Translating The Simpsons

April 11, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

French animation legend Sylvain Chomet tells the story of his unexpected guest spot on The Simpsons.

A few weeks ago, two sides of the animation diaspora collided in an unexpected way – a couch gag for mainstream staple The Simpsons directed by French art-house animation director Sylvain Chomet. A beautiful example of 2D animation, the introduction to the hit sitcom has been causing a stir online ever since it hit screens and brought an unfamiliar aesthetic to the beloved cartoon.

Now the production company behind the film, Th1ng, have made a behind-the-scenes video revealing the painstaking process behind it. Given the popularity of John Lewis’ 2D adventures at Christmas last year, it seems the craft of hand animation still hold the mystique it always did.

We asked Sylvain how this strange marriage between him and the famous yellow family came about.

Sylvain’s relationship with The Simpsons has a long history. “I knew The Simpsons since the beginning,” he says. “Matt Groening and I came up the same way, from short film.” While Sylvain was taking his short film The Old Lady and the Pigeon around the world on the festival circuit, Matt was doing the same with his earliest incarnation of The Simpsons – a prototype vastly different from the family we know and love today.

The Frenchman notes that his career and that of the The Simpsons’ creator have followed a similar trajectory, from authored short film, through to TV and film. Although it’s fair to say Matt’s success has been a little more mass-market than Sylvain’s.

While he was working on his 2010 feature film The Illusionist at a studio in Scotland, Sylvain met Harry Shearer, the voice of Mr Burns, among many other characters in the show. Harry said he was a huge fan of The Triplets of Belleville and asked what his next film is.

It could be coincidence, but Sylvain next returned to France to receive a surprise from his yellow American friends. “Someone asked me how it feels to be in The Simpsons,” he recalls. “I said ‘what are you talking about?’” It turns out The Simpsons had made a spoof of the French animator’s most recognisable work – The Triplets of Belleville – they called it The Brothers of Beauville. Sylvain was very flattered. It was quite funny, he thought.

Recently he got the chance to return the homage The Simpsons had given him when the team called him asking if he’d like to direct a special couch gag for the beginning of an episode. They’d been doing this for a few years with other famous artists and directors including Banksy, Guillermo del Torro and Bill Plympton so it was an honour to be asked.

Of course he agreed. While it wasn’t a commercial project, Sylvain wanted to produce it through Th1ng. He contacted Executive Producer Dominic Buttimore, who he’s worked with for over 25 years, to ask for his collaboration. “It was going to be our 50th birthday,” he says, “so as a nice present to him, we were going to do The Simpsons.”

“We set up a call,” says Dominic. “I went over to where Sylvain lives in the Ardèche in France. Sylvain spent the weekend thinking up an idea and then we had a call to chat with [Executive Series Producer] Al Jean.”

Sylvain asked what they wanted for the couch gag. ‘Do whatever you want’ came the reply. It was very freeing, admits the director, but also very scary. Having worked in commercials, having a Client tell him something like this was a shock.

The idea flowed easily. Confident that they chose him for his unique style, Sylvain took a straightforward approach. “I’m French, I’m in France. I’m going to do the French version of The Simpsons in my style,” he decided.

Acknowledging that The Simpsons is built upon caricatures and stereotypes, Sylvain overloaded his couch scene with French clichés – snails, an accordion, froi gras. An official portrait of French president Francois Hollande hangs on the wall, as does a picture of a different boat to the familiar picture – a sinking SS France. “There are a lot of little messages like that,” says Sylvain, “because it’s not going very well in France and everybody is depressed. So I said ‘let’s have fun with that’ to show we still have a sense of humour.”

“It went really fast,” he says. “I don’t think I even made sketches and sketches. I just drew them and they just appeared to me like that.”

He passed the terrifying freedom he was given on to his team of animators at Th1ng. Having devised model sheets for the characters and drawn the backdrop he passed it on to trusted hands. “I said ‘enjoy yourself and have fun,’” says Sylvain. “It’s very unusual and it’s good for them because if you do commercials you have to rework things and take the advice from everybody into account. It’s pure animation.”

Sylvain felt comfortable giving his team at Th1ng this freedom because of the level of trust he has for people like Dominic and Lead Animator Neil Boyle. “At one point I was almost going to stop animation,” he admits. With such a unique style, it was difficult to find a team who could do it for him without too much supervision. “But because of Dominic and Th1ng I realised I can do my own projects and not be concerned with the technique. I just go with the creative stuff and trust the people who are animating it, which is brilliant.”

The only problem Sylvain recalls was to do with reconciling his style with that of Matt and The Simpsons’ animators. Sylvain’s characters don’t have round eyes like the Simpsons, so he had trouble making them recognisable while retaining his aesthetic. His solution was to give them all glasses – a bit of lateral thinking that makes a big difference.

In the weeks since the episode with the gag aired it has seen massive popularity on YouTube, for which Sylvain is grateful. At the time of writing it’s had about 5.5 million views and still rising. He and Dominic agree that this is partially because proper 2D animation is a rare joy to see these days, with a level of visible craft that still impresses.

“The internet is coming of age,” says Dominic. “Once upon a time it was a place you’d put up cheap things that were funny. That’s still an element of it – a cheap, funny gag like your cat getting stoned or whatever it might be, can still work – but there’s a need for seeing quality stuff online. It cuts through because so much stuff is not that great.”

Are Brands the Broadcasters of Tomorrow?

April 7, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Advertising Week Europe raised many questions about branded video content. Here’s our attempt to summarise them.

Listening to the whole gamut of experts Advertising Week Europe had to offer, there’s no doubt YouTube’s power has reached a zenith in 2014. Self-made video stars were held up as shining examples of brand building throughout the four-day conference, and there was a pervading sense that when it comes to engaging audiences, enterprising teenagers in their bedrooms are putting brands to shame.

But that looks set to change. One theme that repeatedly found its way into the seminars and panel discussions was that with the audience opportunities YouTube presents, there is a valuable opportunity for brands to become broadcasters in their own right.

