Smart clients get smart work. We like smart clients and 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 her 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 in planning her product line shoot, she never loses sight of the larger strategic goals she has set out for the Habitat brand.
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.
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.
Brand marks and symbols are invested with symbolism; meaning derived from perceived value, ambition and aspiration too. On this 4th of July I thought it would be interesting to start with a consideration of Uncle Sam; a representation of the U.S. Government. The creation and evolution of Uncle Sam is an interesting story about which much has been written. It’s hard to separate fact from fiction but one thing is certain, the illustration created by artist Montgomery Flagg is a hit. This rendering was used to promote the idea of being ready and prepared for war. World War I was supposed to be the war to end all wars. Sadly, there is never really an end to war and persecution and the excuses used to justify it all. Right or wrong, the symbol of Uncle Sam became a call-to-arms which found its inspiration in the 1914 Alfred Leete illustration from England used in a WW I recruitment poster.
Uncle Sam’s better half, known as Columbia, famously depicted by Paul Stahr ca. 1917-18, named to honor the legacy of Columbus, went on to inspire the naming of countless organization, including Columbia University as well as Columbia pictures, which later took the lovely lady as a symbol of its own. You’ll notice a strong resemblance to Lady Liberty, the grand statue itself a gift to the people of the U.S. from the people of France. The Statue was designed by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel and dedicated on October 28, 1886.
In the painting of Columbia, we are quite literally taken in by her open arms and compassionate and sincere expression. Columbia was said to represent the people of the Americas. The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet with the Roman inscription of July 4, 1776; testament to our declaration of independence. Broken chains lay at her feet, a beacon for all the world to see, a symbol of independence and freedom at the entrance to NY Harbor. Her torch held high, welcoming immigrants from all over the world. The statue was also inspired by the Roman Goddess, Libertas.
It should not be surprising that women are used to represent openness, liberty and freedom while men are depicted as aggressive, directive and controlling. We are ourselves symbols. Of course, not all women and men possess these qualities as distinct characteristics. Check out the early illustration by Thomas Nast from Harpers Weekly of Uncle Sam having Thanksgiving dinner with immigrants from all over the world, this tells the story of America at its best. The world at its best.
At a time when the U.S. and perhaps much of the rest of the world seem on a path of isolationism, it would do us good to remember the power of symbols and icons as representations of our beliefs.
America’s most important and invaluable export is our culture. For centuries, America and the promise of America has inspired countless millions to risk it all in pursuit of freedom, openness and inclusiveness. We seem to be forgetting, the meaning of America, of liberte’.
What will you export today? Perhaps you can start with a welcoming smile.
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.