Singapore pole dancing studio (Photography by Tom White)

Brand stories. Made in journalism.

A year after starting up our content studio, Balance of Zero, in Amsterdam, I thought it worth going through some of the questions we have got from clients, media friends, family and total strangers. You’d be amazed how strongly people feel about a name and a logo! I have taken each one on below and given the best answers I can. Obviously, like any start-up/ new venture we are moving through the gears, hell bent on finding awesome stories.

What does Balance of Zero do?

We find and create stories for brands and media, using films, photography and writing . Essentially, we’re a storytelling team that creates multimedia story packages for activation on all platforms. A lot of the work we do is finding and telling stories both inside and outside of brands. It is a varied, competitive and busy space. What we do differently is work as a small team, focusing uniquely on certain types of brand stories that promote people and human ingenuity.

Doesn’t Balance of Zero mean you have no money in the bank?

Yes, Balance of Zero means you have no money in the bank. Zip. In fact, the name was actually a (bad) joke. I was living in Sydney in 2009 and at the start footy season (aka. touch rugby) our team had to choose shirt names and squad numbers. Unbeknownst to me, one of my mates had changed my name to ‘Balance of’, and my squad number to ‘0’. It was hilarious. Strangely, the name stuck with me for years, and I still have the shirt in my wardrobe. When people ask about the name, I tell this story. It’s not supposed to be taken literally just as you don’t associate Apple, the $2trn tech giant, with the fruit.

Why do you say ‘Made in journalism’?

A lot of what I learned as a storyteller is derived from almost 20 years in the media. I trained at the Sunday Times in Scotland in 2001, then moved around the world from Australia to Laos, New Zealand, Singapore and now Amsterdam. In every job I learned something new about stories. I interviewed CEOs and politicians and wrote features across a range of topics from the lives of domestic workers to technology and ageing.

But things changed: freelance journalism became hard to sustain, models were changing and brands were pushing into content and storytelling. Amongst the change, I could see the need for better researched, more engaging and authentic stories. Josh Sternberg, director of branded content at NBC News, put it nicely:

“Too often sponsored content reads like marketing copy-full of industry jargon, doesn’t explain anything, etc. Instead, it should be written in a journalistic style-lede, nut, inverted pyramid, outside sources. Good content, no matter if it’s editorial or advertising, finds readers.”

That is why we promote journalism in our content creation. We work with and commission journalists, photojournalists and filmmakers as well. Hence, ‘Made in journalism’.

Do brands want journalists to tell stories?

Of course they do. Every news story involves a brand or government in some way. Many brands rely on journalists to tell their best stories (as well as their worst). Why else have press teams? They need to tell stories to explain who they are, what they do and why they matter. As a journalist I came to brands for help with stories. Here’s one example, about data analytics in sport, where I spoke to tech companies and sports organisations about the ‘Moneyball’ effect in Asia.

I’ll give you another example from inside a brand. I worked in a brand team for a healthcare company where our role was to create stories using films, writing and photography. At one point, I found myself talking to a radiologist who used 3D printing technology to make 3D replicas of a child’s heart. That 3D heart was used to help kids understand their condition. If it made them feel better, they could break it. This is a story I would have gladly told as a journalist. It includes innovation, healthcare and humanity all rolled into one. And it was a brand story. The fact is that many brands do have these stories to tell. But they don’t always find them.

So who are you working for right now?

We are finishing part of a news documentary about post-Covid food production for the Singapore-based broadcaster, Channel News Asia. It looks at why Dutch food production is light years ahead of everyone else (the Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agricultural produce in the world after the US). We were also hired during the lockdown period to support the Dutch brand VanMoof, for the launch of its new electric bike (the S3 x X3). A cool project. And finally, we’re working on a story for media pitching about a group of ballet dancers in Scotland.

How are you going to survive coronavirus and an economic crisis?

By continuing to do what we do every day. Stories are more important now than ever, as people are genuinely looking for answers and solutions. So, in many ways this should be fertile soil for creators. But there is a lot of uncertainty and change. And competition. Everyone is equipped to tell a good yarn. That is the beauty of this era of creativity. Why are we different? We bring experience from across fields of journalism including research, writing, filmmaking, photography and design. That may sound old fashioned. But every story needs researching and writing. We take all of the elements of storytelling incredibly seriously.

What advice would you give brands about telling their stories?

Start with a story that matters. Tell it well. And then do it again.

Originally published at https://www.balanceofzero.com on August 24, 2020

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Rob O’Brien

Rob O’Brien

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Writer & producer based in Amsterdam. Stories for NYT, Independent & Penthouse. I write about people, life experiences, the everyday. Twitter: @robwriting