As CONTENTed founder Moz Dee said in the digital media company’s ‘futurecasting’ address on Monday, brands will soon start to morph into media channels, creating and commissioning quality video content online that fits with with their brand values.

CONTENTed suggested if Guinness, for example, take this path, their channel won’t be called Guinness TV, but will be influenced by the values and ethics of the brand. They cited BT as a vanguard of the movement – a brand that until not long ago was about putting wires through people’s walls. Now they have BT Sport – a premium video station in its own right.

Clearly, this transition isn’t easy to make though. And speakers noted that if brands want to build themselves into media owners, they must be prepared to make sacrifices in the short term. Examples like industry poster children Red Bull and Nike show that building this can take years and in the short term it won’t pay off as much as TV advertising, but once the audiences are there, the payoff is worth it.

On Tuesday Christine Beardsell of ZenithOptimedia's Newcast division backed up this prediction, advocating a three-pronged strategy for brands, splitting their attentions between the familiar paid and earned media and adding in the relatively unfamiliar concept of owned media. Demonstrating how YouTube is perfect for this, she presented the options brands have here: to promote – recycling the brand’s video from elsewhere (as long as it’s appropriate), to produce – creating new ‘native’ content that feels at home on YouTube, or to partner – utilising the audiences and equity of established channels (those beloved YouTube stars again). She admitted that some brands just shouldn’t go there though, and so also offered a fourth ‘p’ – pass – as an option.

This sort of argument divided speakers throughout the week at BAFTA. While some heralded the death of mass media in favour of ‘my media’, the value of channels curating the best content undeniably still has its value.

What sort of video content works online in 2014 though? Among the many bases covered in the Future.Video panel discussion, the panel pointed out the value of more niche content, as is being pioneered by channels like Vice. They also rejected the common idea that TVCs don’t work online, citing the viral success of P&G’s heart-wrenching Winter Olympics ad - an example that demonstrates the successful combination of emotion and a slightly longer-form approach. Online advertising is growing up.

The panel agreed, brands should remember when creating this content is that the audience are your distributors now, so make your videos as shareable as possible – everyone wants to show that they’re human, funny, interesting people, and by enabling people to do this you can get your content in front of more eyeballs.

Naturally, marketers don’t just want more people thinking about their brands; they want harder results. But out of the many discussions, one idea seemed universal – YouTube is a great place to collect data. If you have millions of people watching your branded video then you have access to masses of information about those people.

As Dominique Delport of Havas Media noted in his discussion with Morgan Spurlock on Tuesday, the problem with these video content projects is scale. While a single TVC on a Saturday night can guarantee an audience of millions, working to get the same on YouTube can be a struggle. That is certainly an issue that will take some time to resolve, but the most promising result is that TV and YouTube will eventually co-exist harmoniously as different routes for advertising, each with their own merits.

YouTube is nine years old this year and the fact that the advertising industry is still giving it a lot of airtime at events like Advertising Week Europe shows that we’re still a fair way from mastering it.

That Was the Week That Was

April 6, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

If year two of Advertising Week Europe is anything to go by, it’ll be hitting London for decades to come.

Christian Stevenson AKA "DJ BBQ". YouTube guru. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images For Advertising Week)

 

The (Saharan) dust has settled and Advertising Week Europe is over. It’s time for the ad industry to slink back to its offices and try to process the tsunami of information and opinion that the event dumped on its brains with dozens of seminars and workshops.

It’s not really fair to use phrases like ‘industry conference’ and ‘thought leadership’ to describe the week. In no way do they capture the vibrancy and dynamism of the event.

Only its second year on this side of the Atlantic, Advertising Week Europe 2014 already felt like an unmissable industry fixture and with around 12,000 members of the world’s advertising industry attending, it seems that feeling is pretty widespread.

Having turned a blind eye in 2013, even Campaign couldn’t ignore it this year, and neither could the mainstream media, who gave it plenty of coverage, for example an eight-page pull-out guide in the Guardian.

This was my first year at the event and one impression it left me with was that the advertising industry has many more facets than we usually think of. The diversity of those in attendance was stark. Creative agencies, digital agencies, media agencies, production companies, post production companies, editing companies, sound companies, marketers from brands, media owners and channels, technology companies and hundreds of ancillary companies all mixing and learning together.

The very reasonable price tag helped to make sure it was anything but exclusive. From sharp-suited CMOs to trendy, bearded creatives and keen advertising students, it brought everyone with an interest in advertising together in one place and the energy this created in BAFTA – the main venue for the thought leadership – was infectious.

Much of the event’s success can be put down to the smart leadership of Executive Director Matt Scheckner and Kathleen Saxton of The Lighthouse Company, who took the right approach for the times – one that’s collaborative and populist – making sure the schedule was packed with figures not just famous within the industry, but to the general public. Getting people like Idris Elba, Gok Wan and James Corden on board, to name just a few of the big names, was vital in creating a tangible buzz around it.

The environment of the festival was also fascinating. Setting events in the grandeur of venues like St James’s Palace, Lancaster House and The House of Lords, the week lured the advertising industry away from its confortable Soho pubs to places it hadn’t been before.

Matt’s warm welcome speeches to many of the sessions repeatedly mentioned his policy of no over-arching themes for the conference. People spoke about whatever they wanted and as long as it was relevant and/or interesting it got into the programme. The result was a veritable melon-twister, with no murky corner of the industry left unexplored. I attended an average of about six sessions a day and came out with a head bursting with jargon and incoherent ponderings. It was confusing, but a true reflection of the complexity of the industry – all sorts of people expressing all sorts of interests.

It is possible to draw some themes out of the jungle of ideas presented, but to summarise anything too all encompassing would be doing the festival a disservice. Each seminar or workshop had its own merits and, because each speaker was so passionate about his or her particular interest, inspiration could come from anywhere.

My week began over a jazz-sountracked breakfast at Ronnie Scott’s as Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger considered the threshold moment that Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing represented for the state of data in the public consciousness. My week ended with an APA-curated showcase of the most cutting-edge technology created and used by the production and post production companies of London. In between I heard Idris Elba explore his relationship with music, watched YouTube-famous chef DJ BBQ talk more lucidly about branded content than most industry pundits and heard wisdom from advertising luminaries from Jeremy Bullmore to Sir John Hegarty. ‘Thought leadership’ may be a rather dry term but, with speakers like this, my thoughts were led on quite an exciting journey though the week.

