A Theory of Storytelling and a History of Agency.com with Storyvine’s Kyle Shannon

Episode 35 of The Verblio Show

Who has both 1) co-founded Agency.com (the ORIGINAL digital marketing agency) and 2) written his own one-man plays in NYC?

This international man of mystery is the one and only Kyle Shannon. In this episode, Steve talks with Kyle about how to master storytelling in the digital age and Kyle’s impressive and varied professional life, including the origin story of Agency.com and what made it such a legend in the digital marketing space.

They also cover:

  •  The link between entrepreneurs and madness
  • The evolution of storytelling, and its current renaissance
  • The biggest mistake marketers make with technology
  • How Storyvine is democratizing video for every industry

…and Kyle plays one of Steve’s favorite Martin Sexton songs live on the air.


Name: Kyle Shannon

What he does: Founder and CEO of Storyvine. Previous co-founder of Agency.com.

Find Kyle on the web: Storyvine | LinkedIn | Twitter

Get smart: “A brand is just a story that a bunch of people agree to tell.”

Top Takeaways

Ask why?

It’s easy for businesses and agencies alike to hop on a new technology train without first figuring out how it fits into their strategy. Kyle provides the example of brands who came to Agency.com for a website, and he would simply ask why: Why do you need a website? What are you trying to accomplish with this? “Very often in that conversation we would get to the mutual conclusion, ‘Oh, they don’t need a website—they need a PR campaign or a marketing campaign.’”

Today he sees a similar mistake being made with technology like social media and video. Businesses mistake the tech itself for a strategy, and that’s no good: “You’ve gotta have a strategy first and then all the technology is in service of that and all the marketing and all the creative,” Kyle explains.

With Storyvine’s video offering, for example, “We can give you the ability to scale it and we can make it really, really efficient and cost effective,” he says, “but then you’re still left with, why are you doing it? What are you trying to accomplish? Let’s say you make 100 videos—do you have an audience that would actually care about them if you made them?” Those are questions to answer before you get started with a new medium.

Kyle’s theory of storytelling

In Kyle’s view, the 20th century was an anomaly in storytelling. For most of history, we’ve told stories ourselves, and storytelling has been a fundamental skill across society. In the late 1800s, however, that changed: “Within the span of a couple of decades, photography, film, radio, television—all of these technologies are created that allow the distribution of storytelling.”

As a result, storytelling falls to the professionals—to the ones who know how to use the new technologies. “We let Stephen Spielberg scares us with a shark,” Kyle says, “instead of telling the story about when we saw a shark in the water.”

With the advent of the internet, however, that trend is swinging back. Now, “You don’t have to be a media company, you don’t have to have millions of dollars to tell your story—you can do a blog or you create a little community and tell stories within that,” he says. “I feel like we’re in this renaissance of storytelling where we’ve been handed back these tools of self-expression and now as a society, starting in the mid ’90s and continuing through today, we’re rediscovering storytelling.”

Episode Highlights

What entrepreneurship is all about

“Every startup is some version of wanting to put something in the world that the world doesn’t think it needs, right? Nobody needs a one act play, nobody needs the next big company until they do, right? So I think that spirit is—that’s entrepreneurship in a nutshell.”

Why brands need a consistent story

“A brand is a promise. And what’s interesting about modern communication technologies is that the distance between the brand promise and whether the company delivers on that is now zero.

If a company says, ‘We’re great at customer service,’ and then you go into this never-ending phone tree where you can’t get anyone on the line—they just lied to you. They’re not about customer service, right? So that puts a burden on brands to be consistent in their storytelling at every level from big advertising campaigns to every interaction down below, to their website to how their customers are representing the brand with UGC.”

Why Agency.com alums have been so successful

“Everything was being invented and, and no one had a degree in this, right? Everyone that we hired had to be a generalist with a high level of curiosity and a high level of self-motivation. So I think the people that came out of that time—everyone that was in those early days of web development—had to be sort of this multidisciplinary ninja and have curiosity and have drive. So it’s not surprising to me that a lot of those people went on to do really interesting things.”

How Agency.com got Coca-Cola

“One of the pitches we did was for Coca-Cola with coke.com. And the website that they had put out to the world was built by the IT organization, and it was a light yellow page with text and links to annual reports for the last 20 years and things like that. And Coke said, ‘Hey, we wanna bring in an agency to help us with our website.’

And so we went in and in our pitch we showed them screenshots of their existing website and we had a slide that said, ‘Where are the polar bears?’ We just said, ‘Your brand is this, but if you go to your website it looks like this.’ They actually stopped the meeting, they walked out of the room, and we’re like, ‘Oh my god, what have we done—are we in trouble?’ Like, ten people walked out of the room. They were gone for 15 minutes.

Turns out I don’t think any of them had ever looked at their website—they didn’t know what was there. So they came back in and said, ‘When can you start?’”

Bringing back the basic story structure

“In 2005, YouTube came out and what I recognized was that most of the content on YouTube was bad. And why it was bad was not because people weren’t trying, but because it lacked basic story structure.

…If you’re a fan of Seinfeld, for example, they always start in Jerry’s apartment, then they go do some wacky hijinks in the world, then they end up at the diner talking about the wacky hijinks, then they end up back at Jerry’s apartment, right? It’s always the same structure. What I recognized is that that basic hero’s journey—beginning, middle, and an end—was missing from a lot of short-form video.

So I thought if I could create a business that focuses on short-form video and provides that story structure as a framework, it would make it really easy for people to share their stories. So the idea from very early on was to democratize video storytelling to essentially provide storytelling training wheels to someone to make it easy for them to tell their story.”

Storyvine: What it is

“What the app does is we break a story down into little story beats, that little mini hero’s journey, and we literally walk the user through telling a specific story. Let’s say it’s a patient talking about their diagnosis journey. First, introduce yourself and your diagnosis. Now tell us when you were diagnosed and how that felt. How have you treated it and how has that been going? What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

So we break a story down into segments, and that’s how we capture things. And then that’s captured to structured data, put into a database, and then the editing of those raw assets—because it’s structured data—can now be automated. So that’s what the platform is: guided capture, automated editing, and then a whole backend management dashboard where you can manage all that content.”

Top Quotes


[11:04] “If you look at all effective marketing, it connects with people as human beings.”

[12:14] “A brand is just a story that a bunch of people agree to tell.”

[16:15] “Our original corporate motto at Agency.com was ‘Figure out what sucks, don’t do that.’”

[18:04] “One of my superpowers is being able to synthesize. I can take very little information and see the big picture and very often that includes seeing what it might look like in the future.”

[23:30] “Every time a new technology comes onto the scene, everyone gets seduced by the technology, and they mistake a technological tactic for strategy.”

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