The Ape, the Adman, and the Astronaut: Rediscovering the power of storytelling

A Red Paper by Tham Khai Meng, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Chief Creative Officer

NEW YORK, NY, JUNE 18, 2014 - “Man is a storytelling ape. He understands the world through story, and this is the way to move him.”

The Ape, the Adman and the AstronautIn The Ape, the Adman, and the Astronaut: Rediscovering the power of storytelling, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Chief Creative Officer Tham Khai Meng explains that the way to move people is through telling a great story. In the advertising world, there’s forever been a struggle between the right brained and the left brained, the creative types and their reason-seeking counterparts.

Despite longstanding evidence that humans are emotional and irrational creatures, creatives—the storytellers—have long been fighting for relevance. Khai says the battle has been won; the rise of social media has helped changed the landscape for good. People gravitate to great stories, and they share them with others. Thus, advertisers can’t look at storytelling as merely an option. It’s a must.

“I wrote this Red Paper because I believe that the timeless methods of ancient storytellers—used by our ancestors in the cave, journalists in the newsroom, lawyers in the courtroom, and filmmakers in the edit room—are the most powerful and effective means of communication and persuasion humans have ever devised”, says Tham Khai Meng, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide Chief Creative Officer. “Now we have a vast body of scientific evidence to prove that we are hard-wired for story. Stories enable us to create order out of our world and give us meaning for our lives.”

The world’s oldest profession: Storytelling

Throughout human history, storytelling has been the vehicle through which people have persuaded and moved each other. We are hardwired as a species to tell stories. Kendall Haven’s 2007 book Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story indicates that raw sensory input, like sights, sounds, and smells, is first processed in the same part of the brain that are “the exact areas [of the brain] that are activated when humans create stories.”

We are constantly engaged in storytelling. In 1963, a study asked children to describe an image of three dots moving along an inclined line. The kids believed the simple image was telling a story; despite three bland dots and a line not having any feelings or emotions of their own, the kids believed in what their movement was representing. To them, it was a story of adversity, or triumph, or simple good over evil. They turned it into a story because that’s what humans do.

The willing suspension of disbelief

English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the term, “the willing suspension of disbelief”. When in story mode, humans are a very impressionable people. We become more easily persuaded as we accept the rules of the world contained in the story. Because of this, what we’re told in a story setting we’re much less likely to challenge.

Stories have been told since the beginning of human consciousness, but so many of them have similar characteristics, follow the familiar formats and structures, and even tell the same narrative repackaged in a different culture or setting. It’s because these paradigms work. In advertising, different story archetypes are more effective for different types of ads. But creative thinkers have long been fighting the battle that a great story is the most effective way to a sale, and its one they’re starting to win.

Once upon a time: The director’s cut

The first part of telling a great story is “The big picture”. You need the basics—a hero (usually, a person), the hero’s goal, some conflict in the hero’s achieving his or her goal, and the hero coming away from the ordeal a changed being. But what makes a story good isn’t that it hits all the basics. Rather, this is where craft comes in; the tricks of the trade.

Curiosity is chief among them, through actions like cliffhangers that keep the audience guessing. Creating suspense and consistently upping the ante with setbacks and twists keeps the narrative moving and the reader or viewer engaged. And though often stories exist in a dream-like world, they’re made realistic, meaningful and emotional by the storytellers offering sensory detail.

To read the full version of The Ape, the Adman, and the Astronaut: Rediscovering the power of storytelling, click here.


Ogilvy & Mather
Ogilvy & Mather is one of the largest marketing communications companies in the world. It was named both the Cannes Lions Network of the Year and the Effies World's Most Effective Agency Network for two consecutive years, 2012 and 2013. The company is comprised of industry leading units in the following disciplines: advertising; public relations and public affairs; branding and identity; shopper and retail marketing; health care communications; direct, digital, promotion and relationship marketing; consulting, research and analytics; branded content and entertainment; and specialist communications. O&M services Fortune Global 500 companies as well as local businesses through its network of more than 500 offices in 126 countries. It is a WPP company (NASDAQ: WPPGY). For more information, visit, or follow Ogilvy on Twitter at @Ogilvy and on

Date: June 18, 2014