As ever, the torrent of buzzwords flowed fast and free throughout the week. They were out in force: native, branded content (the meaning of which nobody can agree on, years from its coinage), big data, programmatic (one of the dullest, but apparently most important topics of the moment), convergence and the video ecosystem. I could go on, but what these ready-made hashtag phrases really mean is that these are the areas the industry is still grappling to understand.

While events like these inevitably bring their share of hot air and ‘trendcasting’, there were lessons to be learnt in abundance. Some sessions diced with the possibility of more brands becoming media owners in their own right in the near future; others diced with the question of whether playing around on YouTube is really worth it for brands; and some interrogated the notion of bravery in advertising.

Advertising Week Europe is huge, relevant and exciting. If you weren’t there last week it’s time to wake up, because the rest of the industry won’t wait for you.

Shock and A.W.E.

March 27, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Advertising Week Europe is storming London for the second time next week. Here’s a briefing from Executive Director Matt Scheckner.

Idris Elba is one of many big names speaking at Advertising Week Europe this year.

A week devoted to thinking about, gathering together and discussing the advertising industry? It’s a bit early in the year for that isn’t it? And not a drop of Provençale rosé in sight? Well there might be some wine, but the French Riviera remains safe from the ad industry’s assault next week. This time the venue is London.

Advertising Week Europe may seem like the new kid on the block from this side of the Atlantic. It is only in its second year in London. But it’s well established in States, having run in New York for ten years now.

We spoke to the event’s Executive Director Matt Scheckner about Advertising Week’s history and philosophy. With a force like him behind it, nothing’s getting in the way of this thing.

The Beak Street Bugle: How did Advertising Week start?

Matt Scheckner: It started with a call from a friend of mine who was then at DDB in New York. Her boss was a guy named Ken Kaess – he was the chair of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, which was the IPA of America. They were looking for a big idea to try to move the needle on a lot of big industry issues. Chronically poor morale. [Advertising] wasn’t perceived as being aggressive enough as an industry in embracing the coming – and then it was still the coming – shift to digital. Problems attracting young, talented people into the industry. They were looking for a galvanising idea to bring different parts of the industry together.

I’m not from the advertising industry. I’m just a New York kid who knows, when the curtain goes up, how to make sure something happens. So I’m very big on the where. I guess here is a good tie from back then to today: The very first meeting ever about Advertising Week was at Radio City Music Hall in New York, in the Roxy Suite. When Frank Sinatra used to play at Radio City he used to stay there and entertain guests there. That’s an unusual place to have a meeting. That notion of the where has very much carried forward from the beginning to today.

Jump ahead now to 2014 and that’s why you see us here at Ronnie Scott’s, BAFTA, St James’s Palace, Kensington Palace, Lancaster House, The House of Lords and Koko; and why you saw us last year at Abbey Road and St. Paul’s Cathedral – because those places are aspirational and inspirational. When people walk through those doors there’s a transformative effect that that has on people and I believe that’s very important.

BSB: Right at the beginning, what were your main goals?

MS: I think it’s always been to engage, to enlighten, to educate, to excite. It’s built on a firm foundation of thought leadership and it’s very much about paving the way forward.

We’ve never had a theme. One of the questions we get asked a lot is ‘what’s the theme this year?’ Well there’s never been a theme and if you look at the programme and you see the breadth and scope of it – there are something around 150 seminars this year in London. So there is no theme. The common thread is it’s got to be interesting. It’s got to be something that people will want to come and learn about.

We’ve always been very big on drawing from the broader arena of pop culture. That’s why we’re thrilled this year to have people like Idris Elba, James Cordon, Morgan Spurlock and Steve Coogan. In New York over the years we’ve had people like Jon Bon Jovi, Ludacris, Lauren Michaels and Arianna Huffington – people who are bigger than and beyond the industry. We do the things that you would expect like the Chief Creative Officers and the MDs and the people that sit in the corner office, but we also try the things that you wouldn’t expect.

I love what Mediacom have [put together as an event] – Staying On Top – they have [a panel including] the CEO of BskyB, Jeremy Darroch and rugby player Will Greenwood about winning and staying on top. If you’re number one, how do you stay there? I like that. Then there are certain subjects that are the pretty girl at the dance in a given year. I don’t know if they’ll be talking about native ads or programmatic next year, but this year they’re hot subjects, so you’ll see a lot of content around those subjects.

BSB: Describe the first Advertising Week, back in 2004.

MS: Much less ambitious than this one. We had a much more modest seminar programme. It was a lot smaller. The first opening gala was in Gracie Mansion, which is the mayor’s home in New York. And there was one other music event in 2004. We had a Battle of the Ad Bands that we didn’t produce. Someone else was doing it and it happed to be during Advertising Week, so we made it part of Advertising Week.

I felt really strongly that I didn’t want it to be something just for the big shots. The first big concert was 2006 [when] we had Gnarls Barclay and over the years we’ve had Panic at the Disco, Gym Class Heroes, Pharrell Williams, Big Boy, Wycleff, Busta Rhymes, Far East Movement, B.o.B. Here last year we had Nas and Mark Ronson and Rizzle Kicks. This year we have Bombay Bicycle Club and Katy B headlining Monday and Thursday night.

I very much felt from the beginning that you have to appeal to everyone and to do that you’ve got to make it cool. No 20- or 30-something kid wants to go and see Tony Bennett. I love Tony Bennett, but we’ve always been very conscious to programme for our audience. Also, nobody gets excited to go to the Sheraton at Heathrow, so nothing’s in a shitty hotel.

BSB: What have been the biggest changes from the first Advertising Week Europe last year to this year?

MS: It’s grown a lot. There’s just a lot more. We’re building two buildings. We’re building a structure from the ground up, literally, in the courtyard of BAFTA. Then we’re taking a blank, big empty space that’s physically in the BAFTA building that’s not part of BAFTA and constructing a Google Lounge and a 200-seat seminar room there.

