Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot.

It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. There is a rash of technique over substance. We need a conscious return to the craft of story in the creation and execution of brand ideas.

The art of the story must be paramount to the art of the production. Thanks to the internet, there exists an insatiable desire for content. And thanks to the democratization of the technologies of content creation, everyone with a camera and a zoom recorder is suddenly a producer.

Content is delegitimizing advertising.

The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is one of the prime ingredients in the craft. In the right hands, the appropriate gear has the potential to make a great story that much stronger in execution. In and of itself, all the gear in the world will not make a better story. Flying cameras, movement for the sake of movement, outrageous POV shots are often senseless and usually add expensive. If not integral to the telling, these production hijinks are significant distractions from your brand idea. In a very real sense these distractions cost you twice. The essential skills of blocking in support of the scene, lighting that accentuates the moment and rehearsing action that will deliver the intended emotion seem to be a lost art in the world of brand content.

All the technical expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.

Most production companies are not built like marketing agencies; most are built for episodic engagements, not brand stewardship. Building and safeguarding your brand story takes a long-term view, it takes insight and planning and strategy and great creative ideas, smartly executed. This is the work of brand agencies.

Today there is a profusion of production companies that have technical skill because the technology has made it much easier to look and sound good.  Technical skill does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost may be significant.

Content without brand strategy is death by a thousand cuts.

Really good agencies know this, and really good clients know this too. And really good production companies know this as well and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience and she wants to partner with your agency. This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea in the most compelling way.

This is the work of producing content; to tell your brand idea, and it is why brand agencies employ creative directors, writers, art directors, strategists and producers, to define your brand idea.  And then in partnership with the director working to a clear idea, shot by shot, adding and building scenes, intention upon intention, the entire production is aligned with the purpose of your brand.

This is the craft of vocal pictures.

A brand is a problem solved. It’s as simple and as vexing as that. The obstacle for the customer is the obstacle for the brand.

The vexing part comes in creating a differentiating idea that clearly positions the brand as the most appealing solution to the customer problem. In highly competitive markets, the challenge is even greater, especially if the market is a category that is already over-served, such as beverage. (Excuse the pun.)

Carving out a competitive and meaningful brand proposition for a beverage brand requires insight that resonates with the emotional needs of your audience.

All brands must satisfy an emotional thirst.

Of course, if it is a beverage, it must taste good, ideally with a singular flavor profile different from the competition. Additionally, it will benefit from some unique graphic design and packaging to help drive consumer understanding of its unique qualities. A great campaign that breaks through and tells the idea remains essential. But these aspects are table stakes in the land of brand creation and differentiation.

The consumer mindset is the single most important context in the lived experience of the brand. In meetings about branding, discussion of customer feelings often generate less attention and hand-wringing than the typography and color palette. These things are easier to talk about because they are tangible, while consumer feelings can remain an enigma.

Feelings are messy things. Often not entirely clear and variable as they are, they present an obstacle to assurity.

All clients want assurance, which is one reason we now have scads of market research. The digitization of quantitative methods has achieved unfathomable scale and mirrors the scale of robotic ad placement. Like the proverbial Gordian Knot, it’s just too much of a good thing. Offering little in the way of deep emotional insight, this data does offer assurance. Or at least the appearance of assurance.  It has always been a wonderful backstop to qualitative insight, but alone, it avoids the obstacle.

The obstacle is the path to big ideas that stick.

Ken Zane’s show  Art Buyer For Hire is about 45 minutes in length. During the show we touch on a range of topics from idea development, to execution and agency culture too. While I was chief creative officer of Palio I hired Ken in the role of art buyer-producer. It was an important moment for both of us as it signaled a new level of growth for the agency and another chapter in Ken’s amazing career.

The title of Art Buyer is a bit of a misnomer, the role is  really about identifying and collaborating with talented artists.

Even this description falls far short of the many facets of the role. Building meaningful relationships with the artists as well as the agency internal team is essential to the task. Being a good people person is a requirement, as is being a strong listener and excellent communicator. Helping both parties collaborate effectively is another key skill. The actual buying of the art, the terms and price are, in my view, secondary to the primary task of delivering a great agency product. Ken Zane has an amazing eye and is a talented photographer in his own right. With significant background in the arts, Ken is able to quickly bring visual reference for color, composition and style into alignment in support of the work.

