I'm lucky enough to wear two hats in my job.
One I wear to be Red Bee’s creative director of content for brands. The other I wear as a documentary film-maker for film and television. And as I switch between these roles (and their corresponding headgear) I have begun to notice a fundamental problem at the heart of what we do in content for brands. Here's the bind.
Brands don't like conflict. Ask most brands if they want hardship, difficulties, problems and uncomfortable truths in their content and they say 'no thanks'. But ask documentary makers the same question and of course they will tell you the opposite. They want conflict. Conflict is what makes a story. It's what keeps you gripped to your seat and makes you care about what you're watching. We've said it here many times before, but it's always worth repeating: conflict drives narrative. Be that personal conflict of a character's duty versus their fear, interpersonal conflict of hero versus villain or extra personal conflict of team versus deadline or difficult environment. Conflict is the magic ingredient of really emotive content, which is what you'd think brands would want.
But it constantly surprises me how often brands hold back on that killer ingredient. They leave out the spice, and as a result the dish often ends up a bit, well, bland.
Take Guinness and their recent work with the Sapeurs. Lovely ad, revealing extraordinary lives. I really wanted to watch the online content to which I was pointed at the end. But I was left a bit disappointed. Not a long ad, just an OK short film. Yep, OK. But it could have been superb. Because really this is a story about war and the fight for expression of those who are struggling to hang on to their identity.
As a film-maker it's fascinating to explore the motivations behind a character's actions. And the Sapeurs have character in spades, so wouldn't it have been interesting to uncover the experiences that forged that character, that obvious sense of personal pride and their urge for such showmanship? Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo have been ravaged by a succession of wars during their recent history, and the impact of those wars is unavoidable if you focus a lens on the people and their culture. It's not random that the Sapeur movement thrives in Congo. The Sapeurs are a conscious and positive reaction against the monotonous misery of a recently war-torn environment and society. And it's that conflict of self expression versus the oppressive recent past that should keep you hooked. By touching on the darker story of the preceding war, you can more clearly see, understand and feel the contrasting brilliance of the Sapeurs' colourful expression thereafter. It's just more of a story.
But you don't have to dwell in the pit of despair to establish the conflict in a good story. In our film about Barclays' programme for injured military personnel, we decided that we needed our protagonist Ken to tell us exactly how he was injured. We could have made more of it (and a director's cut probably would), but the important thing was that it was there to present Ken's battle of recovery in context. It was brief reflective moment, but without it the film would have been far less powerful, and far less persuasive about Barclays' positive impact.
So will more brands start to get more relaxed about conflict? I hope so. But to do so they need to start taking some risks, allowing creative talents to do their thing and embrace the difficult truths. If not most branded content will stay safe, in fear of showing something that isn't sugar-coated happiness. Tell me, which sort of content would you rather watch, safe or brave? Exactly.
Jim de Zoete, Creative Director, Content.