The seminar programme is bigger and more ambitious and I think it’s a lot stronger, from top to bottom. It was good last year but this year it’s like, oh boy, look at this. And then in the evenings there’s just more.

A big year over year goal is to dramatically increase client engagement over the week and so I think we’ve really delivered on that promise with The Marketing Society really leading the way and also the Advertising Association on their Front Foot initiative and ISBA involved. There’s a dinner at Kensington Palace on Tuesday night [for around] 120 clients.

The other thing that makes this year special is the opening gala is at St. James’s Palace. And that’s not the kind of place that you can go to.

I think that we very much every year jam our foot on the gas and go into the fast lane right away. When we came over here last year there was no ‘well, let’s start small and see how it works.’ We came in with Ronnie Scott’s, BAFTA, St. Paul’s, Abbey Road, Nas, Susie Essman from Curb Your Enthusiasm. To use the old expression it was ‘go big or go home’ and we weren’t going to come all the way across the Atlantic without trying to play in the Premier League right away. We didn’t want to be Luton. We wanted to be Chelsea.

The other thing that was important was for it not to feel like we were exporting something from New York and just dropping it into London. We felt that it had to feel like the flowers grew from the earth over here and that, in tone and environment, it felt like it belonged here. So we’ve always been careful about that and have continued to be. I think that’s one of the reasons why the community has warmed to us because we never came in here with any of that American arrogance and said ‘this is how we fucking do it. Do it this way.’

BSB: How do you manage to achieve that?

MS: It’s a lot of engagement; a lot of listening. I think it’s a lot of very careful decisions about the where. I think the Ronnie Scott’s Leadership Breakfast series was a big idea that was either going to be really great or really awful. And it worked out great. People love the idea of jazz at eight AM and then a seminar.

BAFTA is really special to us. That’s probably the most important relationship that we have in terms of the seminar programme and we’re all sitting on the same side of the table there. So the typical landlord-tenant relationship – even if you get along really good with your landlord, the nature of that relationship is adversarial. Nobody loves their landlord. But we have a real relationship with them. We did this preview event on Monday night that BAFTA hosted and paid for for us. It was first class. Really well done. Nobody does that.

BSB: What else sets Advertising Week apart from other conferences?

MS: It’s very accessible. Go to most industry conferences you’re paying over a thousand pounds for something that’s a day or two in one room. Here there are four or five things going on at once. About 150 [seminars/workshops in total], it’s £329 and you can go to as much as you like. It’s like going to Hawksmoor if you like steak and for £20 it’s breakfast lunch and dinner every day and as many snacks in between as you like. It’s obscene. So that’s unique.

Why TV is Still on Top: The Facts

March 20, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

In this age of wearable tech and branded experiences, remember the TVC.

People love to think in binaries – black-and-white caricatures of reality where things are hot or not, good or bad, dead or alive. As a medium, TV has been fighting this human trait for well over a decade. Ever since the internet showed signs that it may one day usurp TV, some media and branding pundits have filed the old telly firmly in their ‘not’ box, while the internet has taken pride of place on the ‘hot’ wall.

Life is infinitely more nuanced than these constructs though, and while some in the advertising industry seem to discount TVs value, getting whipped up in all the excitement about interactive campaigns, wearable tech and branded experiences, Thinkbox have been fighting the good fight for their medium of choice for years, educating us all in the continuing relevance of the box; and in particular its continuing value to advertisers.

They recently released a heap of facts collated into a handy report called A Year in TV 2013 and its contents make for a pretty convincing argument for TV’s potency when it comes to selling stuff.

Probably the most heartening fact to take from the report is that in 2013 more money was spent on TV advertising in the UK than ever. Revenue for the year totalled a record £4.63 billion (gross agency commission), a 3.5% increase on 2012’s already record-breaking total. This figure represents all money invested by advertisers in TV commercials, sponsorship, broadcaster video-on-demand and product placement. We may look back to the piles of cash and baths of champagne of the 70s and 80s with a nostalgic haze, but on the whole there’s still plenty of money being spent on advertising. To those on the receiving end of the budgets it may not feel like it, but this figure is a clear indicator that Clients still value the TVC enough to pay a fair price for it.

That’s not to say TV commercials are overpriced though. On the contrary, Clients got better value than ever from their TV ad spend in 2013. In real terms, advertising prices in 2013 were the cheapest on record, some 38.5% cheaper than 20 years ago, based on the number of impacts £100,000 bought you. So advertisers are getting more bang for their buck.

Now you’re even more of a TV advertising evangelist, you probably want to run to the streets extolling its virtues and by no means let us stop you, but you should know that it seems brands already know about the value the good old TVC, so shouting through their letterboxes may be a waste of time. There were 737 new or returning advertisers to TV last year (returning after no TV advertising for at least five years), together accounting for two per cent of total TV ad revenues, according to Nielsen. Evidently, it’s not just the old faithful brands who love the classic TVC format; it’s attracting the uninitiated and old-timers alike.

As Channel 4's Gogglebox shows, we're still a nation of couch-potatoes. And we're very happy with that.
 

But we should never forget there is no quality TV advertising without quality TV programming, and Thinkbox’s report makes it clear that oodles of good stuff to watch on the box was one main reason for these encouraging figures. TV held onto its popularity in 2013. The average number of hours we spent watching TV stayed near the four-hour mark, at 3 hours, 52 minutes according to the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB), despite a slight drop from 2012 – a year that had a significant TV-watching boost thanks to the Olympics. 68% of TV set viewing was to commercial TV channels, too, so the audiences were definitely present and ready to be advertised to.

Of course there’s the perennial criticism that with video on demand services we all spin past the ads, but Thinkbox have hard facts to silence that heckle too. Surprisingly, we still like our TV as live as possible. 98.5% of TV in 2013 was watched on a TV set and 83.6% of that was watched live, meaning the level of advertising watched by the British public remains largely unchanged by the power to fast-forward through ads.