In short, Ken elevates the work with unwavering support for the vision of the team.

I hope you enjoy it. Click here for the show.

I stopped writing blog posts cold turkey. For a while I was really into writing them and then I wasn’t. It’s not that I wasn’t getting something from the process, I was, and at least a few of you were as well. Thank you for following. Apologize for the disappearance.

Working at Skidmore College, where I teach Branding and Commercial Production, has allowed me to develop my business into more of a consultancy. I joke at home that I’ve become the brand whisperer. It’s work I can do remotely and not interfere with my other obligations. I’ve also been further developing Vocal Pictures, the production arm of the company. Maybe it’s a leg, maybe even two legs …. for now, we can call it an arm.

Most of our film projects are for clients engaged with Brandforming, with occasional independent forays into short doc and narrative. One of the larger projects involved shooting over 14 days from early spring through late fall of 2019. Then the pandemic hit.

Working with students is a constant source of energy that keeps me on my toes and sharing my experience with the students has perhaps replaced my need to write posts. Of course, teaching during Covid-19 has been the cause of the Zoomdemic which makes it hard to spend any more time in front of a computer. On the whole, the students are doing their best to keep their heads in the game while staring into the abyss. After about 5 weeks, I decided to get off-line and back into the classroom. It’s not that the technology wasn’t working, or that my lesson plans were running afoul, I was simply bored teaching over Zoom.

We’re super cautious, we follow all the guidelines. I follow the Covid dashboards like a day trader follows the markets. So far, so good. As of this post, the virus is having its way with a good deal of the country. Refusal to comply with the scientific guidance is coming home to roost.

Stay safe.

Agency process is a balancing act. Too little process, and an agency will eventually fail to deliver and will go broke in the process. Too much process kills the creativity of the organization.

Having recently been a fly on the wall during client-led agency reviews, it is easy to spot the winners and losers. The winning agencies tend to lightly dance with their process, intermingling it with their work as evidence that the outcomes were not pure luck.

The losers spend more than half their allotted time banging on about their process, segmenting it from the outcomes and boring the client team to no end.

Good clients expect and respect strong agency process. They are not hiring agencies for their process. But if you question a client about why they are considering switching agencies, they very often cite poor process as one of the primary reasons. Of course, the other big reason is the work.

Strong process will not win you the work, but poor process will sure as hell will get you fired.

An agency that over-indexes on process in a client presentation is probably over-indexing on it back at the shop. Nothing will destroy an agency creative culture faster than legions of people armed with process hovering over the creative work.

Process is important. Properly executed, agency process infuses the creativity of the organization with insight, curiosity and a general esprit de corps that has everyone working to produce the best possible work.

If done poorly, agency process becomes a dividing line between those doing the work and those who believe it is their job to demand the work.

The highest purpose of agency process is to liberate its creativity.

Smart Brand Managers are forever scrutinizing the value they are gaining from their agencies.

The ad industry is forever trying to accurately respond to the old quip, attributed to John Wannamaker, “Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

Recently, Marc Pritchard of Unilever announced their “People First” initiative. As stated in CampaignLive; “a structure in which talent from roster agencies across holding groups are brought together under one roof to service the FMCG giant’s North American fabric care business.”

This is a client doing everything he can to unlock value from these relationships for his brands. Multiple agencies, multiple brands, massive media spend, redundancy and not enough of a payoff; or at least that’s what we can infer from the directive.

I don’t know Marc Pritchard, but really appreciate his efforts not to throw the baby out with the bath water. In the article he talks about bringing all the various agency creative together as a new model effort to find value by uniting the agencies in one collaborative effort.

I’ve run huge global brand development sessions with agency partners and client brand teams from all over the world. The largest initiative included participants from 16 countries. The approach can work miracles in ideation and equally important in getting everyone on the same page. Getting everyone on the same page with a big brand idea requires great talent in the room, a hugely collaborative effort, and egos left behind.

Believe it or not, it is rarely the creatives who do not play well with others.

