The business of advertising has changed from the days when an expensive 30-second spot was the be-all and end-all of a campaign, leading many commercials production companies and their directors to diversify.
In an era of content overload, when it’s easier than ever for consumers to skip an ad or avoid it altogether, many advertisers are trying a different tack: branded content.
Rather than traditional “interruption” advertising, they are creating content that people actually want to watch, tailored to the platforms on which they are viewing it.
Red Bull’s live events and Lego’s movies are brilliant pieces of marketing disguised as entertainment. Apple’s award-winning Spike Jonze commercial/short film “Welcome Home” looked and sounded like a music video. It might not be an overt piece of branded content, but hit documentary series “The Defiant Ones” does wonders for the Beats brand. More recently, Airbnb debuted its first film, “Gay Chorus Deep South,” at the Tribeca Film Festival. Prada, Gucci and Burberry also have a strong reputation for branded content.
As advertisers like these expand beyond the traditional commercial, so too are ad production companies.
Companies such as Anonymous Content and Pulse Films have long positioned themselves as multi-disciplinary producers, active across commercials, TV, film and more. Leading commercials producers Rattling Stick and Smuggler are also working across multiple genres.
Anonymous Content, for example, combines a strong roster of commercials directors with credits including “True Detective,” “Spotlight” and George Clooney’s “Catch-22.”
Managing director Eric Stern says from the beginning Anonymous Content’s commercials and music-video divisions have served as “proving grounds” to foster talent, with many going on to build careers in film and TV via its management division.
He cites Autumn de Wilde, who started at Anonymous as a photographer and music-video director, then moved on to commercials and is now shooting her first feature, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Emma” for Focus Features. Earlier this year Anonymous founded the Lab, a creative incubator that allows brands to tap into the company’s talent and resources.
“Our teams generate content ideas for brands and then reach across the company to find the writing, directing and acting talent to bring them to life,” Stern says.
He’s noticed a growing demand for content from brands. “The smart brands know that if they want to cut through, they have to rise to a much higher emotional level by creating work that connects with viewers the same way their favorite shows and movies do.”
Multi-disciplinary studios are better placed to meet this demand than traditional commercial producers, says Pulse Films CEO Thomas Benski. “Being in both worlds gives brands the reassurance and excitement to work with us if they want to do longer form or episodic projects.”
Pulse’s credits include feature doc “Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records,” Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” and “Gangs of London,” which it is shooting for Sky Atlantic and HBO’s Cinemax. Its commercials division has developed branded projects for the likes of Ikea and Volvo.
Benski says many commercials producers claim to be diversified across multiple disciplines, but few truly are. To do so takes significant investment in development, IP, infrastructure and time. Pulse, for example, has a full-fledged film and TV development team, plus an unscripted team.
“A lot of commercials companies think it is about just getting a script fr a director, and trying to pull it together. But we’ve tried to build sustainable units that can benefit from the synergies in the business.”
Branded content is only going to grow, he says. “But too often people are too simplistic about it, saying brands should make feature films.” Film’s lengthy and complex production process is not something that works for many brands, he says. Measuring success for is also difficult.
It’s a point echoed by Katie Keith, first lady of leading commercials producer Rattling Stick, which recently co-produced a doc about ballet star Rudolf Nureyev, while its director Daniel Kleinman has created the title sequences for many James Bond films.
She says it is still early days for branded content. “There is a growing demand for longer-form content [for brands], but not to the level you would expect, nor to the standards you might hope. The potential is exciting, but we have a long way to go.”
Rattling Stick has made content outside of commercials since it was founded, but Keith says it’s been less about branching out than continuing to find interesting creative challenges for its directors. Pushing into TV or film is not without its challenges though: “It’s very hard to balance longer-term projects with the necessary fast turnaround nature of commercial production companies when you only have finite resources at your disposal.”
Smuggler’s diversification from commercials is likewise about “finding creative opportunities that are exciting and interesting for the directing talent we manage,” says co-founder Patrick Milling-Smith.
Smuggler has worked across all disciplines, and has built up a strong reputation in theater too. It brought the stage adaptation of “The Kid Stays in the Picture” to the Royal Court Theater in London with producing partner Barbara Broccoli, and is workshopping a musical adaptation of hit film “Sing Street,” written by Enda Walsh.
Smuggler used its experience in theater to create a one-off Broadway musical, starring Michael C. Hall, to promote confectionary brand Skittles that played on the same day as the Super Bowl.
The goal for “Skittles Commercial: The Broadway Musical,” says Milling-Smith, was to disrupt the usual marketing and PR around the Super Bowl by having Skittles spend not a single dime on the usual commercial media buy. “The earned media alone greatly surpassed what Skittles would have expected if they ran a traditional commercial on television.”