As it turns out, skipping advertising doesn’t seem to be a motivating factor in our time-shifting. Thinkbox notes in its report that there is no significant difference in the amount of commercial linear TV which is recorded compared with equivalent BBC channels. Levels of time-shifting seem to be governed much more by genre, with drama and soaps receiving the most and news broadcasts the least. Incidentally, the report also notes that BARB only count ads watched at normal speed, so sped-up ads are a free bonus.

With the meta-TV head-trip that is Gogglebox now back on our screens, and in a new super-primetime Friday-night spot at that, the nation is clearly united as ever in its support for the magical talky screen. If watching people watching TV is of mass public interest, advertisers can feel safe in the knowledge that we can still rely on the trusty TVC.

Doing YouTube Right

March 19, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Ten brands that know how to make YouTube work for them.

We in the advertising industry think we’re pretty switched on to the latest innovations in technology and media. It’s probably healthy for us to question that notion though. YouTube has been around for eight years now and some of us can hardly remember how we ever managed to procrastinate without it. But as we learned at the APA’s Google Talks, the majority of brands still don’t have the foggiest clue how to use it effectively.

Alison Lomax, Head of Creative Agency Partnerships at Google, proved how wrong brands are getting it with one figure in her introduction: of the top 5,000 channels on YouTube, only two per cent are brands. With all the money, resources and desire to reach audiences they have, that’s pretty dire.

Thankfully, YouTube and their owners Google want this to change, and much of the talks that followed focused on the brands that are setting the right example. We selected ten brand projects mentioned at the event that illuminate the way forward.

1. L’Oreal

This is good YouTube, according to Andrew Bent, Creative Lead from The ZOO at Google. It’s amusing and it’s had around a million views, which isn’t at all bad for a low-budget bit of peripheral content. That’s a bit of a back-handed compliment though, because Andrew’s main point is that it’s had well over three times the number of hits that their main commercial starring Hugh Laurie earned. 

The point is that ads don’t often work on YouTube because it’s an inherently more honest environment than a TV commercial break. On the internet, audiences have the power of choice. They don’t, and won’t, listen to brands’ messages unless there’s something in it for them. In a brutal environment like YouTube, something unscripted and human, like this, feels more at home than something made to be sandwiched between slices of Coronation Street.

2. Very

Sorry if you watched the whole of that expecting it to get more exciting. Admittedly, for the vast majority of people, Zoella’s videos are torturous. But that’s not the point. The important thing is that to her four million subscribers, she’s a trusted friend.

This kind of video is known as ‘hauling’ and over the past 18 months or so it has become a popular trend on YouTube. People like Zoella’s fans are dedicated and trust her opinion. They want to buy the stuff she likes. And that’s a level of influence brands will pay good money for.

That said, it was probably relatively cheap for Very to get this YouTuber to promote their wares, as Paul Eyers from Google’s Creative Agency Team suggested at the event. Very asked Zoella (along with other influencers) to come to their offices, to go through their product range and then ‘haul’ based on the products they let her have. With no heavy-handed pushing of the brand, it comes across as relatively genuine and doesn’t stand out uncomfortably from her regular content.

This is about as simple as branded activity on YouTube gets, but very effective for the Client. Hundreds of beauty and fashion bloggers are now doing this sort of thing. The lesson for brands is to harness the influencing power of these YouTube influencers by allowing them to promote your brand in their own personal style and with as much honesty as possible because trust is vital to these audiences.

3. Mattessons

This was another example of a brand working with a YouTube star that Paul enthusiastically shared with us. Syndicate is a gamer and vlogger with over seven million subscribers. By working with him to create the ultimate snack helmet, Mattessons were able to do branded content on YouTube that people actually watched and engaged with. The numbers speak for themselves. 3,500,000 views and a 65% increase in profits followed, proving again that with the right approach, YouTube influencers have massive potential.

4. Mercedes

One point that Google and YouTube want to make loudly is that traditional TVCs don’t work on these new platforms. Sticking an ad up is almost universally met with indifference by internet audiences. But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for quality filmmaking. Building on this, Mercedes took an enlightened approach here.

Casey Neistat is a filmmaker who regularly gets hit rates of over a million on his videos. As in the previous two examples, Mercedes saw the value of harnessing these existing audiences and commissioned him to make their next ad. But Casey is in a different category to the aforementioned vloggers. He’s got all the trappings of a YouTube celebrity but, being a proper filmmaker as well, he’s a different kind of prospect for brands.

He wasn’t just making a commercial for Mercedes, they also agreed with him that he would do a series of making-of videos leading up to the final commercial. These ended up being more popular than the commercial itself, demonstrating that native content – the kind audiences are used to seeing on YouTube – is what works best.

5. Capcom

This is unique. While the above examples seem to suggest that production companies are redundant in this process, this proves their place is as relevant as ever. Ross Whittow-Williams, Executive Producer at Bigballs, talked us through his company’s involvement in this project as an example of how they are embracing YouTube.

To promote Capcom’s 2013 game, Remember Me, Bigballs worked with another YouTube-famous filmmaker called devinsupertramp (1.8 million subscribers, 320 million views). They chose him because he was a safe bet. Someone who they knew understood YouTube and had a ready-made audience.

He made the above film – a fictional piece of branded content for the in-game company Memorize, as part of an online interactive journal that told the game’s backstory. One interesting thing Ross said at the Google Talks was that Devin was extremely keen to work with an experienced production company. As a grassroots filmmaker he was fascinated to hear the advice of professionals and have the potential to work with people who are used to working on such high-quality filmmaking.

6. Dove

Real Beauty Sketches is probably not new to you. It’s become a poster child for branded content and it deserves that status. As Andrew Bent, Creative Lead from The ZOO at Google, pointed out, the key to this video was not only its millions of views, but its clear attachment to the brand. Search term popularity serves as evidence for this. As interest in the video peaked, so did Google searches for Dove.

The point, according to Andrew, is that if Dove had asked for a viral video, there’s no way Ogilvy Brazil would have come up with this. It’s not rude, crass, amateurish or crudely produced, or any of the other stereotypes people think of when they hear the phrase ‘viral’. It’s a high quality piece of content, directed by Mustard’s John X Carey. Google would call it a ‘hero video’.

