Welcome to the next instalment of our new series: Champions of Content.
Content is integral to the way brands are understood and seen by their audiences, but developing content for different audiences, on different channels and even in different languages can be very complicated to get right.
In Champions of Content, we’ll be speaking to passionate content creators we admire including marketers, journalists, writers, podcasters, and speakers about their experiences and sharing the wisdom to help others on their own content journey – whether your first putting pen to paper or looking to level up your content strategy.
Aidan McLaughlin has spent almost a decade working for the world’s leading jobs website Indeed.com, creating campaigns that are engaging, entertaining and informative. As global director for branded content and storytelling, he is responsible for creating large-scale, cross-platform communications including original content, partnerships, podcasts, and documentaries.
Prior to working in-house at Indeed, McLaughlin worked for PR agencies Fleishman-Hillard and Ogilvy PR, giving him a unique insight into marketing for B2C and B2B businesses ranging in size from small start-up to large corporations. Across his career, he has gained experience working with industries including technology, financial, media, internet, HR services, legal and healthcare.
In this edited conversation, Aidan talks about the power of storytelling in having an impact on customers and consumers and the importance of focusing on the bigger narrative rather than just the individual pieces of content.
To begin, Aidan, can you please tell us about your own career journey and what role content plays in your work today?
I don’t necessarily think of myself as a content creator, but more as a storyteller. I’ve always been fascinated by story and narrative. At college, I studied psychology and was intrigued by the stories people tell themselves, how they interact with the world and how those stories motivate them to do different things.
After finishing my degree, I took other courses, including in film. I see film and art as reflections of our individual psychology within the context of a community.
Later, I spent a lot of time in PR agencies, including Fleishman-Hillard and some boutique firms in Ireland. That really opened the world of media to me. I had this basis of narrative, psychology, and art, and learned how media worked as a conduit for getting a message out into the world.
I joined Indeed as the PR manager for international comms. I was operating in every country except the US, launching campaigns in countries like the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, Australia, and Brazil. The challenge was figuring out how to fit what we wanted to say within a cultural context that could connect with these different audiences.
Today, I see my role as infusing storytelling into the organisation, at the largest scale possible. Indeed is a tech company at the cutting edge of scaling influence, gathering job seekers and bringing them together to give them opportunities. Tech companies are usually attracted to numbers, and communicating how big their numbers are, like how many millions of views does the site get each month and how many millions of resumes are on the site.
That’s one side of the story, but I was also fascinated by how these little moments of change on an individual basis might be affecting the world. We focused on telling the other side to the story with a series called Jobs Change Us. We found people who could talk about how Indeed helped them get a job and what role that job played in changing their lives.
That series started with documentary-style YouTube videos and later we turned them into 30-second TV ads. That shows the power of storytelling and how, if you can capture lightning in a bottle, stories can really fuel your other communication channels.
How can companies become better at storytelling?
If you look at the latest research in the areas of neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and cognitive psychology, it is pointing towards the conclusion that the brain is not an information processor like a computer; it’s a story processor.
People think in narratives, and we operate based on the stories we tell ourselves. So, if an organisation wants to connect with a large audience, it cannot do that purely in a rational, informational basis. It must think about in terms of narrative.
Today, we have all these channels that allow us to talk directly to our audience. We can shape the overall story into different formats for different channels. Companies can scale and maximise the assets that come out of a great story. They need to seize this opportunity.
Whose storytelling – brands or individuals – do you admire most and why?
I’m fascinated by HBO’s approach to The Last of Us.
The Last of Us itself is an amazing storytelling device: it’s set in this post-apocalyptic world, but it’s also a story about love, the lengths we will go to protect family and what we think of as “family”. The characters are not all related but they’re a unit. It pushes the boundaries of what we categorise as family.
HBO also released a companion podcast with the two showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. On the podcast, they discuss how the show is different to the videogame, and why they made these creative decisions. I just love the use of a podcast to expand the full storytelling around a piece of art. It’s a useful case study for brands. Because when I think about a campaign, I ask: how many ways can we tell the story we’re trying to communicate?
If we apply that to a real-world issue, like the gender pay gap, who can we tell stories about? There are the real people who are affected; the communities around them; there’s the company’s point of view; then there’s all the statistics and data on the subject. At a macro level, the story of the gender pay gap can be told in as many ways as you can create.
