PR must embrace next generation of storytelling

PRWeek and Campaign's Brand Film Festival gala screening showed how much the craft has developed and reflects the tipping point into brand storytelling that is overtaking interruptive advertising.

Citroen's Forward brand film divides opinion about this form of brand storytelling.
Citroen's Forward brand film divides opinion about this form of brand storytelling.

It’s fascinating to see the progress of the craft of brand filmmaking in the three years since PRWeek and Campaign launched Brand Film Festival New York.

The overall quality of work has definitely improved and there are far fewer spots, lightly camouflaged ads, or ill-disciplined activations that could have benefited from the hard stop of a 30- or 60-second treatment.

Lori Beecher, EVP of media and content strategy at Ketchum, has been on the jury for all three years of the festival. She told me at last night’s gala screening that the craft has really grown up in that time and there’s very clear progression in the quality of content.

This year’s chair of jury, Observatory’s Jae Goodman, writes elsewhere on PRWeek about there being an inflection point for brand filmmaking.

To be fair, Goodman has been banging this drum for a decade but, as he now says: "People are blocking out mobile ads, there’s a button and they’re skipping a 6-second ad, everybody’s fast-forwarding television commercials, and brand scores are falling off as a result.

"Marketers cannot justify dumping all of that investment into performance and promotion. There has to be a reinvestment in brand storytelling."

However, as filmmaker Richard Bullock, Charles Schwab’s Kirstin Falk, filmmaker and Catfish cohost Max Joseph, and Observatory’s Erin Heyns-Stern all pointed out during the Brand Film Festival Workshop and gala screening, there’s still no established playbook for brand films and clients need both educating and given help in selling the concept to other executives internally.

Bullock goes as far as lying to persuade clients the best treatment is a 30-minute film rather than "the three-minute activation everyone seems to ask for." On location in Mongolia for Omega watches, he took his crew over a week earlier and shot footage that enabled him to create the longer piece – the client loved it so much the next film was a full hour long.

MD of brand storytelling and innovation Falk fights a battle with every film she produces at Schwab to convince the company to invest in the concept and give creatives the space they need.

And Heyns-Stern, senior brand director and head of Observatory New York office, emphasized the importance of resisting pressure from clients to turn a brand film into an oversized television commercial.

Joseph, also a filmmaker at Hungry Man Productions, said clients have to release control and know "things might get uncomfortable" with brand films, but that that’s where the magic happens.

The slate of films at last night’s Brand Film Festival gala screening ran the full gamut from documentary through animation, VR, pseudo ads, narrative, scripted, and TV-styles. Genres included horror, tugging at the heartstrings, freeform, comedy, serious drama, behind the scenes, and travel.

For the record, some of my favorites included Invention of Together for Tinder, Savor.WAVS for Chipotle, Trans102 for MAC Cosmetics, Woza for Mami Wata Surf, and Why Not Now for Charles Schwab.

The screening passed quickly and the audience was genuinely moved and entertained. All of the films bear close scrutiny and I heartily recommend that anyone with even a remote interest in brand filmmaking – or just filmmaking – check them out.

A discussion on Jae Goodman’s LinkedIn page about a new film for Citroën called Forward summed up a lot of the above debates around brand filmmaking.

Produced by French shop HumanSeven, the agency pitched Citroën the story of a man face to face with nature in which the car is shown in a way never seen before and the brand logo appears nowhere in the film.

In the film, the protagonist customizes the car and uses parts from it to construct a bridge to transport the vehicle over a gorge high above a stream.

The agency called it a hybrid piece of work that is hard to identify or even name: "In short - an unidentified advertising object."

Goodman is a big fan and described it as "beautifully conceived, shot, scored, and edited, placing Citroen into a cultural conversation where previously it was not involved."

A cynical responder to an AdWeek article about the film quipped that, "In the sequel, Citroën shareholders throw the CMO's body into the same creek."

CAA’s Dominicus Doriat asked: "Where is the cultural relevance?" and said, "I don’t get it. Too long for the story."

Freelance creative director Allen Raulet, on the other hand, said: "I love its quietness and the fact there isn’t some sort of B.S. copy line at the end to steal the magic. Most [car] brands are too afraid to do anything more challenging than a JDPower testimonial."

Richard Yelland, CCO at Curtis Birch, calls it "a commercial" and notes "the car is not organic to the story."

Dylan Stuart, partner at Lippincott, called it an "absolutely beautiful film but I’m not sure what it has to do with Citroen."

Lawrence Ribeiro noted the cultural context of the film: "Citroen is building bridges not walls. High speeds are censored onscreen in France since Je Suis Charlie, so briefs work around by creating intellectual, political or environmental concepts."

Thom Cordner believes "the nomenclature no longer matters and immersive brand films that take consumers on a journey are the ultimate goal regardless of the label."

So one film can crystallize the whole debate around the craft. I thought it was a beautifully made piece that went on a minute or two too long.

Goodman concludes that the debate in and of itself proves "Citroen has created a conversation that ‘just another car commercial’ would not have created. Its cinematography, editing, music and more the film takes the viewer on more of a journey."

He adds that "a brand we’ve not heard from in a long while breaks through with its attempt to transcend interruptive advertising by creating a little piece of engaging brand entertainment."

The theater at the Paley Center for Media was packed with clients, creatives, filmmakers, tech companies, broadcasters and, yes, even a few PR people.

But if PR firms want to be taken seriously as the place for clients to go to navigate this tipping point in brand storytelling, they need to dive much deeper into the art of filmmaking – otherwise the creative agencies, film production companies, and independent directors will eat their lunch yet again.

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