Tell True Stories Well: Hire an Artist


The best content isn’t storytelling. The best content is telling a true story well.

It’s a subtle difference. But the creators of the best content of 2013 contemplated not just what story was worth telling, but how to tell it. And one way to do that is to hire an artist.

I’m tempted to insert something here about how stories have a remarkable capacity to stir our souls, to connect us, to shape a kind of shared experience. But since you are human, you know that already, right?

Increasingly, the best marketing groks that, too, and so this year we’ve seen an incredible abundance of inspired brand storytelling.

But we’ve also seen some terrible efforts. Because coming up with your bigger story is (relatively) easy, yet telling a true story in an interesting way “turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat,” says the writer Anne Lamott.

Anne wrote that line in her important book on writing, Bird by Bird. And I was reminded of her words when I saw Airbnb’s new piece of storytelling (truth-telling?) featuring artists creating replica birdhouses because, quite literally, it tells its true story.. well, bird by bird.

I’m not sure the allusion was intentional. But it’s nonetheless apt.

Airbnb’s latest marketing program—the first ever integrated marketing campaign for the five-year-old company—takes a creative spin on travel by extending its “ultimate home” experience to a different kind of traveler: migratory birds.

To tell this true story well, the campaign commissioned a team of five artists to create 50 birdhouses inspired by real-life Airbnb spaces. The budget was a reported $2 million.

The story has a solid premise, and it tells the bigger story of how staying in an Airbnb property is way better than staying in some boring, soulless hotel.

The larger story gives off a whiff of an almost morally superior experience. But it works. You can’t help but be intrigued:

The film peeks inside the artists’ creative process as they travel to unique Airbnb spaces, craft ornate birdhouses at their shops, and then unveil them together at Audubon Park’s Tree of Life in New Orleans. Visitors can view the birdhouses now (December 16-22). The program lives online at

Airbnb bills itself as the world’s largest and most trusted community-driven hospitality company. In other words, hosts who have registered with Airbnb rent out their spare space—from apartments to treehouses, castles, and villas. Airbnb has received some regulatory static—notably from agencies in NYC that object to what’s essentially a short-term sublet—but it’s nonetheless well on its way to disrupting hospitality in more than 34,000 cities in 192 countries.

Telling True Stories Really, Really Well

The thing I like most about Airbnb’s effort is this: It taps artists to tell a true story really, really well.

Airbnb is no stranger to creating marketing that looks a lot like art (see Hollywood & Vine). I like that this piece of marketing gets outside of the heads of marketers and or executives—and… well, marketing itself—and taps into the ideas and experiences of five artists, and aligns them with the Airbnb brand.

“We chose people that we felt really put love into their craft, because we wanted that to be felt throughout the process,” said PJ Pereira, chief creative officer and co-founder of Pereira & O’Dell in San Francisco, who created the program for Airbnb. “If the birds are a metaphor for Airbnb’s guests, these artists are a metaphor for the hosts and all the attention they put into their houses when they are about to get a new guest.”

Here’s a peek at the properties:

Airbnb birdhousesEarlier this week, I talked with PJ about how his agency both conceived of the program and pulled it off:

Me: Like Airbnb’s Hollywood & Vine, this marketing looks a lot like art.

PJ: We seem to be living a rebirth of storytelling for the digital age. Brands are starting to leverage their ability to influence people through something human beings have always enjoyed—stories.

If a story is more or less artistic, it depends on the task at hand. Our last work for Intel and Toshiba, for example, was a crazy comedy about an invasion of mustache aliens.

So I think if there is a bigger movement happening in the marketing world that isn’t necessarily towards arts, but towards telling stories worth spending the little time you have.

I like the link of an offline to an online experience, with the exhibition in New Orleans.

Because social media makes everything so transparent in the corporate world, authenticity is a big issue for any story you want to tell. In this case, bringing the houses to the real world, blurring the story with reality, makes it feel more real, and the story more interesting to tell, to hear, and to share.

One thing I noticed was the lovely language—in the voiceover and the song. How important are the words you use to tell the story?

That’s an interesting question, because other than the song itself, all the words there are real snippets of real conversations between the artists, and nothing was scripted. Even with the song, we didn’t want it to be too literal and [wanted it to] go more for the vibe we wanted to portray.

Our original plan was to do it in a way that the words worked as a texture, not necessarily the core of the story [so] you could get the feeling behind the story even if you are not listening to everything they were saying.

But the words are there, of course, and what we’ve been noticing is that people who are more visual tend to respond to that overall feeling we originally planned. But some people are also responding to the words like you are saying, and that’s a good thing!

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11 Responses to Tell True Stories Well: Hire an Artist

  1. Andrea Cook says:

    I like the way you think, and story tell Ann!
    Great use of visuals here, of course.
    And I really have enjoyed getting to know you and your story via IG. So compelling that I sincerely look forward to meeting you in person. Let’s make that happen in 2014, please?

  2. Wow – I just went to the airbnb website and watched the video – what a masterfully-done campaign!! And furthermore – airbnb had just been a distant concept to me before this. Now, I’m thinking of ways to try it out when I travel in 2014. So…storytelling mission accomplished!! :>}

  3. Ola Ann,
    Thanks for this lovely piece…a fine stewpot of delightful things…
    anne lamott’s great book
    using real dialogue in branding/marketing/adverts (LOVE that…)
    bringing artists into the story (LOVE that, too)

    On a crazy drive from Seattle to Sebastopol, CA over Thanksgiving, I had my first airbnb experience in Bend, OR and I could not believe how cool it was.

    Bravo. To you and airbnb.

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  5. Jay Oza says:


    Do you think this makes sense more for B2C than B2B?

    The reason I ask this is that a story that draws someone in the B2B space loses its thread if the salesperson on the other side can’t relate to that story. This is why I think lot of content marketing fails in the B2B space. It comes as gimmicky.

    To make it effective, I feel that sales have to produce more content in the B2B space not marketing. This role of sales may have to evolve. Would like to know your thoughts on this and I will use your answer in a blog that I am writing? Thanks.

  6. [...]Tell True Stories Well: Hire an Artist|[...]

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