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. 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 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 the students is a near constant source of energy that keeps me on my toes. Of course, teaching during Covid-19 has been the cause of the Zoomdemic, turning us all into Zoombies. 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 was not 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 here in Saratoga Springs. 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.
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 and storytelling in general.
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.
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.
My first year as The F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration at Skidmore College has been a bit of a roller coaster. The good kind, thrilling without the sense of impending doom that you get in those “poop your pants” rides that seem to push the limits of engineering.
I went into this gig with some trepidation, not knowing how I’d fare. Not knowing is a good thing in my book. I like not knowing because it means I’m learning and I’ve learned a lot.
The first thing I’ve learned is that being a Professor is real work. From this day forward, if I ever hear anyone say, “those who know do and those who don’t teach,” I’ll offer to have them give it a try. They have obviously never stepped foot in a classroom full time. The occasional rock star visit does not come close to staring down a room full of 20 something’s at 8:30 am on Wednesday & Friday mornings in February when it’s 20 below. It takes real effort to keep them engaged. Effort, planning, follow-up and creativity. Sounds just like any other business.
The second thing I can tell you is the work outside the classroom far exceeds the work inside the classroom. But I’m still new to all this and it has already gotten easier but like any other gig, you get out of it what you put in, so if you’re doing it right, it’s never really easy.
In both courses, I bring in real clients, with real business and brand challenges. My approach is to workshop the challenge in a real-world format. It took some adjusting on my part to make this work for students vs professionals. It’s one thing to do something your entire career surrounded by pros and another entirely to codify it into a syllabus for people who have never done it before.
I can tell you the world is in for a treat when these young people hit the workforce. The other observation I can share is that Skidmore students are smart, with a causal confidence that belies their intelligence and strong work ethic.
It’s a unique experience working with students. Eager to learn and challenge themselves as much as I challenge them; to push their creativity and put it to work within a strategic construct. Working with creativity as a skill, with a business purpose, changes their ideas about creativity and helps them see it as vital and vitally important no matter their career choice.
This semester, my Commercial Production students took on an assignment for Garnet River, an IT Professional Services Firm that is launching an internet security service designed for threat detection and response for small to mid-size business. We spent the majority of the semester discovering all that is involved in the making of a TV spot; perhaps more contemporarily defined as content. Most of these students had never before produced narrative content, so we invested ourselves in the art of the story, the heroes journey. We examined other spots, listened to the words of Directors and Directors of Photography, Casting Agents, Location Scouts, Production Designers and Musicians. We practiced concept development and story boarding our concepts. Then we focused our efforts on building production books to catalogue and manage the production. And finally, with approximately 4 weeks remaining in the semester, these Management and Business student went to work on their final assignment; a 30 sec spot for Garnet Shield. A few examples of which are included here. Their skill levels vary but their creativity is strong.
Two spreads for Grace Ormonde magazine. Part of an on-going media program for Monvieve. We’re also creating on-line media to support the brand for the fall bridal season.
In Mid-April Team Brandforming was on location in Florence Italy at the incredible Belmond, Villa San Michele, shooting our campaign for our client 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, Alison Miller, the creative director and owner of the label, works with each of her clients to assure the experience is as flawless as her veils.
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 the country’s greatest cathedrals and galleries. 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, flawlessly executing 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!
Framing 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 success.
In early April team 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 rounds of one-on-one interviews, we finally rolled cameras.
Special thanks here to our partners Associations Development Group for thinking of us and bringing Brandforming on as collaborators. Team Brandforming cranked out 5 different concept boards for client review. It didn’t take long for the client team to settle on the theme and spot we created, 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 well known for her work in Robotics but computer science is about a lot more than just Robotics, as she is very quick to point out. 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 FabLab too. The spot was filmed by Galileo Media Arts. Robot Love, the science behind computer science.
Team Brandforming and Computer Science, now that’s Cool Stuff.
In the books Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Master and his Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, the authors explore the workings of the human brain. I think we can use their insights to help build #AHealthierNation, especially if we consider the workings of the Human Brain Vs. Pharma TV Spots.
Both authors point out that our brains are hot wired to detect danger before safety. We detect anger in others before joy. This extends to images and words, even those in abstract of a lived experience. For example, we can detect an angry face in a picture of a crowd of happy people faster than we can detect a happy face in a crowd of angry people. The mention of a word associated with danger, even in absence of that danger in the present lived experience, triggers lightning quick brain activity associated with a threat. This has been studied and documented with MRI data.
Kahneman points out the we live our lives as stories, collections of experiences and memories that ideally come to a happy finale, and this is what we remember. In a particularly interesting chapter, he explores the idea of duration neglect and how as humans, we will willingly endure protracted and difficult experiences if the goal, outcome and future memory would be a positive gain. One example he explains is that of amnesic vacations. An oversimplification; the duration of a vacation ideally has an effect on its quality. I think we’d all agree that 6 days are better than 3. But if the last day of the 6-day vacation is a poor experience, the overriding memory will be one of an unhappy vacation, despite the duration. This is the peak ending and most dominant lasting memory. For more on this you can watch his TED talk here.
Both of these books are fascinating and entirely different, but with many corollaries that make them both worth reading. The Master and his Emissary makes clear the right brain is dominant in the role of detecting the incongruent, new, exciting and dangerous. The left brain is dominant in breaking it down into known bits of all lived experience and cataloging it so as to help us detect the new vs the known, different or dangerous. There is a mysterious beauty to the power of this duality and the yin-yang balance that it achieves to help us detect danger and feel safe. You can watch him illustrate this in his TED talk here.
