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. I hope you enjoy it. Click here for the show.
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 more media savvy environment, 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. It’s time-proven quality and in the moment, 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, among many other celebrated and talented creatives and editors. 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. One result: the work will come from a more authentic, investigative place as opposed to some very prescribed idea of your brand. Social media immediacy and authenticity is lost when content becomes an entirely mechanical unfolding of the campaign. To me, social media is most successful when it balances the organic with the highly orchestrated.
When considering how to hire for successful social media, think outside the traditional agency box.
Block, Light, Rehearse, Shoot…your brand story.
It’s happened before, technology democratizes an industry and craft suffers before it rises again. I’m advocating for a conscious return of what I feel is a progressive loss to the level of craft in commercial content production.
The art of your brand story is one part and the art of the production of your brand story is the other. 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 or director or director of photography or all of the above. Yikes.
Potential clients call Brandforming and ask us for an assessment of why their content is not delivering the anticipated results. They invested in, yada, yada, yada…
There is a lot of crappy content on the web; I hope it’s not yours.
Just because you can produce content with your smart phone does not mean you should. Just because you can fry an egg on your car engine does not mean you should. If Annie Leibovitz takes your portrait with a smart phone, it will be an amazing story of you. If Martin Scorsese wants to make a cinematic production with a DSLR, it’ll be an amazing tale. If Bobby Flay decides to cook you brunch on the engine of his SUV, it’ll be one of the best meals of your life.
The skill and creativity of the story teller, not necessarily the gear involved, is the point. Great gear in the right hands has the potential to make a great story or idea that much stronger in execution. But in and of itself it is an empty shell.
This does not mean you shouldn’t create and produce. It means if you don’t have the skills, you need to practice and hone the craft before you degrade your brand with crappy content. And the first skill you need to master is the story. If you don’t have the skills in-house, then hire the right people. All the tech expertise in the world will not make a bad story better.
Most production companies are not built like marketing agencies; most of them 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, but that does not make them effective at decoding your story. A direct engagement with a production company may make the cost to your marketing budget look cheaper on paper but the long-term cost is significant. Vacuous content.
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 and expect to partner with brand agencies. A great commercial director wants to understand your brand and its audience. This is where your brand agency insight and executional expertise will guide the production team and help them tell your brand idea with the correct intention.
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, shot by shot, adding and building, intention upon intention, the entire production design is aligned with the purpose of your brand.
This is the craft.
The past nine months have been an exercise in constraint. Adding the role of The F. William Harder Chair Professor of Business Administration at Skidmore College to my life’s work has taken some adjustment. All positive. This work will be the subject of its own blog post because it deserves the airtime.
Here at Brandforming, we’ve been aggressively moving the nature and scope of our engagements to be primarily defined by brand idea and strategy development. With a few exceptions, we’ve dialed down on tactical execution.
We’ve enjoyed some very nice engagements that have resulted in perspective-shifting, business-altering ideas for our clients. This is enormously satisfying as we’ve significantly and positively impacted the businesses of our clients. It has also allowed us to engage effectively and precisely with these clients, giving them the attention they deserve while I work at the very serious and seriously gratifying job of being a Professor.
There have been some interesting knock-on effects of this constraint. We prepare and execute a very thorough engagement for our clients and send them off with a simple, powerful brand idea. They move forward happy and excited. Nice. As of this writing, a full 75% of these clients are returning to us with additional work.
The reality is that they are returning because they do not feel the idea is being fully realized. Why? As we re-engage it becomes clear that the client has gotten bogged down in execution. Bogged down, often with their own internal constraints, often in conjunction with the failure of the client-agency relationship. And in two instances the client’s AOR did not fully deliver on the power and potential of the idea despite everyone getting along just swimmingly.
Of course, we are always delighted when the phone rings again with clients seeking our council because they trust the work we’ve done together. On the other hand, we would be equally happy to see the ideas take flight without the need for us to re-engage. Our shift in scope forgives us most of the burden of these misfires. Still, we are upset by the sounds of frustration on the other end of the phone. And because we know that being an AOR is often a compromised existence, we do everything in our capability to help re-focus and re-energize these relationships.
Execution is no little thing and it is often the first thing that gets compromised. We are working in an age of such downward price pressure that many agencies are struggling to survive. The evidence is all around us: talent flight, collapsing margins, and bad media. Clients need to invest in execution and the most important part of this investment is in a partner that can make things happen without a lot of wasted effort. Big ideas don’t always need to cost a fortune to execute, but they must always be smartly — effectively and efficiently — rendered.
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.