Today a similar phenomenon is underway. Visual storytelling is in renaissance -- but with a twist. Photography, rather than video, is fast becoming the lingua franca of a more global, mobile and social society.
This will have a significant impact on brand marketers, but perhaps in some not-so-obvious ways. More on this in a bit.
First, let's look at the underlying trends. Once again, technology is the difference maker.
Smartphones are on a fast track to become the primary device for both creating and consuming digital content. According to the Pew Internet for the American Life Project, already a full 31% of Americans who own internet-capable phones browse the web primarily from their phones. These numbers are actually higher in emerging markets.
What's more, there are at least three other factors at work here.
First, images are global. They eschew all language and cultural boundaries. Photography is the only true universal medium. Nothing comes close.
Second, images are distributable. The bandwidth required to transmit photos is minimal, yet the opportunities for quick, creative expression are plentiful. As of this writing, Apple's App Store alone has over 10,000 iPhone apps in its photo category -- many of them for editing. Photoshopping has been democratized.
Finally, images are digestible. You can glance at a picture for as short or as long as you want. Photos are a non-linear, shared consumption experience. The same can't be said for video or even text.
Put it all together and video, it seems, won't be the big winner this time. Connectivity, screen and format constraints make the mobile viewing experience sub-optimal.
Rather, businesses that bank on visual storytelling with images will win. If you need proof, look at the social-networking space.
All of the rising stars in social networking are based around photos. They include Pinterest, Tumblr and, of course, Instagram -- which Facebook acquired earlier this year.
The same is true in b-to-b. The new players are all visually oriented. Dribbble, for example, is a popular hub for sharing in-progress design work. Its traffic has doubled over the last year, according to Doubleclick's Ad Planner. Meanwhile, Google+ is catching on with professional photographers. And Visual.ly is burgeoning community for infographic enthusiasts.
The growing appetite for photography bodes well for marketers. The field inherently attracts visual storytellers and creative types. However, it's not a slam dunk yet.
To succeed, we must adopt a beginner's mind. This means abandoning the preconceived notion that good creative is art.
Visual storytelling today is blissfully cliche. Photos are deliberately over animated, over filtered and even over exposed. They ignore all the rules. Just as the proliferation of texting arguably made the written word less formal and YouTube did the same for video, the ubiquity of smartphones has changed the expectations of what's considered "good" photography.
Here are three recommendations to consider when it comes to navigating this new era.
It's hip to be square. Instagram popularized the notion that square images can be cool. Think in 1:1, not 4:3 ratios.
Become fluent in digital culture. While animated gifs, cartoon balloons, collages and tilt-shift styling may feel trite, they're the new normal.
Democratize the creative process. The industry embraced crowdsourced video several years ago. However, advertising photography still feels like it's roped off and treated more as art. Open it up.