If we apply these findings of the workings of the human brain Vs. Pharma TV spots, it would suggest that ending a commercial with 30 seconds of “fair balance” that rattles off all the negative potential consequences of the therapy is not a good idea if we want people to seek out, consume and adhere to that treatment. What memory are we left with? What is the cumulative effect of these negative associations to the psychology of Americans to what is now decades of exposure to often potentially life threatening consequences of treatment? We are putting our minds on high alert and then leaving ourselves with negative memories.
The FDA lives in a paradox of endorsing the use of needed therapies that are in the majority proven very effective and safe and at the same time approving and controlling how they are promoted. The use of Fair Balance was deemed a reasonable solution to keep some checks and balances in the system. One early justification for direct-to-consumer advertising for healthcare products was that it would help make people healthier by helping them recognize health issues and solutions to what is ailing them. That said, I would argue it is not working entirely as hoped. Direct-to-consumer advertising has certainly proven to sell more drugs but is it really helping? Adherence and compliance rates remain terrible and as a nation, we are not among the healthiest, despite having the one of the best healthcare systems in the world. I can’t help but feel that there exists an unintended and negative consequence of bombarding our culture with therapy risk profiles instead of more positive educational messages about living a healthy and happy life.
I’m not suggesting that the problems of adherence and compliance have been caused by advertising, they certainly predate it. What I am suggesting is that advertising executed in this way has become just another part of the problem and it’s time to consider alternative approaches that not only make us aware of solutions but improve long-term outcomes for #AHealthierNation.
Advertising is part of the brand experience and nobody wants to experience side-effects, even in the abstract. Patients need to be educated about the potential risks of any treatment and there are other and potentially better ways to provide this learning. Awareness advertising by its very nature employs both reach and frequency to achieve its goal. The persistent drumming of risk factors in combination with how our brains are hot wired to detect risk is a perfect storm. Our abilities to detect risk and the frequency of exposure caused by this type of advertising may be creating strong negative associations with these brands specifically and perhaps more detrimentally, pharmaceutical therapies overall.
On any given night during a broadcast commercial break it is not uncommon to see 2-3 pharma spots back-to-back. This results in approximately 1.5 minutes of nausea, hives, Arrhythmia, trouble breathing, night sweats, diarrhea, dizziness, life threatening rash, allergic reactions, suicidal thoughts, dry mouth, internal bleeding, increased blood pressure, stroke, liver damage, heart attack and other potential drug-drug and dietary interactions that in rare cases have caused death. This parade of alarm bells is made no less volatile by the mostly generic visual backdrop of smiling happy people and the sometimes over-qualified claims of efficacy. Remember we’re hot wired to detect risk before all else. How’s that for a side effect? Human Brain Vs. Pharma TV could be a perfect storm of unintended consequences. June 2014 saw the beginning of OpenFDA an effort to make accessible the FDA database of side effects, drug labels, warnings, food recalls. This project is still in Beta but it holds great promise to help us better manage and understand the insights available through this repository and how insights gained across drug and device class can inform #AHealtherNation and perhaps will give us opportunity to create better, more positive and educational TV spots.
As communicators can do better to create a #AHealthierNation and support our Physicians and other healthcare workers to help us live healthier lives.
At Brandforming we’re confident that as an industry, if we put our brains together and challenge the status quo, we can build healthier brands and healthier outcomes with ideas that #HeadForTheHeart.
In March of 2015 the legendary filmmaker Albert Maysles left this earth for the great beyond. In his lifetime he and his brother David, who passed many years before, established a way of working in documentary film that elevated our ability to see life as it truly is, with as little artifice as possible. The December 27, 2015 issue of the NY Times Sunday Magazine brought Albert Maysles and the work of The Maysles Brothers back to me in the cover article, The Lives They Lived.
The seminal works of The Maysles Brothers are many and if you have not seen them, you should watch a few: http://mayslesfilms.com/films.
The Maysles Brothers work continues to have significant impact on the work of filmmakers around the world. Their approach was strongly observational and the aesthetic, sparse. Their faith in reality, as equally if not more interesting and powerful than fiction, created films of a raw, visceral quality. Occasionally in moments hard to watch, but also impossible to look away.
Albert Maysles began his career as a teacher of Psychology and, in fact, it was an interest in filming the life of patients in a mental hospital that represents his very first film, Psychiatry in Russia. This drive to represent reality unfiltered, to show things as they are, still holds incredible power and potential, especially in healthcare.
Early in my foray into Healthcare advertising, I was doing a lot of work for broadcast, and I certainly contributed my share of work to what is now the formula. That said, I was really fortunate to work with Maysles Shorts, a division of the company helmed by David McNamara. As a division of Maysles Films, it was anchored in the traditions the brothers had established. David and I did some really nice work together. I’m not sure if the Maysles hired David because he has a gifted eye, or because they saw in him a devotion to a way of working that would continue exploring opportunities to attempt to see life as it truly is. Regardless, David remains an excellent filmmaker with an approach that is all his own, but remains straightforward and honest too. You can learn more about David and what he’s up to these days at the Collective.
Given the overall market conditions in Healthcare, it is more important than ever to create work with strength and honesty. Work that will go beyond selling treatments and help patients understand the value of compliance and adhering to their therapy. It’s time to explore new ways of representing and seeing solutions in healthcare that improve on the outcomes we have achieved thus far. The work of the Maysles Brothers remains so powerful because it is work that has a Head For The Heart. It is a belief in the intimate power of life as it is – an un-glossed honesty that captures human nature with an observing, unwavering respect for humanity.