Jan 13th, 2022

Storytellers: The marketer with a knack for the narrative

by Synne Lindén

The story of how Dan Knowlton got off his kitchen floor and into a self-built career that allows him to do what he does best: be himself and infuse strategic marketing with storytelling flair. 

Picture this: You’re in your early 20’s, and straight out of a graduate training programme, you’re promoted to assistant manager within a year of starting out. You’re managing eight staff and a whole fleet of cars, working longer days than college could’ve ever prepared you for – and you’re in way over your head. 

Now, to top that off, imagine coming home from yet another 15-hour day at work, ten minutes before a phone interview with your dream employer – and failing that interview miserably. Two questions into his golden ticket opportunity call, Dan Knowlton hung up the phone, turned it off, and dropped to the floor. It was 2014 and he was miserable. 

I quit my job and drove home to my parents, you know, like a little boy. And from that my dad sat me down and said that I needed to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. To either get a job or take a three-month trial of applying my marketing knowledge to his consulting business. So I did that and got a few clients in marketing, a bit of money and then started our agency, getting more and more customers. Then my brother Lloyd joined – and now we work with global brands. I think that’s the most memorable story of where I’ve felt the worst, but it’s actually led to something really good. 

Dan is a master of taking what seems like imminent failure and turning it into a strength; he is a textbook example of using hardship to learn. Unsurprisingly, this approach of optimism is also how he’s learnt that storytelling works – in a very literal sense. When Dan started out as an event speaker, he was rubbish at it (his choice of word, not mine); people yawned, lost interest, kept their guards up. That is, until Dan began incorporating stories actively as a way to show vulnerability and connect with his audience in a meaningful way. 

I read this book from a guy called Chris Anderson; TED’s official guide to public speaking. As part of that book he talks about telling stories on stage, and the importance of that – the importance of showing vulnerability. Because when you get on stage, the audience have their guards up. And in order to get past that, you have to show some vulnerability, to show that ‘I’m not a know-it-all, I’m just like you.’ And one of the ways you do that is by telling stories. So I started doing that – and it was a complete change to the way the audience reacted. 

Founding and building Knowlton Marketing alongside his brother has been anything but straight shooting, though. The learning curve’s been steep – perhaps particularly in the context of being comfortable with their own personality and communications as a brand. He recognises that the sooner a business finds its voice as an extension of its core identity, the better. But he also knows from first-hand experience that this is a tough thing to put into practice. 

It’s taken us about six years of running this business to feel comfortable in our skin; to not act corporate and to actually act the way we want to act. So it’s scary, and it takes time. And certainly, there’ll be people put off by the way we are; we’re kind of crude sometimes, we tell honest stories and we’re not very corporate. But ultimately, we want to attract customers that are aligned with our culture and our philosophy. 

Whether it’s for Knowlton’s customers, or their own content, Dan lives and breathes the audience reaction. By producing campaigns for big businesses like Wahl and FIFA, he’s only had his public speaking experiences confirmed. No matter what you’re trying to sell with an ad, the audience should be the A to Z of your development and production process. And with that audience being human, the quickest and most effective way of getting them engaged is by basing the content structure on storytelling. 

I did a talk at this event in Romania, Digitalium, last year and I talked about the marketing formats that consumers actually get excited to watch. Like, Christmas ads in the UK are a huge thing – Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, they put out these massive ads – where they tell a story and everyone can’t wait to consume them. It’s ultimately an advert for a brand, but people actually want to watch it. 

So it’s about how you make the person viewing that piece of creative feel. If you look at those adverts, people will literally cry. And when emotions are triggered it makes the audience take action – share the content, buy something, tag their friends – which ultimately helps marketing campaigns perform. So we start with the emotion we want the audience to feel, and then we work backwards into how we can translate that into a creative campaign. 

That doesn’t mean Knowlton doesn’t use the traditional marketing funnel as part of the basis for their work. Dan is all about strategy, and if it (it being marketing in this sense) ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For their own content, they combine the classic three-layered funnel – awareness, trust and sale – with the powers of stories. The subtle message is always there, like the underlying moral of a novel, but it’s the narrative that gets people so engaged with Knowlton’s productions. 

On LinkedIn, Dan has more than 11.000 followers and the most high-ranking content consists of hilariously entertaining video clips of him and his brother Lloyd. They play to their quirky, honest, funny core values (and key strengths) and paint truly engaging pictures for the audience. Scripted in is always that message that Knowlton do what they do best, sure, but that’s not the main take-away. Instead, you’re compelled to engage with these stories – considering Knowlton Marketing as an authority becomes a near after-thought. 

Whenever you integrate a story – and don’t just say something – people react a lot more. So through all of our communications and our marketing now, rather than just saying information, we ask ourselves: How can we add in a story that really forces the message we’re trying to communicate? (…) It goes back to when we were kids, I think – when we were told and read stories. Whenever someone’s telling a story, whenever you’re listening to someone telling a story, rather than just saying facts and information, it’s way more interesting, because you’re drawn into it.

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