An Interview with Tim Washer, Part I of II

I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Washer, Senior Marketing Manager Cisco, a little while ago on the topic of video, humor and storytelling.  Prior to Cisco, he served as head of social media video production for IBM, where he wrote/produced the company’s most successful YouTube series, “Mainframe: The Art of the Sale,” and award-winning videos for the smarter planet campaign. Tim moonlights as a comedy writer/actor, and credits include Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, SNL and The Onion Sports Network.

 

Kathy Klotz-Guest (KKG): You made my interview short list. Your background is a lot like mine: comedy, an MBA, etc. That’s a pretty funny contrast as it is.

Tim Washer (TW): It is! And I’m happy to make a short list. <Laughs!>

KKG:  Social media is for stories, not messaging! What elements make a great video story?

TW: Yep – people are getting the message that what you wrote for your website or brochure doesn’t fly for social, and especially, video. Regarding storytelling, it’s the simple, classic definition of a narrative thread that matters. Think about three acts even in a 30-sec video. You need a protagonist, an obstacle and how he/she accomplished a goal. It’s critical to make this point in social media. The classic rules of storytelling apply even to short videos.

KKG: Where can we find great stories in a company?

TW: They exist a lot in corporate responsibility stories. You have a sense of altruism to a degree. There is a benefit of goodwill – a fiduciary benefit. Look for great corporate stories anywhere the company is doing something really different.  We also respond to crises. Those are good stories in that they show how people manage them. You have to make sure you are telling the story for the right reasons. Sadly, even ‘authentic’ has become a buzzword! Irony! Audiences know when it’s not authentic. Another area ripe for storytelling is R&D. That’s tricky because the timing has to be right and the research close to being commercialized. It’s cool because that’s where there is potential to change the world with innovation. For small companies it might be a great story about their partners or how they got started. These are all rich areas for storytelling.

KKG: The best storytellers are often not in the C-suite; they are the rank and file closest to the customer.

TW: Exactly right. C-level execs are too much about “talking points.” You need people close to the work and to the customers. Find experts it the company who can speak in a way where people understand them.  Get those people out there talking for the company.

KKG: Your ‘Art of the Sale’ videos for IBM were great. How did you get IBM – not known for fun – to let go? Do you see more b2b companies willing to go off script? Is there hope for b2b?

TW:  HA! We had this buttoned up reputation and we were so deprecating. That is why it worked! We were making fun of ourselves. Being silly and ridiculous is OK, but you have to be funny. There is risk involved; you need to know what you are doing. We learned; and people at IBM are now more open and playful.

The first video I did – 4 months into being a newbie at IBM – people were like “no.” So start internally and reduce risk by getting people to say yes. Let people see the script and see that it can work. What we did at IBM was we showed it to a VP who was really open to humor. You need a champion who has influence and who can sell the idea for you. That’s what I had, fortunately. In the corporate world, humor isn’t done well often times and so people fear it.

KKG: A laugh is OK; ultimately, business gets done between people. You need a humor advocate to say, “Hey, we can lighten up and still get business done.”

TW: Yes! And there is such a need for it. But it’s hard to quantify the value of laughter. You look at client and customer scores across the board – there is a lot of stress in the system. There is no question there is a need. Stress makes people not want to take risks, though. One challenge today in all large companies is that employees are experimenting with videos and companies get worried. Some of this bad stuff might hurt the brand and so now there are more controls. There weren’t controls back in 2006 when we did the ‘Art of the Sale’ videos at IBM. It’s a struggle sometimes. You need to balance a social media plan with brand control.  And it’s doable.

KKG: The bar seems higher for humor in b2b even if we minimize our risk.  You have to measure a campaign anyway whether humor is used or not. Yet, humor has so many positive intangibles: goodwill, enhanced reputation, for example.

TW: Agreed. We can measure hard stuff – like views on YouTube. The first Art of the Sale video alone got over 250,000 views. The qualitative measure is more compelling and hard to measure. The SF Chronicle wrote an article titled, “What are they drinking in Armonk?” for example. The fact that the guy playing Bob Hoey was Bob Hoey was important. That he was willing to be playful and laugh at himself and at the company scored us points. How do you measure that type of goodwill and authenticity that enhances your reputation? If you can poke fun of yourself, people see that you are trustworthy. A few people internally didn’t like looking bad. I believe the opposite is true; because we are confident in what we do, we can take the risk to be funny. My boss said if our competition did one on us, this is what they would do. So we needed to make sure IBM got credit for it.

End Part I.   Check out Part II.

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