Entertain or die: Marketing lessons from Hollywood

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People pay for entertainment, but also pay to avoid ads; BBH's worldwide chief creative officer explains what brand marketers have to learn.

Instead of getting myself a proper job after graduating from Berghs School of Communication, I jumped on a plane from Stockholm to Los Angeles. I got to experience Hollywood, that magical place I’d only ever seen in movies. It was then that I realized that the advertising industry, my new industry, would one day have to merge with entertainment, and that I wanted to be there when it happened. Now I am. And it sure is.

Advertising has always been most effective when it is entertaining us. When it’s evoking our emotions through stories that make us feel something with the brand. Creating intimacy, the basis of any relationship.

Sir John Hegarty, my mentor and hero, once told me that when BBH made "Laundrette" for Levi’s (video below), the team used a simple trick to make the commercial feel more like a piece of entertainment. 

That trick, John said, was to stay for as long as the edit would allow on the very first shot. That now infamous shot of the traffic driving in front of the camera, panning to reveal the man in military uniform standing outside the laundrette, is a result of that languid pace. This calmed the edit, and the viewer, and set the tone for a different kind of relationship with the brand from the get-go. A more intimate one.

Levis 501 Jeans Commercial 1986

That advertising should be entertaining is nothing new. But what is clear today is that some brands are becoming the best entertainers of all and, in certain cases, they are in fact the new broadcasters. It’s not so much about branded entertainment any more, it’s about becoming entertainment brands.

This year Amazon won big at the Emmys with Transparent, while Manchester by the Sea picked up the Academy Award for best actor. That’s Amazon, the online bookstore. Winning Emmys, and Oscars. In February, BBH, with our in-house production unit Black Sheep Studios, won the BAFTA for best British Short Film for Home. That’s BBH, the ad agency. Winning a BAFTA. For a film. 

Whether you work with or for a brand, entertainment is in your future – but you’re going to need to behave differently along the way. 

BBH’s Black Sheep Studios co-produced Home, a 2016 short film backed by UNHCR, highlighting the refugee crisis

The case for entertainment 

Let’s be honest, most ads are annoying. That’s why people pay to avoid them. Want to avoid radio ads? Hello, Apple Radio or Spotify Premium. Fed up of ads interrupting your favorite TV programme? Get on Netflix and Amazon Prime or get a DVR. Magazine ads? Pay more to go ad-free. Digital? The blocker’s on. Outdoor? Well, that’s the only one that’s left, but I’m sure someone will figure that one out soon.

Rather narrows your reach, doesn’t it? And it’s happening right now. According to Forbes, Netflix’s international subscriber base grew from 1.9 million customers in 2011 to more than 30 million by the end of 2015. YouTube Red, the paid-for, ad-free service, is already available in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and South Korea, and is set to launch in the UK this year. And more than 800 million iOS users will be immune to interruptive advertising on their phones as Apple rolls out blockers. 

So either brands need to enter the media their audience is already consuming—hence Warc’s estimate that product placement grew by 13 percent in the US in 2015—or we must make entertaining content people will seek out or pay for.

I have to applaud Red Bull when it comes to the latter. The master of content marketing has done such a great job at becoming an entertainment brand, that if the taurine formula in Red Bull drinks were ever to became illegal, Red Bull would, arguably, be able to drop the soda and continue as a media company alone. And that, in the time of transition that every industry is in the middle of right now, it is not a bad thing. Any company should want to stand on more than one foot nowadays. Entertainment can, and will, be another one.

Entertainment is more efficient

While many people will "drop dollar" to opt out of advertising, they will continue to pay for things that make their hearts flutter and minds race. 

The IPA has shown that the single biggest contributor to brand growth is fame. People are willing to pay more for the brand that’s being talked about. 

By its very nature, entertainment is designed to be spoken about and shared. It casts a wider net than communications; it’s less targeted. Sure, there are bigger upfront costs, but entertainment pays. Twice. 

Just imagine for a minute if you actually got paid for your ads. Lego does. I could argue that 2014’s The Lego Movie is the best ad ever made (please forgive me, Sir John). It elevated Lego to become the No. 1 toy manufacturer in the world (up from third, behind Mattel and Hasbro), and brought piles of money back to the brand from the $468 mo;;opm worldwide ticket sales—and that was just the first movie. 

The LEGO® Movie - Official Main Trailer

For me, this is such an interesting case, because the movie is all about an inherent conflict in the product—between whether to build based on the instructions, or to go with whatever method you want. Education versus imagination. Highlight a conflict in the product? No thanks. We’d never do that in advertising. An ad agency would traditionally tell the brand to, pretty please, pick one proposition. And, let’s be honest, most brands wouldn’t really want to explore a conflict anyway. All that’s understandable—you have very little time at your disposal. 

Entertainment opens your story

When you’re limited to 30 seconds, a page or a click to capture someone’s attention, you have to be single-minded in picking one thing about the brand, product or service to talk about. 

