Nick Freer: A tale of how storytelling is key in business

Nick Freer is a founding director of the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners
Nick Freer is a founding director of the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners
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I remember the first time I met someone who had the title “chief storyteller” on their business card. I was a bit cynical and imagined a senior executive sitting on cushions in the corner of the boardroom reading books to some of the company’s younger employees.

It was a couple of years later when I was at a talk by Steve Clayton, Microsoft’s chief storyteller, that I started to get a feel for how the function actually fitted in to the corporate communications structure and an organisation’s overall hierarchy.

Building a narrative for your brand is essential. It helps drive sales in the good times when the graphs are heading north, and is also there to back up your brand when the chips are down. More so in the States, but increasingly in the UK, chief storytellers are on the payroll and are front and centre of developing a company’s story and guiding its dissemination inside and outside of the business.

Best practice says the CEO should be integral to the development of the company’s narrative, along with the CMO and relevant retained advisers. Arguably, the PR team is the most important cog in the wheel; it is the company’s gatekeeper and filters what comes in and what goes out.

I’ve always thought PR should be something that is done on the front foot, in tandem with having a well-oiled reactive system in place, and that strategy should drive communication. Abraham Lincoln said “character is the tree, reputation is the shadow” and I think it’s fair to say that too many companies still spend more time manipulating the shadow than tending to the tree.

Duncan Logan, CEO and founder of RocketSpace in San Francisco, told me on one of his last visits to Scotland that he thinks good PR can make the difference between success and failure for a company and that it should be embedded in a start-up from the very beginning. Logan is well-qualified on the subject when you consider that Airbnb and Uber are two of the technology companies that went from fledgling to global at RocketSpace.

We have had the chance to work with an exciting bunch of early-stage companies in recent times. Some founders have a strong vision of the company’s brand and how they want the story to be told from day one, others seem to be more in the “make it up as we go along” camp, many more still are somewhere in between.

PlayerData, a sports wearable tech start-up founded by two computer sciences graduates from the University of Edinburgh and backed by an impressive collective of investors including former Tesco chief Sir Terry Leahy and now chaired by founder Mike Welch, is a great start-up story in the making. CEO Roy Hotrabhvanon is an international archer who has represented Thailand and only narrowly missed out on the Rio Olympics in 2016. By targeting (excuse the pun) the global wearables market, the PlayerData team could be on to a winner with the sector expected to grow to more than £15 billion by 2021.

At a Heriots rugby lunch in December hosted by Lending Crowd, Scotland’s only alternative finance provider to SMEs, I had the pleasure of meeting a Scottish tech founder whose company flies somewhat under the radar in terms of media profile while achieving notable success in spite of it. Cortex CEO and founder Peter Proud has just completed a buy-out from advertising giant WPP and, when it comes to good stories, Peter and Cortex’s back catalogue is an embarrassment of riches.

Proud worked for Microsoft for over a decade and there is a story about Bill Gates putting him on his private jet so he would not miss one of his children’s birthday parties after a board meeting ran over. Another good one saw Cortex being brought in to stop the NFL Superbowl’s website crashing due to an unprecedented amount of visitors to the site in 2015. I get the feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more about Peter and Cortex’s story in 2018.

l Nick Freer is a founding director of the Freer Consultancy and Full Circle Partners