Hero videos are the big, glitzy films with a big push behind them. They go out into the world and bring audiences to the brands’ YouTube channels, while the more regular, informative and lower-production-value content more typical of YouTube (hygiene content in Google-speak) maintains those audiences and keeps them coming back to the channel (the brand hub). This is Google’s Hero, Hyiene, Hub model for YouTube success.

7. Metro Trains

Obviously you’ve seen this one too. But as Andrew pointed out, it’s textbook hero content – a lovely bit of animation that stands on its own very well. If you take the time to go to the hub then the hygiene content is there too – the app game, the song, the Tumblr blog and the rail safety microsite. But the thing that makes all of that work is this single video that everyone loves.

8. Victoria’s Secret

As Andrew pointed out, Victoria’s Secret aren’t just making sexy knickers. On YouTube they act like an entertainment brand, regularly uploading well-produced content full of lingerie models doing fun stuff, which makes their content the sort of thing you want to share with your friends. It’s consistent, reliable and regular and they have almost half a million subscribers to show for it. For a brand, that’s an impressive number.

9. Volvo

JCVD’s epic split is branded content par excellence. Amusing, unique and produced to the highest standard. But it is in fact just the latest in a substantial series of high-quality ‘stunt’ films promoting their trucks on YouTube. In fact, as popular as it is, it only makes up just over half of the views the Volvo Trucks channel has received. The other stunts have brought in a good number of these, building the audience for the big Van Damme moment, but the workhorses in the background are the videos of engineers talking about articulated lorries in detail. Having got the world’s attention with the stunts, these are the videos that sell Volvo trucks to the people who are interested.

10. Three

Contagiously joyful and, therefore, shareable, it’s no surprise that this video has racked up almost five million hits in a month. It’s all the fun that you expect from Partizan’s zany directorial collective Traktor, and ends with an invitation to take part in the interactive version (made by Stink Digital) so there’s something there for people who want to engage a bit deeper.

Along with last year’s pony, this constitutes Three’s hero content, but in the background they have a channel full of tech how-tos and consistent content around the various phones they offer, building a strong base on YouTube that can only enhance their brand.

The Branded BAFTA

March 17, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

How branded content is kicking down the doors of the film establishment.

The film industry on is on the eve of an invasion from brands. We know; that sounds disgusting to anyone not in advertising. But stay with us here because if this expeditionary skirmish is anything to go by it could be a very welcome revolution. The moment that heralded this was a few weeks ago, when this year’s BAFTA for British Short Film went to a brand-funded video, Room 8, directed by James W. Griffiths for Bombay Sapphire’s Imagination Series.

Essentially a piece of branded content, that still slightly awkward phrase doesn’t do the film justice. Imaginative, intriguing and self-contained, Room 8 deserves its role as 2014’s champion of the short film genre. Had it been made within the traditional production process of the category it would still have won. But if it weren’t for Bombay Sapphire, it would likely never have become the film it is. Prior to this threshold moment, James was an unsigned Director with a very modest reel. By winning a public competition he’s achieved more than he’s ever hoped for.

Product: Bombay Sapphire
Title: Room 8
Production Company: Independent Films & Indy 8
Director: James W. Griffiths
(Based on an original idea and outline script by: Geoffrey Fletcher)
Series Producer: Ohna Falby
Line Producer: Sophie Venner
Director of Photography: G. Magni Ágústsson, ÍKS
Ad Agency: Gravity Road
Editor: Michael Aaglund
Sound Design: Martin Pavey
Post Production House: MPC

Mark Boyd is one of the Executive Producers behind the Imagination Series. Founding Partner of the agency Gravity Road, he’s familiar with the winces the phrase ‘branded content’ provokes. When he and his Co-Partner Mark Eaves set up Gravity Road two and a half years ago, the discipline was struggling to find its feet. “Even though more and more people were beginning to do content, they weren’t being particularly smart about it,” he says. “They weren’t creating content with audiences in mind.”

Since then, people like Gravity Road have started to make progress in the field, but the vast majority of brands still don’t get it. “A lot of branded content is shit,” Mark admits, “the kind of stuff that wouldn’t happen if it didn’t have some branded money behind it. It’s not stuff that you want to spend time with and it’s very self-referential.”

Naturally, he’s optimistic. And the extraordinary success of Room 8 and the Imagination Series is testament to the fact that some brands are brave enough to change things for the better.

Bombay Sapphire approached Gravity Road soon after they set up shop with the abstract aim of encouraging imagination. They didn’t just want a self-congratulating campaign around the theme though. “They wanted to evidence that,” says Mark. “They wanted something that would ignite the imagination of consumers.”

This was always going to be ambitious. But with Heide Cohu working on the Bombay Sapphire side – one of the brains behind Red Bull’s dramatic adventure into the stratosphere – there was no fear of conservatism from the Client.

Gravity Road’s idea was based on the shortcomings of the film industry. Building on the knowledge that in that in that year the vast majority of films were either current franchises or rehashings of old hits, the agency prescribed the industry an injection of originality. And Bombay Sapphire was going to deliver this remedy.

They would create a competition with the final aim of creating five short pieces of video content. Oscar-winning script writer Geoffrey Fletcher, best known for 2009’s Precious, would write a few lines of intriguing dialogue, stripped of any stage direction. Anyone could then submit their realisation of this script and five winners would have their films made and premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. “You could be anybody,” says Mark, “a barista, a dentist. You didn’t need film experience. Just to imagine something that’s really bold.”

Working with Geoffrey, the team from Gravity Road and Bombay Sapphire spent about 12 weeks crafting and intensively developing the springboard script that would hopefully stimulate people’s imaginations. Then they launched and the submissions started coming in.

At this point, Gravity Road went about finding themselves a production company to make sure the winning films were as slick as possible. But whether it was the budget or the unconventional nature of the project, some companies weren’t interested. Not so for Independent, “I thought it was absolutely fantastic,” remembers Jani Guest, Managing Director at the production house. “It was very clear that this was not a money-making project, but I wanted us to prove to ourselves we were capable of producing a short film project, working with Directors developing scripts and handling the production of a low-budget film.”

