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.

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.

Cheers.

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 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.