People / 01.14.16

StoryTK’s Jeff O’Brien: ‘We Go After the Story First’

By Jeffrey Davis
Every editor knows (and likely has a love/hate relationship with) an innocent-looking term called “TK.” In journo jargon it means “to come.” As deadlines approach, it’s a handy placeholder for a missing fact or number — or in dire cases, an important but as-yet-unreported section of a story that will be arriving at the 11th hour. It’s simple, conspicuous code for unfinished work.

For veteran business and technology journalist Jeff O’Brien — a former editor at Wired, and ongoing contributor to Fortune — the “TK” concept helped inspire the name of the content agency he started several years ago, called StoryTK. O’Brien’s studio has produced an array of highly creative (and highly visual) branded content projects for IBM, Visa and other big brands. (If you haven’t caught an episode of O’Brien’s podcast series for IBM, “Wild Ducks,” you should.)

At first, O’Brien explains, the name was a tongue-in-cheek observation of the way they saw some marketing agencies work. “They’d make the pretty packaging and leave a huge hole in the middle for the client to fill in,” he says. “That hole, at least in our imaginations, would say, ‘StoryTK.’ We work the opposite way. We go after the story first and let it dictate the medium, expression and trimmings.”

Since then, O’Brien’s attitude toward agencies has changed. “There’s a real genius in what they do, and we’ve actually had some successful partnerships with our clients’ agencies since we started,” he says. “It’s sort of a steak-and-sizzle type relationship.”

So how does that dynamic play out day-to-day? We asked O’Brien to explain a bit more about their approach to storytelling for big brands.

Storytelling is such a buzzword these days. You even call yourself a storytelling studio. What does the word mean to you?

Obviously there are a thousand different storytelling methods and styles. If I had to categorize our

Jeff O'Brien of StoryTK
Jeff O’Brien

tone, I’d say we try to be educational, surprising and, above all, inspiring. We’re particularly drawn to innovation as a theme. Solutions, not problems. And the only way I know how to be convincing about a solution is to first thoroughly understand it, which starts with research.

We come from the world of non-fiction magazines. But more to the point, we grew up—professionally, at least—at a time when you had to pick up the phone, get in the car or on a plane and talk to people. Looking the subject of a story in the eyes is more than just a way to create scenery. It forces you to work harder to appreciate the way he or she thinks. It makes you feel empathy, responsibility and a greater sense of accountability. Anyone can turn on a recorder and be a mouthpiece. That’s not us. We want to be reliable and trustworthy narrators of stories that we truly believe in.

What role does design play in the kinds of projects you create?

Design is baked into everything we do. My partner and I worked together at Wired once upon a time. When Wired is at its best, design and editorial are equal partners from the outset. The designers and creative directors sit in on story idea meetings so they can immediately start thinking about art components. We take it a step further. Our designers are actually involved in the reporting process. That way, infographics, photography, video, logo work — all that stuff naturally flows out of the fact-gathering and so the end result feels more holistic.

How do you convince clients to take creative risks?

This is the old conundrum, right? You’ve got to reliably deliver on what you’re asked to do to establish trust — but you also need to think beyond your scope to show what you’re capable of. I had a big break when IBM lured me away from Fortune to do something that, in retrospect, I believe they thought would be impossible to pull off. They wanted me to develop a framework, a formula, really, for how societal progress happens. They promised me that if I could come up with a defensible thesis — one that passed muster with IBM’s most brilliant research scientists — then we’d work together bring it to life in a multimedia exhibition in Lincoln Center.

That was my first project after leaving full-time journalism and the most challenging reporting assignment I’ve ever had. I traveled the world interviewing brilliant scientists and businesspeople, philosophers, academics and historians, trying to develop a common thread for the way they worked. The end result was the THINK Exhibit, which lived in Lincoln Center in September, 2011 and is now on display at Disney’s EPCOT.

That was a hugely ambitious project created over a two-year time frame. And it almost died, oh, probably a dozen times — partly because it was expensive and partly because it seemed so unlikely that we could pull it off. The reason it didn’t die, in my opinion, was due to the strength of the thesis. I didn’t create the framework myself. It was a huge team effort involving me, my co-founder, IBM and several agency partners. But it started with the type of reporting I talked about earlier. It was the start of a great relationship between StoryTK and IBM and has led to several other ambitious projects since.

I see that you have four different partners. Can you explain their roles?

We’re all centered on finding and telling stories, but we each attack from different angles. Bernhard Warner is a former colleague from my early days at Adweek and he wrote for me at Wired. You might say he has more of a writer’s mind and I have more of an editor’s mind. Also, he’s based in Europe, so he generates business for us there. Carl De Torres runs the design side of the business. His phone rings off the hook with people looking for design-oriented services, but when it comes to complex storytelling work, he and I consider a client from a combined perspective that considers both literal and visual possibilities. Colleen Rubart does a bit of everything—biz dev and project management, for starters. But she’s also done a ton of PR in her career and so when a client needs help placing a story in the media, she takes care of that, too. She’s hired and managed many agencies in her days, so she also serves as a liaison when we contract with, say, film production crews, animators or outside writers. The four of us are in different locations around the globe, but we’re in constant communication. It works because I trust each of them implicitly and I consider each of them to be the absolute best at what they do.

Jeffrey Davis, Editorial Advisor, Co‑founder
Jeff has been covering technology’s overhaul of business for two decades as a journalist, magazine editor and editorial leader. He was a founding editor at Business 2.0 magazine and an executive editor at CNET and CBS Interactive. Jeff co-founded Original9 and is now an editorial advisor to the company.