to joining Cisco. Four years ago, he was a vocal commenter on their “Human Network” campaign strategy, when a Cisco recruiter reached out to him. That was the beginning of this journey.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, David. Can you give us a little background on your role at Cisco?

I’m currently a Digital Marketing Manager at Cisco Systems; I’m part of the Service Provider Marketing team. That means the customers we’re trying to engage via storytelling are telecom service providers, cable TV companies and, in some cases, other people that influence the market for their products and services.

What do you think has driven companies’ interest in new forms of storytelling over recent years?

The path that led [Cisco] here was, I’m sure, similar to several other companies. In the past, we created content somewhat in isolation from our target audience and the various categories of stakeholders in the marketplace. Now, the process is more directed by what we believe our constituency is interested in—we’re asking, what topics do they find most engaging, and how can we use storytelling skills to convey those value points in a more interesting way? Ultimately, we’re attempting to meet customers’ wants and needs with the content that we produce and the way we share that content. [See David’s post on Cisco’s Connected Life Exchange.]

Yes, that makes a lot of sense. So users’ expectations about accessing and sharing content spurred a more multi-platform approach for Cisco?

Yes, exactly. We started taking content that we had produced and began slicing and dicing it in a number of different ways and putting it on different kinds of media, whether it be PowerPoint presentations that we put online or repurposing a white paper to turn it into a series of blog posts.

The next logical step is to ask yourself: what would happen if you actually started to subdivide the storylines, and tell only part of the story on one media, and then continue the story on another media? And then, what if you were to open up to a more non-linear form of storytelling—where you essentially jump about on the timeline to tell a story element in the most engaging way?

Much of what we’ve been exploring is the difficulty in defining this space. It seems like you’re making a distinction between “multi-platform” or “cross-media” storytelling and “transmedia” storytelling. Can you elaborate on that a bit?

Here’s the distinction, from my point of view: cross-media is merely taking various parts of the same storylines and various content assets and using, repurposing, and sharing them across different media. On the other hand, transmedia doesn’t just take what’s already been done and reuse it; it actually comes up with a whole new content strategy to look at the project and see if it’s possible to break the story into pieces intentionally, and then fit the storylines to the most appropriate media vehicle—meaning an online format like video, an audio podcast, or a PowerPoint presentation.

Maybe “vehicle” is a good word to use in this context because it’s carrying something; it takes that particular morsel of information or that particular character in a distinct direction that compliments the other parts of the storyline. So, it’s not repetition; the narrative is additive.

Do you think there are different rules that apply for scripted or entertainment content as opposed to what you’re doing with the Cisco brand?

In the entertainment world, you’re creating mythologies; so the difference is in the essence of the storytelling. One is imaginative and creative, and the other one is somewhat creative but less imaginative, because you’re trying to put yourself in the shoes of people who have actually experienced an event and then tell that true story from their point of view—in a way that makes it relevant and engaging for your audience.

You’re probably somewhat unique, being a brand marketer who thinks of himself as a storyteller; we’ve all been conditioned to think of people in the entertainment business as separate from people who are selling a brand in some way or another. Thinking about your role, would you consider yourself or Cisco ahead of or in-line with colleagues and competitors?

I believe we’re an early adopter. I have a feeling that there are fast followers close behind us, perhaps even right on our heels. I know there are other people or other companies that are doing creative things.

For example, there are people at Pepsi and other consumer oriented brands that are doing interesting things in transmedia, and it’s much easier for them in some regards to make that leap of faith. However, in certain ways, it’s much more beneficial to us, and here’s the reason why: when you’re dealing with a technology and an industry that prides itself on its acronyms, there’s a tremendous benefit to using analogies and storytelling to simplify things and to make them understandable to a broad cross-section of constituencies.

Absolutely. Typically, you would think of an agency handling this kind of storytelling because, in perception at least, they might be in a more creative environment where these kinds of ideas are cultivated regularly. So I’m curious—how have things relating to work flow and environment been handled at Cisco, to foster this kind of storytelling?

In the migration from multimedia to cross-media to transmedia, it really helps to work in an environment where you are able to push forward non-traditional suggestions; I’ve found that at Cisco. There are people who are truly multi-faceted, and they’re taking a lead role in content strategy. Then there are the specialist types. When I put together a team, I look at the talent pool, and then see where we may have to supplement the team. That’s when we’ll reach out to graphic artists, perhaps a digital agency, what have you. The potential to combine expertise, talent and creativity—while really being humble about bringing that all into our creative process—is a wonderful thing. So, collaboration mindset is key to a successful project.

Over time, I see my role being more like a movie director. Meaning, I want the best available resource to work with me on a new project. Therefore, from the pre-production planning phase through to the post-production activities, we’ll bring the best-fit team together—just in time for the specific tasks—and then the group disbands at the end of the project. Open innovation is part of the Cisco culture, so it’s the perfect environment for me to experiment and pursue my creative passion.

This interview was conducted by Neela Sakaria, SVP at Latitude.


Latitude is an international research consultancy helping clients create engaging content, software and technology that harness the possibilities of the Web. To learn more about working with Latitude, fill out this form or contact Ian Schulte (ischulte@latd.com).

Image credit: Neil Kremer, (cc) some rights reserved.