Entertainment breaks down those barriers. You can show light and shade. You can talk about many benefits. You can be hard on yourself. When you have one hour and 40 minutes, you actually need that conflict in order to build a story that the audience will want to see resolved. You have to behave differently. 

Entertainment lets you open up your brand story so much more—and by hacking into the techniques of screenwriting, you can carve out deeper emotions. 

Entertainment is more emotional

Ah yes, emotions. Great brands are built on emotions. Imagine what the greater emotional effects can be if we have people’s attention for two whole hours. Imagine the power of that on brand desirability, preference, consideration. Because entertainment is more emotional, it’s more powerful for brands.

Take The Tale of Thomas Burberry. An amazing story about the brand’s founder, but one not without hardship. And that’s what makes him a hero. Not only the great innovations, but the struggle. I like the brand more now that I know what he went through. 

The only let down for me with this was that I liked the three-minute film so much, I was left wanting more. A trailer is not enough, I want to see the whole TV series or the feature film—and I’d pay to see it. Burberry’s story has all the ingredients for a great series or movie right there. I hope the brand is on its way to selling it to Netflix or Amazon right now.

The Tale of Thomas Burberry - Burberry Festive Film 2016

Entertainment makes fresher work.

Our industry is often criticized for facing in, not outward; for hunkering down on an island of our own assumptions about how others live. The resulting work can feel sterile, lame or obvious. 

The screenwriting legend Robert McGee has talked about how if you want to show a couple in love on screen, don’t set the scene in a restaurant with candles and soppy words. Instead, show the couple suffering a tyre blow-out on a back road and watch them change it together. 

In 2016, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, backed Home, a 20-minute short film co-produced by Black Sheep Studios, Somesuch and DokuFest to highlight the refugee crisis. Using entertainment, rather than a traditional commercial format, to communicate an important message presented a powerful opportunity to engage with the viewer in a way that wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. 

When you’re making entertainment, you need to be more honest and real. Strip away all the nonsense, however well intentioned.

There’s no point trying to beat Hollywood

If anything is crystal clear, it’s that agencies and brands need to realize that we are only as good as our partners when it comes to entertainment. 

At its core, entertainment is built on collaboration, and we need to earn the trust of the creators. Partnering Hollywood and Bollywood has been crucial for us at BBH to uphold our creative standards and deliver quality products. Without our partners and trusted friends, including Somesuch, Scooter Braun, Dan Lin, Anonymous, Mikkel Bondesen and Saville Productions, we wouldn’t have had the chance to attract the audiences our brands need.

So why wouldn’t brands go straight to the experts? Well, some do, but others recognize the value that the right agencies can bring in helping them succeed on this new journey. 

Brands can’t gamble with budgets

Entertainment is built on taking risk. One example of that is the strategy of "tentpole movies"—a film-industry term whereby a studio invests in many movies every year, in the hope that a few will rise up and hold up the whole tent. It’s about spreading risk. Or gambling. Brands can’t do that. We don’t do that.

You will still need insights

Our sharpest weapons going into entertainment are our strategists. Agency planners understand and examine the audience, and use data to find consumer insights and buyer behaviors. We have to when serving brands, because it has to sell. 

Most entertainment is built on what the creators want to say or make, like a particular song an artist wants to perform, or movie that a producer or director wants to make. It’s not always the case, but the industry isn’t driven by the audience.

You will need a translator

Brands speak sales and products. Filmmakers speak story arc and characters. Agencies are fluent in both. 

You need to maximize your investment

Agencies can maximize the investment made in the entertainment, bridging it into other channels and converting it into sales. 

You’ll need ‘sherpas’

Agencies can make the introductions, navigate the tricky processes and represent the business’ interests.

You will need brand consistency

Entertainment encompasses many flavors—comedy, tragedy, action, rap, rock and documentaries. It’ll be crucial for brands to stay consistent, and that’s why you need brand stewards.

An exciting but very different game

When I set up BBH in Los Angeles, I did so leaning on the insight that people pay for entertainment, and they pay to avoid advertising. Clearly, our industry has a lot to learn from Hollywood, I thought. Pretty simple as an insight, but let’s be clear—these are two very different industries. 

The word "branding" comes from burning a name onto livestock to mark ownership. Many brand-owners have long been taught that stamping a logo as a mark of ownership is a good thing. A good sponsor gets seen, right? 

In entertainment, not so much. People today can spot a transaction a mile away. We know all too well when a celebrity has been paid to endorse a product they would never use. Even my seven-year-old, Enzo, gets it. 

In advertising, you’re basically fired if you make something that has already been done. In Hollywood, you’re more likely to be hired if you can do that, because it means there’s already an audience for it.

Ultimately, brands are just like people. If they pique our interest, we want to know more about them. The good and the bad. Their future and their heritage. 

We want them to entertain us and intrigue us, surprise us and share their inner secrets. And perhaps then, we are willing to forgive them when they have been bad, and love them for what they are—just like we treat people. The more we know about someone, the closer we get. 

I would urge you all to embrace entertainment. Be smart and become the new studios, because you can. But throw out the old rule book. You will need to be attentive and behave differently in this new world to succeed.