Is it time to ban the sell-in? If the idea is good enough, you won't have to

Banish the sell-in... Counter-intuitive perhaps? Necessary? Maybe. Possible? Not quite yet. But hear me out.

If we have to plead with a reporter to write a story then we have failed, argues Kate Sarginson
If we have to plead with a reporter to write a story then we have failed, argues Kate Sarginson

The ‘sell-in’. It was always a ghastly phrase, redolent of cold-calling and spamming. If we are having to persuade, cajole or plead with a reporter to write a story, then I’m sorry, but we have failed.

True earned storytelling, in a digital age, shouldn’t rely on catching a friendly journalist at the right time, making an email stand out in his or her inbox or having preternatural powers of persuasion.

It should rely on having a great idea. A great, truly meaningful story. A story that is real, that matters, that is relevant to people and their lives. A story that is based on insight, and brought to life in a creative way.

And in an internet age, when it is the articles in our Facebook newsfeeds that really catch our attention, it relies on that story being brought to life through the currency of the internet – shareable, digital content.
Whether that’s video, audio, an image, an infographic, a speech, an open letter, a clever tweet or a brilliant blog post, it’s great content that fuels the internet.

Just look at some of the best work from the past couple of years.

Take the ‘Like a Girl’ campaign, which got noticed, and was referred to by former US President Barack Obama.

Nobody phoned the White House to sell that in.

Look at the ingenious McWhopper stunt – an open letter from Burger King to McDonald’s that became a global story. Or the chilling ‘Evan’ video from Sandy Hook Promise.

What these, and many, many other stories, have in common is that they began with an earned idea; they earned real engagement online and that earned engagement became an earned story picked up by global media.

No sell-ins. No cajoling.

This is our moment to shine. Just look at Cannes. Almost every idea – no matter the category – had an earned idea at its heart.

I’m sure we’ll see the same trend as we enter the autumn awards season. And it’s why we hear stories of our old friends in the advertising world shifting strategies from making ads to making news.

That should scare us.

Not every campaign or announcement can be a ‘Like a Girl’ or an ‘Evan’, but we can aim for that.

We should have at least the ambition to come up with and create a story – and the content that embodies it – good and real enough that it genuinely engages the audience online, proving its worth to ‘traditional’ media.

A story that drives journalists to pick up the phone to us and request the assets. Wouldn’t that be a refreshing change?

If we don’t think an idea or a story can earn that engagement, then it’s not good enough.

If we have to convince a journalist to write about something, then it is not interesting enough.

Is it time to ban the sell-in?

Well, no, not quite. But if we hold ourselves and our clients accountable to delivering true stories with real value and a great creative execution, it will go a long way to achieving this ambition.

Kate Sarginson is the acting managing director, consumer, Weber Shandwick

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