Reality Rules!
by Anthony Vagnoni
Published January, 2012

Brands Go Searching for that Human Connection

Directors, producers and editors all chase the honest and the
true in the ongoing shift to more reality-based ad work.

As format like user-generated content and reality TV go from fad to mainstream ā€“ care to sample another round of do-it-yourself Doritos Super Bowl spots, or maybe season six of "So You Think You Can Dance"? ā€“ advertisers and agencies have responded with an embrace of reality-based, documentary-style storytelling and messaging.
Need proof? SourceEcreative reports regularly on the signing of new documentary directorial talent to production houses around the world. EPs and production company owners now race out to the Sundance Film Festival (taking place later this month), long a hotbed for documentary filmmakers, as though they were headed for Cannes. And major brands and agencies around the world are employing the technique across a broad range of product categories, both for traditional broadcast spots and for longer-format web videos.
Indeed, the ability to seed websites with this kind of content, coupled with tough economic times in which brands want to eschew glitz in favor of sincerity, the profusion of reality TV and feature documentary work in the media and the ability of doc directors to work fast and lean has combined to fuel the growth of this category of ad production.  
We last visited this space in our Special Feature on Reality-based Advertising, published in early 2010. What we found then, at the height of the recession, was that the desire on the part of clients to generate more consumer response at a lower cost for both media and production was one of the factors driving the trend. And while those factors are still around, there's more to the use of doc-style work these days: more a desire to engage and more of a focus on storytelling than previously thought.
We again turned to a roster of sponsor companies to bring us up to speed on the latest trends in the field. This august group includes O Positive, The Famous Group, Mr. Big Film, Authentic Films, and ICONTENT, the New York-based studio founded by Director Douglas Sloan what's worked with more celebs than you can jam into a broadcast of the Golden Globes, while also directing everything from documentary films to fashion to image pieces for agencies and brands.

ICONTENT has produced a number of projects for the retail icon Macy's, working through its agency, JWT, several of which were integrated with digital media efforts "The Macys 'Backstage' QR code mobile campaign we did was unique for multiple reasons," Sloan explains. "This was Macy's and JWT/NY's first major foray into the QR mobile space and a first for the celebrity designers, which included Diddy, Martha Stewart, Tommy Hilfiger, Bobbi Brown and Rachel Roy. We were challenged with creating both :30 spots and long form films within very short time frames."
Sloan's studio also partnered with the in-house creative team at Under Armour to create two doc-style 60-second spots for a web campaign featuring NBA star Brandon Jennings and X-Game Skier Jen Hudak. The spots were shot on a budget of under $100K for production and post, and Sloan worked fast with a small crew and a single client rep on location.
As the rush of doc directors into the ad space continues, what are the qualities that a director needs most in order to succeed working for agencies and brands?
"Doc filmmakers often have the freedom to let scenes and interviews play out for as long as they want, to just let whatever happens happen, and hope for the magic moment to naturally occur," says Sloan. "That's inherently the beauty of documentary filmmaking.
"But a documentary director, especially in a commercial context has to direct," he continues. "You're often expected to accomplish breaking down facades and pat answers, to get pertinent, on point sound bites in a natural, uncontrived manner, and to create an environment where an unexpected moment can happen. In order to succeed on all those levels, and do it quickly, the conversation, camera work and overall choreography of the filming has to be steered and firmly directed without it being obvious to the subject."
How big a role has the rise of the web as an advertising channel had on the use of doc-style directors by agencies and clients? Plenty. If anything, the web has enabled the explosion of content that everyone's grappling with. In some respects, it's been a boon to the doc-style approach, given that 'real life' videos are everywhere.
"The web provides a perfect home for brands that have a substantive story to tell, a story that cannot be limited to thirty seconds, says Sloan. "Hard selling doesn't work well in the digital world. Content has to be intelligent, authentic and hopefully educational in some way, or it's going to be ignored. Those components are inherent in the documentary format, and I think that has a lot to do with the hand - in - hand growth of those two trends."

Producers, Creatives Value the 'Organic' Process of the Genre

Savvy audiences seeking real world, docu-style stories
give agency producers and creatives the chance for deeper engagement

In interviews with a number of agency producers and creativeā€™s who've collaborated with our sponsor companies on recent doc-style projects, several recurring themes keep coming up. First off, the overriding goal is to find an honest and authentic way to connect with consumers. And the process of doing so, from the conceptual side to the execution, is a more organic one, marked by closer collaboration across the board.
The web's ability to let advertisers present longer-format stories provides agencies with opportunities to tell stories that are no longer restricted by thirty second limits.
The spontaneity of working in the doc style also has a great appeal for creatives seeking to cut through the artifice of most TV spots-and how audiences react to them.
JWT New York Senior Integrated Producer Chris Klein recently worked with Doug Sloan and ICONTENT on a series of films produced for the Energizer Holdings web site. In the videos, some of the company's top people talk about the company, its brands and its values.
Klein says the agency went with Sloan based on his previous work for them on Macy's. "He's worked with quite a few celebrities on that," he says, "and here it was kind of the same thing-we knew we had a story to tell, but we didn't know exactly what it was going to be." On top of that, Sloan had to deal with the politics of all celebrity shoots-lots of handlers around, short time periods in which to work and carefully guarded public personas that can be resistant to opening up. "They often don't know how to tell you things that are interesting, because they feel their stories are already really well known," says Klein, "but Doug was able to get a lot of deeply emotional yet also very real performances out of everyone."
Klein says he was able to do the same on the Energizer films, and again, they were able to benefit from the fact that these were headed for a web environment, not broadcast. When freed from the constraints of TV, he says, "you can cover so many more discussion points, and you can also go off script with them, so to speak, if you feel you're going to get something that you wouldn't expect to hear. It lets you take a little more risk, like with your b-roll material that you shoot. If you've got the crew and you've got people willing to work with you, you can do all sorts of things."