Jani and Independent dived into the pitch headfirst, knowing the risks of doing something so unfamiliar to them and embracing the unknown. Gravity Road and Bombay Sapphire didn’t take long to make their minds up. “It was a pretty unanimous decision,” says Mark. They chose Independent as their production partners.

Meanwhile, away from all the boardrooms, freelance Editor and hopeful Director James W. Griffiths was looking for funding to make a short film. He had a simple, oddball idea – a man opening a box and seeing an exact replica of the room he’s in inside, putting his hand in and seeing a huge hand appear above his head.

Naturally, he was struggling to find funding. “There’s not much money to go around,” he says. “There are schemes that fund short films, but there are so many Directors these days that it’s hard to find money.”

With the purse strings of the film establishment closed to him, discovering the Imagination Series was a revelation for James. They were offering money to make a short film and the competition was completely open to the public. “You need to jump at that opportunity,” he says.

Miraculously, Geoffrey Fletcher’s dialogue slotted rather neatly into his idea, and even helped it evolve into something more substantial. “There’s something about dialogue that sparks your creativity,” he says. “When you have a restriction rather than a blank page.”

James adapted the dialogue into a proper script, moved his idea from the original setting of a German POW camp to a much sunnier setting of a Soviet prison (“I thought that might have more chance of being funded by a brand,” he explains) and sent his work off to be judged in Tribeca.

After a day and a half of frantic debate, the judges emerged with five winners – scripts that Independent would produce. Room 8, James’ creation, had come out on top.

James was thrilled. The budget Bombay Sapphire provided was in a different league to anything he’d had to play with before – “a good amount for a short film,” he says. “Before Room 8 it was very small budgets.”

Independent didn’t share James’ assurance. For a company that had built their reputation on TVCs, the money was a worry. They were given the same for each of the five films. “The budgets were incredibly limited,” says Jani. She was concerned that they might not live up to the quality they were used to delivering. “They were far less than we’ normally be given for a 30-second spot,” and some of these films would end up over six minutes long.

The production company rose to the challenge, enlisting the help series producer Ohna Falby and line producers for each film who knew the short film territorry to help navigate through the finite budgets, for which Independent were very grateful. With MPC providing post-production for next to nothing, “the whole thing was kind of a labour of love,” says Jani.

On top of that, some of these Directors were naturally inexperienced, adding an element of the unknown that a production company should always be wary of. Going into production with people who might be totally incompetent must have been a worry.

That said, at least they knew they wouldn’t have problems with the Client trying to direct the films. “Even though they had a limited budget, [Bombay Sapphire] were very supportive, creatively, to the talent,” says Jani. “One thing they were insistent on was that the Directors felt they had a certain amount of freedom to explore their own ideas.”

That’s an important factor in why James was so happy with the project. It wasn’t an ad, nor was it an ad pretending to be something more exciting. “There was nothing in the rules that said the main guy has to drink a bottle of gin,” he jokes. “It didn’t have to be a happy ending or anything like that.” This was refreshing, especially as James was familiar with other competitions where filmmakers enter for the privilege to make a commercial using their own resources.

Celebrating their BAFTA win. From left to right: Mark Boyd (Founding Partner, Gravity Road), Heide Cohu (Global Brand Communications & Creative Director, Bacardi), Jani Guest (Managing Director, Independent), Verity White (Head of Production, Independent) and James W. Griffiths (Director).

Thanks to combined talents of everyone involved, Bombay Sapphire ended up with five prime examples of short video content, in no way shouting at people to buy gin, but assets to the film landscape that people found genuine entertaining.

They premiered at a big event at Tribeca and then launched online for all the world to see the films. And here came another challenge – the battle against the short film establishment that has built its infrastructure upon festivals. Bombay Sapphire wanted everyone to see these films, but they were up against the institutions. Mark describes a normal short film Director’s process. “You make the film and you hold it back so people come to festivals to see it, make some money that way. That was challenging and some people in the project took some time to appreciate that Bombay Sapphire’s involvement is built on the assumption that they will launch for free online.”

Unsurprisingly, its eventual BAFTA win has helped everyone involved with Room 8. Bombay Sapphire now have a stake in the world of film and the critical acclaim to back that up, just like Red Bull have done with the world of adrenaline. They are now more than a drinks brand and the second Imagination Series is well underway.

Gravity Road have created a branded content project that’s genuinely interesting, one that competes with (and wins awards against) content, branded or not. Independent have got themselves a new Director as reward to taking a chance on unknowns like James and James has got the whole package – a US agent, a US manager, a UK agent, representation as a commercials Director and the attention of big-time producers.

The one point to take away from Room 8’s ultimate success is that, much to Mark’s relief, branded content is no longer all shit. It could be a sign that eventually whether something is funded by a brand will become irrelevant to its quality. But in 2014, a piece of branded content winning a BAFTA is still remarkable, so for now we’re allowed to marvel at that fact.

Raising the BAAs

March 6, 2014 / Features

By Alex Reeves

Jayne Pilling explains why she’s spent 18 years nurturing the British Animation Awards.

BAA by David Hayes for the 2002 British Animation Awards

 

There are too many award shows. And maybe quite a few of them are superfluous – the sort of opulent cash splurges that make outsiders resent people in advertising and the media. But a few of them that are justified. They’re the payoff for the long hours and sleepless nights people endure (not to mention the resentment from the outside world).

This Friday the BFI Southbank will be overflowing with British animation talent as it hosts the tenth biennial British Animation Awards – one of the most worthwhile of them all. Since 1996, Jayne Pilling has directed the event, and in that time she’s grown it into a force for good, flying a bright banner for animators on these sceptred isles.

18 years ago Jayne set out to create an award ceremony with clear goals – not just an excuse to make money throwing another pointless party. Inspired by the golden era of British animation in the 80s, she wanted the BAAs to be more than just a pat on the back for those who work in animation. She planned to build a community and a platform to support the craft she was so proud of.

