Strategy is creative non-fiction

Hunter S. Thompson immersing himself in creative non-fiction.

Hunter S. Thompson immersing himself in creative non-fiction.


It came as a surprise that over 11,000 people read a Tweet I wrote in early January evening waiting for a movie to start in the darkness of my local cinema.

If brand or advertising strategy were a literary genre, it’d be creative non-fiction, I mused.

I had been reading more creative non-fiction writing, doing a little writing of my own, and thinking more about my personal relationship with strategy work, perhaps searching for a new ‘in’.

So, I composed my thought, tagged @MarkPollard (as I’m doing again) for his thoughts, and Tweeted. It wasn’t long until I saw that whatever it was I said tickled a nerve.

Being honest, I didn’t get much sleep that night. Later, I realised I had become quite addicted to the endorphin rush of likes and retweets, which kept me distracted for days. 

With a paltry 350-odd followers, this experience was new to me. And it got me thinking more about what I meant. I went back to my bookshelf and took out Lee Gutkind’s The Art of Creative Non-Fiction for some answers.

What does creative non-fiction and strategy have in common? Here are some further thoughts, gleaned from Lee’s immensely practical and inspiring book.

Truth in fiction, fiction in truth

The creative non-fiction writer has the best of both worlds. You must treat names, dates, places, etc. with the accuracy of a journalist, but you have creative freedom to tell a story in the most compelling way you can. Paradoxically, the closer fiction is to the truth, the more believable and powerful the story is. Through great storytelling, the facts become larger truths that connect with people on a deeper level. The strategist’s task is to tell stories that are personal and universal.

Immerse yourself

Stating the facts is never enough in creative non-fiction. Research will only get you so far. What makes non-fiction compelling for readers is being taken on a journey into the experiences of people and the writer. Creative non-fiction writers immerse themselves in their subject, spend time living with people, do what they do, or hit the road for weeks or months. For strategists, insight comes from exploring the unfamiliar and empathising with your audience’s experiences. This means getting out of the agency more.

Make them a fly on the wall

Creative non-fiction writers put the reader inside the world of the story they’re telling and often inside the mind of the writer telling it. It’s about showing readers the truth that’s been there all along that they couldn’t see or have access to. When it comes to insight, the strategist helps discover a deep human truth that’s both surprising andobvious, and now your world is different. Great insight leading to great campaigns turn consumers into flies on the wall of their own lives.

Make the ordinary extraordinary

Making facts and accounts compelling for other people – the task is often to bring to life facts and something that’s fairly banal, and make it interesting through the art of creative storytelling. Most brands are looking to connect with people in the context of their lives, which, let’s be honest, are fairly hum-drum most of the time, but we’re always seeking out the extraordinary, looking to transform our reality. In both cases, the task is to make the ordinary extraordinary.

Mix things up

In telling their stories, many creative non-fiction writers mix up structure, perspectives, styles, time or place. The ‘braided story’ is especially popular these days. Through this approach, writers weave different strands – events or topics –sometimes written in different style, which are braided together under a single overarching story. Writing this way keeps readers interested and encourages readers’ own interpretations. We know strategies that integrate three or more media channels work better. Storytelling is the glue, and creative integration creates the braid that make campaigns more interesting, engaging and successful. 

Thou shalt have an opinion

Unlike news journalists, who must be scrupulous about details and objectivity, while facts creative non-fiction writers have a responsibility to provide a compelling point-of-view. It can be too easy, sometimes, to forget that strategy is simply informed opinion. Based on everything that’s known, strategists help craft the most plausible story to inspire creative work that resonates with a target audience. There are always more than one way to tell the same story.

As Lee Gutkind advises, every creative non-fiction writer must have

“A passion for the written word; a passion for the search and discovery of new knowledge; a passion for in involvement – observing both directly and clandestinely in order to understand intimately how things in this world work.” 

Doesn’t this sound a lot like the job of strategy?

In continuing to develop my strategy craft, I've been finding it really helpful, even inspiring, to think about things in this way - strategy as a genre of writing.

I’d love to know what others think about this.