Content marketing seems to be the latest and smartest version of product placement. Rather than just getting your product into a drama series - with a fleeting shot or two - you become the drama; you write it, produce it, and ultimately hope people are interested in watching what you've made. Successful and memorable branded content so far would include Wyndham Rewards' 'Have Points, Will Travel' which will be showing on the in-room entertainment of all of their hotels, starting this year. Another which comes to mind is Nike Women's 'Margot vs Lily', a web series about two women in New York ('New episode every Monday'), which debuted on Feb 1st 2016. And exactly one month after both Wyndham and Nike dropped game-changing content marketing into our laps, we've got 'The Brief' from Elemental Inc, an lively, inventive and amusing look at the advertising industry, from the perspective of two interns.
We checked in with Matt Sadowski – Copywriter, Co-creator, writer and director of The Brief and Dustin Brown – Partner, Strategy and Client Services at Elemental - to ask them a few questions and understand more about what led them to produce their own branded series.
Adland - Where did the idea to make The Brief come from?
We’ve always tried to think of interesting ways we could promote the agency. All ideas are welcome at the agency, the ones that rise to the top we are always willing to invest in. Matt brought up the initial idea with a baseline script based on his observations as an intern at the agency, I had actually worked on a script for a television pilot with a theme a few years before that, that had never been produced. Matt and I then hammered out the season.
Adland - While agencies often put out all kinds of short videos and promotional films, this is the first instance I know of an agency creating a whole web series. What made you decide on such an ambitious project?
We’ve seen a lot of changes to the industry in the last 5 years. Classic formats in advertising have changed a great deal. We are no longer forced into :15’s and :30’s, we now have the freedom to run 1:47 second spots or even a 7 minute web series. We’ve seen a lot of the stuff that other agencies have been doing. A lot of funny case study videos, testimonial style spots, and knew that there had to be a better way and maybe even a more entertaining way. Content marketing has been a part of a lot of discussions at Elemental over the past couple of years with clients. We thought why not show our clients what it could look like. Plus with our team and a talent like Matt we knew we could knock it out of the park.
Adland - The Brief explores many clichés of advertising culture, such as the overenthusiastic pun-loving copywriter, and the oddly unpredictable creative director. Which clichés did you enjoy exploring the most? And which are true to life?
Matt - I wasn’t so much a fish out of water than a bird IN the water. Everything about the culture here and in advertising in general was completely foreign to me, so I found everything about it pretty quirky. I soon realized between the Creative Director, Head of Accounts, Art Director and myself, that we all really fit easily into the archetypes of personalities you encounter, and began to take notes. Austin stems from my naivety, eagerness to please, make people laugh at my expense and the sideways way I look at most challenges. My Art Director partner and I rarely agree on anything, and he is totally the pessimist to my optimism, but that clash has lead to some really innovative concepts. Brent, our creative director, is nurturing, empathetic and unpredictable and Dustin is very good at commanding a room, and even though we hate to admit it, usually is bang on in his insights, reaction, and tactics with our creative work.
Adland - Episode 2 of The Brief features a strange agency hazing ritual. Which strange traditions and rituals do you have at Elemental?
Matt was the first one to take down the Chef at the agency and it was pretty magical. We have a couple other traditions at the agency 1) If it’s your birthday or you are knew to the agency you receive an allowance to go and buy vinyl to add to the agency collection. 2) We have a beer tap in the office and when it goes dry the Beermeister nominates someone to be the next Beermeister. This person gets to choose the next keg and also opens the tap and pours on Thursdays. It’s kind of like our Employee of the Month.
Adland - For me, the thing which makes The Brief stand way above and beyond similar content is the fact you hired professional actors who chew up the scenery and look like they're genuinely enjoying themselves. But hiring professionals for an in-house promotional series can't have been cheap. Did you ever consider filming with agency staff?
Matt - Cameras are getting better and better and amateurs are able to make professionally looking content. I’ve seen a lot scripted short content out there which looks great, sometimes is well written, but it’s always the performances that make it fall flat. That and AUDIO!
We wanted this to walk and talk like the real deal. I worked with the same cinematographer who shot my feature film (Pretend We’re Kissing) and my previous tv series (The Right Hand) to make it look good, and even though I was writing characters loosely based on real people, I catered them for seasoned actors I had relationships with, that I was hopeful would come on board for a stick of gum and a handshake. The Canadian actor union, Actra, got behind the idea and we were supported with a post-audio shop here in Toronto (WantedSP) who we had done a lot of work with, and wanted to sink their teeth into the series with us. We shot the series over a weekend, and with an intense shooting schedule and matchstick crew, there was no way we would have gotten the moments we wanted with our own staff. Hopefully we can work them into the scenery in upcoming episodes.
Adland - What were the biggest challenging making The Brief and how did you get whole agency behind the idea?
There was no great challenges per se, Elemental is a highly collaborative agency where the team is always looking to do something innovative. We believe in building a culture where everyone’s voice can be heard and every idea is tabled and considered. All we ask is that people bring well thought out ideas to the table. After airing the pilot to the agency everyone at the shop wanted to know how they could get involved even if it meant late nights.
Adland - What has been the reaction since the first four episodes went live earlier this week?
Reactions have been very positive since the launch. Our clients are very excited for us. We have received a number of unsolicited resumes from seasoned industry talent who want to work in a place that would germinate this kind of work. Journalists like yourselves are giving us attention (thank you). And our team is galvanized together by a shared pride.
Adland - Obviously there is a strong self-promotional element to the series, but what were your business objectives? Do you think The Brief acts as a good showreel to win new clients, or was this more about making an impression within the industry?
Both. Initial intent was to prove the value of branded content marketing. You can tell clients all day that they should make the investment; to the uninitiated ‘take the risk’. But we figured, better to show them. So we took the risk. For sure this is about self-promotion, but in the process of that self-promotion if we can gain new clients, as well as increase our industry rep – that all works.
Adland - What was your favorite 'behind the scenes' moment from the set? Best ad libbed line?
Matt - Shooting “the ravioli scene” was epic. The original cut of that sequence was almost in real time, and poor Jesse really committed in a very Marlon Brando Apocalypse Now way to devouring that pasta. One of my favorite ad libbed lines that was cut was Austin finishing the ravioli and saying “I can’t see my eyes”. I just thought it was so smart and dumb at the same time. My favorite line that made the cut was in Episode three, when Mack talks about wanting magic from his creative team (which was a written line) but then went on a rant competing David Blaine to David Copperfield.
Adland - And finally, do you think we might get a Series 2? Any plans to put out more in-house content in the future?
We are definitely planning on future seasons of the show. The hope here is that there is a brand out there that will be interested in sponsoring the show or getting a product into the show to reach our audience. In terms of more in-house content; we are pitching and waiting to be pitched...
The Agency - Elemental
Matt Sadowski - Co-creator, writer, director, producer, editor
Dustin Brown - Partner, Strategy and Client Services
Brent Wardrop - Executive Producer
Jesse Rath - Austin
David Reale - Mack
Mike Seater - Scoot
John Boylan - Boss
Erin Simkin - Photography