The minute the big idea is agreed, it’s the agency business leads who start tearing at the budget like lions on a kill. Unless a client is willing to address the budget and compensation in an equally unilateral manner, it is very tough to make the collaboration stick.

I’ve worked on both Unilever and P&G brands and these are smart people with massive resources and still they are struggling to realize the promised value in the age of “new media.”

A big culprit is the industries’ addiction to its own hype.

The ad industry did not invent Google, or Facebook or any of the other super creative things that are reshaping the world; all we do is figure out how to monetize these things to our advantage and now clients are finally asking; How do all these exciting pieces of content you create make me money and build my brand?  Clearly there is benefit; but how much return is in that investment?  Spending less on creative and eliminating this redundancy is helpful to a brand if all the collaboration works out; but this is a client-driven attempt to solve an industry problem. We need to get better; showing and proving our value in context of the media and not just the execution itself.

Possibly one of the worst things to have happened in the advertising industry is when media was cleaved off from the agencies and became independent. It is not a matter of church and state; it is a matter of execution of ideas, and ideas cannot be separated from the media that gives voice to their expression.

Smart clients get smart work. Habitat Clothes is a great client. Hard working, hands-on, head in the clouds with feet on the ground. Visionary and driven with a keen curiosity and willingness to learn and adapt to the changing demands of business, Suzanne Williams is a restless warrior in the battle of building her brand.  From our initial conversations about the needs of her business and the impact on the brand, down to the last detail of execution of a product line, Suzanne never loses sight of the larger strategic goals of her company.

The company’s growth trajectory is strong because Habitat are uniquely connected to their customer base. With decades of work under their belts, (pun intended) the Habitat team has an intimate knowledge of what works and what doesn’t work for their customers. This insight allows Habitat to make critical business decisions without a lot of hand-wringing. Retail fashion is a fast moving business that demands constant planning and execution in a never ending cycle of the seasons. Consumer insight is critical to the success of any brand. Customers are constantly on the look-out for solutions to the challenges they face in their lives. Understanding their wants and needs, down to the buttons they prefer, is the basis of a thoughtful process of design decisions, that ultimately comprise a language. This design language is a dialogue between customers and brands that form the basis of trust from which repeat customers are born.

With a fresh look at their strategy, Habitat is poised for continued growth, ready to move from a branded house to a house of brands.

Long before social media, there were photojournalists whose work was shared across traditional media channels. The right instincts, in the right moment, resulted in an image that captured the imagination, documented an event and told a story. A single image seen across all media channels. In today’s parlance, we might say it went viral. A single moment, a single image and a single opportunity to capture that image. Guts, instinct, talent, intuition, anticipation and a passion for the story; these are a few of the key ingredients for a successful photojournalist.

In 1991 my friend and great talent Ira Yoffe, then VP Creative Director at Parade Magazine, invited me to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop. In 2017 The Eddie Adams Workshop celebrated 30 years of its unique program for photojournalists. This is an intense, four-day gathering of top photography professionals, along with 100 carefully selected students. The workshop is tuition-free, and the students are chosen based on the merit of their portfolios. Nikon has been the workshop’s major sponsor since its inception. I’ve been shooting with Nikon Cameras and lenses most of my life. There is an extraordinary relationship between Nikon and The Eddie Adams Workshop, so I try to support Nikon when I can. I still use many of my original Nikon manual focus lenses for both still and video work, even on other cameras. In the moment of truth, reliability is key.

During the workshop, I was part of the guest faculty sharing my experience and perspective with these young photojournalists. Also on the faculty was the great Duane Michals. I don’t recall exactly what Duane Michals had to say to them, but one can imagine it included trusting their creative instincts.

My message to these young professionals was simple. For the rest of their lives they would have two jobs; making the work and promoting the work.

It is the same for brands; make the brand and promote the brand. Photojournalists make great hires to help execute social media campaigns. Social media is a ready-made channel for photojournalists. When aligned to your brand story and the goals you would like to achieve, the skills of a photojournalist are hard to beat. The work will come from a more authentic, investigative place as opposed to a very prescribed idea of your brand. The immediacy and authenticity of social media is lost when execution becomes entirely mechanical.