That’s why I don’t tend to think in terms of creating individual pieces of content. I think about creating big stories that can be leveraged in different ways and from which we can create many different assets.
What’s your advice for building a storytelling campaign?
At Indeed, at the start of the year, we bring all our teams together, including the media buyers, the creative agency, the social team, the internal team, and the Hiring Lab, our economics unit. We talk about our plan for the year, and then we map out all the times we can talk to our audience and our followers using our own data and the macro economic environment.
It becomes this fully integrated programme. You need to decide: what’s the big story that we want to tell first, and then how do all these pieces of the campaign knit together underneath that narrative structure?
The stories you create also must be entirely context dependent. That’s one reason I have always valued the opinion of PR: its job is to understand the cultural context and the media context.
What you create must meet the context and the climate as it stands. And that’s hard, because if you’re planning something six months ahead, anything could happen in that time, but that’s why it needs to be a team effort. You need to bring as many perspectives to the table as possible and make sure that the communities of people that you’re talking to are represented at the outset.
When thinking about the narrative structure of your campaign, you need to think about the human condition. What emotional state do you want your audience to feel? So, think less about the message you’re trying to send, and more about the emotion you want to tap into.
For example, everybody understands what it feels like to look for a job. There’s an emotional state attached to that. And understanding that helps with building empathy for our audience, rather than simply focusing on the messaging.
What are some of the challenges you face when producing content for different channels and audiences, and how do you deal with these? Here at Tyto, we often navigate the complexity of developing content for different audiences in different countries.
When we started doing work in Tokyo and Japan, the biggest lesson for me was the need to be very culturally sensitive with our campaigns. For instance, your PR approach in the US and Europe is to speak to the individual and the individual’s aspirations.
But Japan is a collectivist culture, which means you must be incredibly conscious of how the group moves.
We needed to figure out how to launch PR campaigns that were culturally resonant, and that spoke to a community versus an individual approach. So when we launched the Japanese TV ads we repurposed a really well known children’s song and used famous Japanese actors to front the campaign. You can see it here.
When it comes to PR and building reputation in different markets, your approach needs to be the opposite of “move fast and break things”; it becomes “move slowly and infuse into the society you’re trying to help”.
Something that can be challenging when working with local PR teams is being told that a story or idea won’t work there. I appreciate that different markets will have their own unique needs and requirements, so it is important to have a productive conversation based on “if you want to tell this particular story, here are the things you need to put in place.” I think that is a more positive approach, rather than simply rejecting an idea.
What are your thoughts on AI and ChatGPT, and its potential role in storytelling?
I’ve interacted with ChatGPT. Certainly, it’s great for organising ideas and writing first drafts, but we absolutely must be cautious. Fully embracing a nascent technology without an ethical understanding of its implications is dangerous.
The problem I see with it is that if you’re interacting with a chatbot – even if you know that this is just a machine reproducing predictive text – people interact with it like it’s another human being. That creates huge potential for this tool to be used for mass disinformation.
Within Indeed’s creative agency, the first thing we’re doing is putting ethical guidelines in place governing how to interact with it. For example, if we use a generative AI tool, we must be transparent and list any content created by it, stating which chatbot was used to create it, and perhaps even what prompts were used. We need rules for when to use AI and how to use it, because we just don’t know what harm it may cause.
What is your top advice for planning a creative storytelling campaign?
You need to consider the cultural context of your campaign. Context really matters. For instance, when we launched our Rising Voices campaign, in collaboration with Lena Waithe, Hillman Grad Productions, Ventureland, and 271 Films, this program aims to discover, invest in and amplify stories created by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) filmmakers and storytellers. It was launched during the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the rise of Black Lives Matter, so it wasn’t just a piece of content to be pushed out. We decided to produce a repeatable investment into BIPOC creators, because art changes culture, which changes society. If we can bring these new voices into the industry and help them find jobs, they can help to shape society for the better.
Another thing organisations do poorly is find the tension in their content. Conflict is the heart of drama. And the content that organisations produce, which is a form of art, must create tension within us. It has to reach for the emotional roots, so that the audience feels something. Organisations need a strong point of view to do that well. With issues like the gender pay gap campaign I mentioned, if you want managers and recruiters to make changes, you need to appeal to hearts and minds at scale, not to rational brains, because changing your mind is an incredibly difficult and taxing thing to do. You need your emotional realm to be in tune with that change for it to take effect.