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.

Part of my work at Skidmore College as the F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration includes the recruitment and production of an annual lecture.

Each year, a speaker is recruited and asked to present to the students a topic within their areas of interest and expertise. This year, it was me.

The link to the lecture: https://vimeo.com/557756796

If you’re working in the industry, it’s important to keep in mind that the audience for this presentation are students. The age range is 18-22. Their context as young adults is a world in which they have never known anything other than digital media and social media. To draw out the importance of this context, I will point out here that as part of the boomer generation I grew up with TV. I never knew a world without TV. My parents, part of the silent generation, grew up with radio; TV for them was a transformative technology. For my generation, digital has been a transformative technology. For these students, generation Z, digital is nothing new at all. However, their challenge is gaining some perspective, not simply on the past but also about where we are today and, if I did a decent job, suggestions to motivate their own work and understanding going forward.

This is academic work and is shared here in that context for that purpose. The work used to illustrate the presentation were derived from various sources, most of it my own, some of it sourced from various on-line resources available to the public. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this lecture was delivered virtually.

I hope you find it insightful.

The show is about 45 minutes in length, during which 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 into 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.  I hope you enjoy it. Click here for the show.

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.

Are you creating killer content?

Is your content engine in overdrive? A boiling, overheated, over expressed machine. Are you choking the very channels from which you hope to win new customers and build deeper relationships?

Not all content is created equal. And not every potential consumer touch-point warrants the presence of your brand.

The buyer’s journey is almost always a process of discovery, investigation, ingestion, peer-to-peer consultation, more investigation, purchase consideration, then the purchase of the winning brand. It’s not a linear journey.

Consumers need downtime. They need free space to think, confer with friends and thoughtful consideration of their options. They need ad free, clutter-free space. They need respect.

Robotic ad buying and over-zealous social media content stuffing can destroy brand engagement.

Too much, is well… too much. And enough is enough. Brands that lack insight and deep strategy default to polluting their own channels; paid, owned and earned.

Clients are spending untold amounts of money on bad content decisions. Content strategy should be a very direct and meaningful extension of your brand idea. Your brand idea needs to express the desires of your customers.

The story of your brand is the story of your customers.

Telling this story in the most meaningful, relevant and respectful way is the ultimate expression of your brand.

 

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.

As humans we are hard-wired to see and appreciate beauty.

The impact of beauty has been studied and proven countless times. There is nothing like a beautiful face to garner our attention; one look online or on TV or in a print publication proves beauty is an effective tool of advertisers.

Our fundamental appreciation of beauty has also been studied by neuroscience. As creatures, we are inclined to beauty and increasingly, that appreciation of beauty is being understood to go well beyond a pretty face.

The appreciation of beauty in everyday life, from landscapes, to sunsets, to kittens, puppy dogs and the astral skies, all hold common appeal. Beauty amazes us in nature and in the products and services we enjoy as well.

Manufacturers that understand the power of beauty use great design from end-to-end; from the simplicity and elegance of a well-conceived user experience to the shape and form of a physical product and how it functions, to the design of their brand mark and print materials too. This appreciation of beauty extends to all manner of content creation from the quality of the images they create to the voice, tonality and simplicity of the written and spoken word.

Nothing extraneous that will diminish the beauty of their conception is allowed. By example, think Apple, think Dyson, think Audi, think 3M. Beautiful design works beautifully.

Ugly, poorly designed products and services end up in the dollar store of our appreciation. Well-conceived, imaginative and well-executed design work elevates all aspects of a brand, the most important of which is consumer appreciation.

Defining this beauty means starting with insight into the desires and needs of the intended users. It also means establishing a beauty language for your brand, a unique and appealing design vernacular that informs all that you produce.

Beautiful ideas, beautifully executed. These ideas Head for The Heart.

For over a decade, I’ve been a regular guest speaker at Skidmore College in the classroom of Professor Christine Page.

I’ve offered my POV on creativity, advertising, branding and marketing and have done ideation workshops with the students. I really enjoy working with Christine and her students because it’s fun and rewarding to share my years of experience. It feels good to give back, and I’ve learned a few things in the process too.

Then Skidmore scared the crap out of me.