Social media is most successful when it balances the organic with the highly orchestrated, this makes a brand both accessible and inspiring.

When considering how to hire for successful social media, think outside the traditional agency box.

Blockchain could save the media environment for brands. There has been much written about how blockchain might result in greater transparency in media buying and tracking. If it all works as conceived, it will also be a boon for content creators, enabling direct engagement with audiences and direct payment too. This has the potential to put more leverage back on the side of creators like musicians, film makers, photographers, writers and journalists too. The early interest in NFT’s point to success. Time will tell.

Blockchain has potential to minimize fake news and level set social media.

This is particularly important for brands. Of course, the success of any given blockchain at minimizing fake news will entirely depend on the integrity of its creators and managers. It could just as easily be used to legitimize fake news and fake news sources.

For legacy media outlets, with legitimate journalistic integrity, like the NY Times, fake news is rarely, if ever, an issue. Ads served in this context are elevated by the integrity of the enterprise.

In social media, brands end up in the unchecked context of the user; uncorroborated reporting, fabricated events and misinformation.

Corroborated reporting is a hallmark of journalistic integrity.

Blockchain has the potential to force down a governance of integrity through corroboration and help social platforms maintain social integrity. In effect, this would give brand managers and media buyers leverage, insight and security.

This would also reward journalistic integrity of the blockchain with greater ad volume and minimize fake news, slowly choking off its source of income. Fake news has become a game that is undermining our culture. Advertisers on social platforms have an obligation to uphold the integrity of media environments because there is so much at risk.

Fake news is a not just a race to the bottom, it is the bottom.

When I first started working in the industry, I had a great experience, or I should say, set of experiences, that really enhanced my technical and artistic understanding of film and photography. Where to place the camera is one of the most important decisions we make in the effective telling of a story. When we get it right we create vocal pictures.

I was fresh out of Parsons School of Design and met my friend Kevin O’Callaghan. Kevin is now a prominent instructor at the School of Visual Arts and an industry legend, not only for his excellence as an instructor, but also for his amazing work in 3D illustration, sculpture and art installations. Kevin is what he has always been, a creative genius.

With Kevin I began working creating props and special effects for film and TV. Together we worked on a number of projects, some in conjunction with Dale Malley, at the time one of the country’s leading independent prop makers.

We worked on television spots for Atari, making 3D live-action TV sets that played video games with each other. We crafted giant ice cubes, a giant glass and a giant can for 7Up and built colorful, moving props for BonJour Jeans. We made props for the Rodney Dangerfield film Easy Money and recreated aspects of the Oval office for a film about JF Kennedy with Martin Sheen; we made props for a Mid-Summer Night’s Sex Comedy with Woody Allen, the Flamingo Scooter for the Flamingo Kid with Matt Dillon…the list goes on.

The Flamingo Scooter

O’Callaghan; genius at work

Everything we built, no matter how fantastic, needed to fool the eye, to be real…enough. We had to be convincing in our execution of these props and effects. Some were incredibly authentic to original objects we had been asked to reproduce, others were pure fantasy writ large. This was fun, exciting and interesting work during which I learned a great deal about what the camera will see, or more specifically, what we see and what looks convincing on film. The understanding of how light interacts with various colors, surfaces and structures remain invaluable. The most important aspect of course is that all these aspects are delivering on the intention of the scene and the film as a whole.

The demand for video content and the need to tell brand stories in interesting ways requires first and foremost a great insightful story and then the ability to tell it effectively.

Photography and film is a science of both light and time, the manipulation of these fundamental elements can make or break a piece of content. It’s about what you are filming and how you film it. Where you place the camera and how you light the subject are two of the most important decisions that need to be made.

From my perspective (pun intended), not enough thought and creativity is put into this aspect of video content creation. There is a great deal of stylistic sameness; the industry repeating itself.  This works against the differentiation of your brand. The execution of the story should be anchored in the uniqueness of your brand story, not in the latest trend or enabling technology. If you’ve ever watched a video and the production techniques end up being more interesting than the story, you understand the problem.

If the idea is not crystal clear and interesting, then all the slick execution in the world will not make it better.