One of the main aims of the awards is to bring people together, or, as Jayne puts it, “to enable a celebratory event that would span British animation talent across the board.” She emphasises that no other event brings together so many people from different sectors of animation – it’s as inclusive as it gets. The idea is that if you put the right ingredients into the mixing bowl, the chaotic churn of an award show might create something new. The best people in animation get together, new relationships are forged and even better animation comes out of them.

Jayne contrasts the BAAs to a ‘normal’ award show. “Half the time people are still talking while it’s going on or the people who work together spend the night together and only at one in the morning might they do a bit of table hopping,” she says. “But it’s not the same here. You might end up with some terribly important TV executive sitting next to a student. For me it’s quite important that you don’t have VIP section and it really is somewhere you can meet people in a very informal way.”

BAA by Les Gibbard for the 2004 British Animation Awards

 

Raising the public profile of the work done in British animation has always been one of the main aims too; so one thing the BAAs have always aimed for is media coverage that showcases the excellent animation being made in the UK. And it does work. Jayne’s highlights over the years include a segment on The Culture Show, where she remembers their conclusion that some of the most exciting things happening in contemporary British art are happening in British animation, but nobody knows about it. “It was fantastic for filmmakers,” she says.

Another time where the BAAs managed to get the public’s attention was a slot they won on breakfast television by getting actor and writer Colin Welland on the jury. “It’s about trying to get people on juries who are influential in their field and might have some helpful knock-on effect on British animation,” she says. She remembers the proud moment when Colin said he’d seen things in the judging process he didn’t know existed and that animation like this ought to be on prime-time television.

Jayne admits it’s challenging to stand out from the morass of award shows. One of the ways the BAAs has succeeded though is by making its prizes something more than you’re average mantelpiece filler. BAAs each take the form of a unique work of art, in some way sheep-related (geddit?), and filled with all the wit and wry humour that British animation has mastered over the years. It’s testament to the esteem animators hold the BAAs in that all of these awards are lovingly crafted by fellow artists and animators from Tim Burton to Chick Jones and Nick Park.

The awards’ mission remains the same as ever, but how has it changed over 18 years? The main thing Jayne points out is how categories have fluctuated as various pressures have reshaped the animation landscape. For example, they used to have a category for the TV special – the sort of animated film you’d see at Christmas, like Wallace and Gromit. Now they can’t do that because there aren’t enough of them to make a strong enough field. Jayne says there was nearly no music video category this time round thanks to lacking budgets.

BAA by Michael Schlingmann for the 2014 British Animation Awards

 

These category changes have served as a barometer for the industry. There were once three separate categories for short film, says Jayne. “There were a lot of ten, 15-, 20-minute films being made. Not there are fewer because Channel 4 have pretty much stopped funding them. Things have changed a lot. You see the rise, fall, disappearance and rise again of animation studios, which is fairly natural. [But] maybe it happens a bit quicker now.”

The changes Jayne’s witnessed certainly aren’t all good. She notes that with TV programming becoming more rigid, short animations are rarely needed as filler as they once were and of course there’s always the universal trouble of shrinking budgets.

“In advertising everything’s got so much tougher,” she says, but in other fields she’s watched the institutional support dry up and the Arts Council has become more devolved. “Film funding for British films has always been a little bit difficult. And let’s face it, animation suffers from a lot of people thinking it’s purely kids’ entertainment. More money will go into live-action short films because people see it as a more obvious route to making feature films.”

She also cites the advance of technology as a double-edged sword. While it’s provided many tools to help animators, it has also changed people’s perceptions for the worse. “I think in some people’s minds the idea is that CGI [means] you tell the computer what you want and it just generates it,” she says. “It doesn’t. It often takes just as bloody long! It has led to the mentality that animation might be cheap to produce or any changes are easy – you just press a button.”

These challenges motivate Jayne to make the BAAs the best they can be, but she has faced many demons on the way. “The last BAA we did [2012], half the people I would speak to would say ‘animation is dead here. It’s finished,’” she says. “It’s very tough. And it’s crazy when there’s so much talent here. If it’s not going to get employment then it with either go into other fields or abroad.”

BAA by Simon Tofield for the 2014 British Animation Awards

 

“Sometimes I think I just can’t do it again,” she admits, “because raising the money can be so difficult. We have to say we’re doing it before we’ve even raised the money so it’s really scary.”

But there is always hope, and it’s clear that the BAAs are still beloved. Jayne received an email recently from a studio saying it’s the only really great award show, asking her to do one every year. “At a time when I’d been thinking I don’t know if I can face going to hustle money,” she says, “it actually made me think people do care. It really came at a moment that made a difference.” That said, a biennial event is quite enough stress for now.

Thanks to bodies like the BAAs keeping the community strong, there’s reason to be optimistic for British animation. For the first time ever, the British Film Institute is giving money to studios through its Vision Awards. It’s a welcome new initiative. “If you haven’t got the money to develop something, how the hell are you going to get enough material to pitch it?” asks Jayne. “I think it’s quite a big change.”

Along with Film London coming up with a new animation policy and tax credits returning for animation, there’s more institutional support for animation that seems promising and alongside that, maybe advertising budgets will begin to make more room for animation too.

BAA by Angela Palethorpe for the 2014 British Animation Awards

Jayne realises that no award – unique work of art or not – is guaranteed to change a director’s life. “I think we’d be ludicrous to make claims like that,” she says. “It’s wonderful, but it’s not going to transform things overnight.”

That said, winning a BAA can certainly open doors. Jayne gets approached a lot by festival programmers looking to exhibit BAA-winning work, TV executives scouting talent and ad agencies looking for directors for their commercials. “I had an advertising agency senior producer on the jury this time,” she says, “who said they want to ask that filmmaker if they can show her piece to their entire creative team because they’d never seen anything like it.”

As Jayne knows only too well, British animation’s been through the mill, but with the British Animation Awards fighting its corner, it will never crumble. And who knows? With a bit of serendipity, the craft might have a renaissance just around the corner.