How? They offered me the F. William Harder Chair of Business Administration. This is an endowed professorship, a great job, at a great school and an incredible honor. It made my knees shake. It’s one thing to drop in a few times a year and quite another to walk into a room full of bright young minds twice a week with the goal of imparting a kernel of knowledge.

Teaching is not easy work, and I love the work I’m doing with Brandforming; so why add this to the mix?

As Albert Einstein said, “Once you stop learning, you start dying.”

I love learning. It’s one of the things I love most about advertising; the need to keep learning to solve client marketing problems. To work alongside these students, to challenge them to dig for insight and generate ideas together will be a great experience.

Teaching is learning; and I’ll be learning right alongside these millennials, post millennials and Gen Z-Centennials. They have as much to offer me as I do them. I’m routinely impressed, not only by their intelligence but also by their willingness to write their own rules. This is not ambivalence on their part, it’s creation. Bingo.

This why I’m now the F. William Harder Chair of Business Administration at Skidmore College…or if you prefer, Professor.

In April Team Brandforming was on location in Florence Italy at the incredible Belmond, Villa San Michele, shooting our campaign for Monvieve.

Monvieve is a haute couture Italian Fashion Brand. Monvieve designs and handcrafts bespoke bridal veils in Italy. Each veil is a unique work of art, as fine and beautiful as you can imagine. Our client, is Alison Miller, the creative director, owner and driving force of Monvieve.

Villa San Michele dates from the 15th century, the Villa’s facade is attributed to Michelangelo. Step inside and you experience the ethereal beauty and solitude of a Renaissance monastery that is as much a part of Italy’s culture as her great cathedrals. Grazie’ a lei Clio Cicuto and the entire team at Villa San Michele.

For those who know me personally, you will immediately grasp the joy in this moment, a lover of art, art history and nearly all things Italian.  

To work with another Italian luxury brand such as Monvieve and to shoot in Florence, puts this gig on the top of my list of great experiences. Our photographer, Massimiliano Botticelli and his all star team did an amazing job. They flawlessly executed a long and intense day of shooting. His team hit every mark in our production schedule to take best advantage of the glorious natural light. Max did not stop until the sun was gone from the sky. Grazie’ a lei Max!

Composing images for our campaign #MonvieveMoments against a backdrop designed by Michelangelo was the culmination of a tremendous amount of work by our client. Team Brandforming was thrilled to play our part in bringing the story to life. It takes years of dedicated focus and talent to succeed in the fashion industry and Alison is on her way to her next great success.

Defining Moments is what Monvieve is all about and it is exactly what is achieved whenever a woman steps into a Monvieve product. It is a transformative moment, a defining moment, a #MonvieveMoments

Check out some of our production stills up on the Monvieve Facebook page. Follow Monvieve on Instagram. Please remember, it’s nice to share.

Brandforming was on location at Carnegie Mellon filming a PSA for the Computer Science Teachers Association. We nicknamed the spot Robot Love.  

After months of work and insight development, derived from one-on-one interviews, we finally rolled cameras. Special thanks here to our partners Associations Development Group for bringing Brandforming on as collaborators.

We created 5 different concept boards for client review. It didn’t take long for the client team to settle on of the themes we presented; Computer Science. Cool Stuff.

The goal of the PSA is to encourage more young people, especially girls, to get involved in computer science. In fact, the Fox TV show, FabLab is equally dedicated to this goal. Nearly half the high schools in the US do not offer computer science. It’s astonishing to consider since there is hardly a life today untouched by some aspect of computer science.

Filming took place at Carnegie Mellon because of their outstanding computer science program and also because of Professor Manuela Veloso. Professor Veloso is an extraordinary person, her brains, talent and determination make her a fantastic teacher, mentor and coach to all the enthusiastic students we met while filming. Thank you #ManuelaVeloso. Thank you #CMU. Thank you #Pittsburgh.

Professor Veloso is very quick to point out that computer science is about a lot more than just robotics.

Kids in America need more exposure to computer science and a better understanding of the many career opportunities associated with it. I hope the TV show #FabLab catches the imagination of its young audience and that our TV spot helps drive awareness of just how cool computer science really is.

It was good fun working with Robots to help tell our story. It was also great to work with Professor Veloso, her students and the producers of the show FabLab too.

Robot Love, the science behind computer science.

Team Brandforming and Computer Science, now that’s Cool Stuff.