This research firm makes Vice-like documentaries to teach brands about culture

In The Sound Media's latest film, a "drag mother" takes an agency employee under her wing

Brandy Naomi is unsure of her footing as she takes her first steps in high heels down a dark Chicago street. Though she’s trying to project confidence, she steals nervous glances at the camera following her progress.

Her trepidation is easily forgiven. It’s her first time being a woman.

A few hours prior, before makeup and hair, Brandy had been Michael Alexander, a film editor at research and innovation agency The Sound, making a documentary about "drag mothers" (drag queens who mentor others in the lifestyle). It’s the third such film from the agency’s media arm, The Sound Media, about cultures that are "probably quite fringe," says Ian Pierpoint, founder & chief ideas officer.

The idea is that by examining extreme outliers of human behavior, The Sound Media can help clients and brands like Unilever, Kellogg’s, Vans and MillerCoors better understand how to market to all kinds of populations. The films, which have a distinctly Vice-like tone, shine "a spotlight on people and trends and ideas that are interesting and are going to have an impact on the world," Pierpoint said. Ostensibly, a previous film about a couple that lives like actual Victorians — corsets, wood stoves and sans electricity — can offer insights about groups ranging from environmentalists to cosplayers to backpackers.

Alexander and his team had traveled to Chicago to meet with Gilbert Naomi, an experienced drag queen known for flashy dance moves and a strong hair game. Performing under the name Saya Naomi, she had nurtured many budding drag queens, and Alexander was her latest pupil. During the 8-minute film, Gilbert discusses the often challenging life of a drag performer, then spends two hours applying Alexander’s makeup and explaining the finer points of testicle placement before their stroll through Chicago.

"I didn’t anticipate how much work was actually involved in making the transformation — the head-to-toe shaving of my body," Alexander said, a point driven home in the film by Gilbert’s careful pedagogy. But that process proved to be easier than others.

"The physical part wasn’t as bad — or hard, I should say — as the mental, because there are almost two competing personalities once you change your physical appearance," Alexander said. "There’s a set of gender norms that are thrown on you once you look like a woman that I felt like I had to conform to, and also wanted to express."

It’s an experience he’s happy to have had, but he admits he hasn’t gone through the transformation again since filming, and does not "have the urge."

After Alexander was tasked with the "Drag Mother" film, he decided the best way to tell this story was to go through the process himself. "I had never actually thought about it until this piece, actually," Alexander said. "I have thought about gender expression, and kind of suppressing femininity within my own life, and this was an avenue for me to explore that and learn more about the subculture."

In the film, Alexander talks about wanting to express more femininity as a child but facing disapproval because of it. "I learned very quickly from society that that wasn’t OK, that Michael shouldn’t act like that, Michael’s a boy."

This immersive reportage is in keeping with The Sound Media’s nontraditional filmmaking style. For a piece on branded marijuana in the Pacific Northwest, Pierpoint tried out the product himself. And "underground antiquers" in London were given cameras to film themselves for another short.

The Sound Media has 10 to 15 films currently in production, according to Pierpoint, and intends to release between one and three each month on YouTube. Some of the films will also be broadcast by media partners like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. "We’re intending to show and further illuminate changes within gender," he said about the "Drag Mother" film. "We’re hoping that marketers and, indeed, anyone who sees it thinks a bit differently about gender norms."

That goal informs the topic selection of all the films. "I guess what we’re looking for is for people to think differently, feel differently, and have a bit more empathy," Pierpoint said. "Marketing is about having empathy and understanding people."

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