Dan McDougall, an award-winning international foreign correspondent, and Navdip Dhariwal, a former BBC International correspondent and newsreader, are the founders of Asia- and Africa-based Miran Media, an agency drilling deep into the veins of brands for stories that do just one thing: create social impact.
For example, McDougall, who has worked extensively in Africa as a foreign correspondent, knows that there is a huge crisis around blood storage and donation.
"If you're in an accident in most African countries or need blood, you first have to ensure a relative gives blood to the hospital before you can be treated," says McDougall. "It's called the family replacement system."
While working on a content project for the German multinational software corporation, SAP, McDougall realised that hidden in its research labs was an app the company was developing to help encourage blood donations.
The finding "instantly pinged as a great story," McDougall says. Miran crafted a film around the challenges and how the technology could offer a solution. "Brands often don’t see the stories right under their nose or they're just too afraid to go there," he adds.
Dhariwal brings similarly hands-on experience to branded content. She was the first British Asian foreign correspondent at the BBC and the Delhi-based correspondent at a time when "India was transforming". She has reported from over 60 countries in addition to being the chief of communications for the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates.
As true journalistic "heavyweights" the co-founders have covered everything from tsunamis to earthquakes to conflicts. McDougall has reported from over 110 countries and hostile environments and won "just about every award in British Foreign Journalism".
McDougall and Dhariwal take their extensive multimedia reporting to the brand space at a time when "newspapers are fighting for survival" and new editorial job titles like "audience analyst, engagement editor, storytelling coach and content strategist" are part and parcel.
"That sounds like an ad agency or PR firm to me," says McDougall. The changes in journalism and media also coincide with a transcendental shift in consumer values, technology, and the marketing and advertising landscape. The veneers of advertising no longer suffice. Companies need to be credible from the products and services they sell down to every stakeholder and process.
"We would never work with a company that we thought was unethical," says McDougall. "We bring our journalistic integrity that we’ve always had to the work we do with brands."
As industries and disciplines overlap, a bridge is connecting brands and journalists. It is now common for filmmakers and reportage photographers to combine corporate and human rights work—with one funding the other.
"What’s the difference between a corporation and a Hollywood studio?" McDougall asks. "The world of sponsored content or native advertising also opens up opportunities for award-winning writers and filmmakers."
Although the sources of funding may continue to blur, Miran’s standpoint as a journalistic content agency gives it a distinct advantage. "One word that comes up a lot in our meetings with firms or NGOs is credibility," says Dhariwal. "This earns us an equal platform with governments."
For example, Miran was able to call Transparency International, an NGO, on behalf of a global client, asking the NGO to contribute to a dialogue on corruption, which Dhariwal described as a "win-win" with benefits on a social and corporate level.
"We are able to build relationships based on our trust and credibility," says Dhariwal.
Miran’s clients have included General Electric, Ericsson, SAP Global, Maersk, DHL, UNICEF, UN Women, The Swedish Development Agency, Oxfam and The World Bank.
Miran’s work is achieved through a particular set of skills. McDougall has a long background in investigating supply chains and CSR—he’ll be lecturing at Cambridge University on the subject this year.
Describing his creative and storytelling process as "forensic", he turns a brief inside out before going through exhaustive interviews on a route toward deep discovery.
"We also like to go to the ends of the earth to tell the best stories, which isn’t a problem when we’ve made films in The Sudan or operated in Mogadishu or Helmand," McDougall says. "But it’s sometimes surprising to the client when we suggest places or angles they might never have considered before."
In the aftermath of typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, for example, McDougall was on the ground with his camping gear. In search of a story for General Electric, he discovered people out in the field "restoring power, some of whom had lost their own loved ones."
"It was a powerful and authentic story because their role in society was as vital as the NGO workers in the field," McDougall says. "Without electricity there is no light to keep women and children safe, no power to pump electricity, no communications systems."
With production and post-production teams in Asia and Africa, Miran uses a global network of resources, connections, journalists, editors, producers, designers, camera crews and photographers—many of which are former BBC. Having been in the field for so long, it’s not difficult for the agency to partner with "award-winning talent".
According to the co-founders, Miran has grown from and followed McDougall and Dhariwal’s own "journalistic journeys", giving their work a global scope and perspective.
"The diversity of stories in emerging economies excites us, but we also made some great films in the US last year," says Dhariwal. "We want to make films in Mongolia, but we are comfortable in Manhattan."
Miran’s direction is to become "end-to-end" and work with "correspondents of similar experience" on advertising and branded campaigns from the "perspective of authentic storytelling".
Miran has partnered with Rowan Kerek Robertson, former head of social media for BBC Television, and Lalita Taylor, a broadcast and multimedia journalist who is skilled at boosting profiles and creating online and PR buzz. The future for Miran will extend from creating content to leveraging digital platforms for maximum social impact.
With a strong interest in stories around technology and innovation, Miran has been involved in a number of integrated brand campaigns. The agency played a key part in the launch of General Electric’s global distributive power business in addition to producing a film, The Brilliant Factory, which was used as part of GE’s US drive on the future of manufacturing and the Internet of things.
Similarly, Miran created a content series for SAP technology to coincide with its announcement of a $500 million investment in Africa and Ericsson’s sub-Saharan African Mobility Report. "Technology is where we see the most exciting potential for storytelling," Dhariwal says.
For McDougall and Dhariwal the biggest difference between Miran and typical advertising and PR agencies is their approach, "field experience" and "learned craft".
"Most of the people we meet in PR have spent their careers pitching to people like us," McDougall says. "We don’t need to fight for attention; we know what the story is and it has been learned over 20 years of storytelling."
"PR firms talk of stakeholder models and strategy, but the reality is what PR firms and advertising agencies need are world-class editors and storytellers with field experience—not brand managers," Dhariwal says. "Many PR professionals just aren’t as good at writing as international journalists, nor can they make films—they outsource that."
And at the same time, brands are demanding more and wanting to harness "expertise in emerging economies" and in particular around "sustainability, CSR and social impact narratives."
As for the future, Miran’s founders see great potential in sponsored content. Navdip cited a story Seth Godin wrote recently in which he posed a question: Gillette spends hundreds of millions on adverts each year. Why doesn’t the company just use that money to build the most important online magazine for men, one that’s more important and more read than GQ or Esquire—because in a zero-marginal-cost world, it’s cheaper than ever for them to do that?
"It is all about having the bravery to self generate," says Dhariwal. "To create your own compelling, readable, authentic and value-driven content and platform it globally."