Ty Montague is a founder of co:collective and author of “True Story: How to combine story and action to transform your business” (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013).
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself, “True Story,” and co:collective?
I’m a refugee from the traditional advertising business. I left that business eight years ago to start co:collective with some partners. Our thesis then, as now, is that the companies that will own the future have two key differences from traditional companies. First, they are on a Quest to make a positive change in society or in the environment. And second, once they have defined their Quest, it isn’t something they say using ads, it is something they do through innovation in the customer experience – the products they make, the services they provide, in some cases their business model.
I wrote a book about it in 2013 called True Story. When I wrote the book I needed a one-word handle for what these companies do so I coined the term Storydoing. At co: we help companies become better Storydoers.
What is the difference between storytelling and storydoing? Provide an example.
Storytelling companies tend to convey their narrative through paid media. Storydoers convey their story through action – innovation in the customer experience. If you look at the list below you can see that in addition to advertising less, Storydoers tend to feel more modern, relevant, human, even.
Reebok TOMS Shoes
Mercedes Benz Tesla
What is metastory?
Metastory is the story you tell through your actions. Put another way, your metastory is the story that others assemble about you based on all the experiences they have with you. So it becomes the story that they tell about you when you are out of earshot.
“Reputation” would be another way to think about it. All people have one. All companies have one.
Can you think of an example in which a company’s messaging suffered because its employees didn’t have a unified vision of its metastory?
I can think of many examples in which the credibility of a companies messaging suffered because everybody wasn’t on the same page about the overall objective (Quest would be our term for it). Most large companies today are siloed – every part of the company is marching to a different drum. As a result they often have a totally fragmented customer experience.
There are lots of examples where the company is saying it is about one thing, but doing something totally different somewhere else. One glaring example: The marketing department at British oil giant British Petroleum (BP) thought it would be a great idea to rebrand and tell the world that BP now stood for Beyond Petroleum. But no one outside of marketing had any intention of actually living that story. They kept doing what they’d always done – drilling for oil as fast and as inexpensively as they could.
The resulting Deepwater Horizon environmental disaster exposed the fact that the company was telling one story but doing a completely different story. Investors lost billions and the company’s reputation never recovered.
What is the “T-shirt Test”? Do you think your clients would wear a co:collective T-shirt?
The T-shirt test is a simple real-world test of the love for your company’s metastory. Put two stacks of identical white T Shirts on a table on the street with a sign that says “Free T shirts. Take one.” One stack has your company logo on them. One stack has your competitors logo on them.
Which stack disappears first?
I wish more of our clients rocked co T-shirts. (Note to self: make a co: T shirt!)
How can small businesses without significant marketing resources incorporate some of the principles from your book?
Jeff Bezos has a quote about this that I love: “Advertising is just a tax you pay for a lack of innovation.”
When Amazon was small they couldn’t advertise and so they learned to be incredibly aggressive about taking friction out of the customer experience through innovation. One-click ordering is but one example. I think small companies are natural born story-doers because they are resource constrained.
The second reason I think fortune favors the small today is that, unlike previous generations of entrepreneurs who were focused exclusively on money and growth, I think most young entrepreneurs today are on a Quest to make some kind of positive change in the world.
Those are the two key ingredients to storydoing: be on a Quest, and have a maniacal focus on making that Quest real in the customer experience.
Which of your “four truths” do your clients and students find the most easy to understand and apply? The least?
The hardest is the truth about the protagonist. By our definition, the protagonist of the story is the company itself, and self-diagnosis is very hard. It’s very hard to look at yourself honestly and dispassionately through the eyes of your customers. None of the truths are easy, but the simplest in some ways is the truth about the antagonist (a new part of our process) which asks the company to define an enemy.
Many of our clients answer that question first with “we are our own worst enemy.” Many also try to name a competitor.
But a good enemy should be bigger than a competitor. It can be an idea, an emotion, or sometimes it’s an entire industry. It’s the dragon you are getting out of bed every day to slay. It’s the wrong in the world that you want to put right. Once folks understand that, defining theirs is much easier.
If a client conveyed a desire to devote 30-minutes each week to better understanding and creating its own story, how would you recommend the time be spent?
Spend the time watching and listening to your customers. They’ll tell you more about who you really are than anything else.
Where does a company draw the line between applying these principles itself and bringing in an external consultant?
The bigger you are the more likely the need to bring in an outsider. Larger companies tend to be structurally siloed, and therefore (with best of intention) misaligned. Getting the whole leadership team aligned, up to and including the CEO can be invaluable.
How do you approach company leaders—especially founders—with findings the public views its product or service much differently than they would hope? Can a company ever truly capitalize on the potential of storydoing if its leadership holds to a nostalgic or idealistic belief that is inaccurate?
Storydoing requires self-awareness, transparency and honesty (about the world, about your customers and about yourselves). It is sometimes hard for leaders, particularly founders, to let go of certain beliefs or behaviors as a company scales. But the reality is, doing the work to define and align on a Quest and then developing action principles and an action plan prepares a company to make the leap to the next generation of leadership and growth. Companies that fail to do this work often collapse when the founder retires or moves on.
If you could go back in time and incorporate the principles from your book in any business, what company would you work with, when, and how would it be different today as a result of your time-bending involvement? (Caveat: You cannot take back intelligence as to what different companies or sectors will do, but are limited to applying storydoing principles.)
I think it would be pretty interesting to go back and help Kodak make the leap to the future. Kodak made the mistake of thinking they were in the “celluloid film” business. If I worked with them I would have tried to help them understand that they are actually in the “treasured memory” business.
If we developed the right Quest for them around the idea of capturing treasured memories I think it would have been easier for them to see that the digital camera (which they invented!) didn’t endanger their core business, but rather, had the potential to turbo-charge it.
This is probably the aspect of our work at co which is most satisfying is helping companies define the business that they are in that unlocks growth that they couldn’t see before.