Most people see advertising as commercial detritus that gets in the way of the things we really want to read, listen to and watch. But when a piece of "branded content" wins an Emmy, or has its debut at the Sundance Film Festival, it blurs the lines between ads and entertainment.
San Francisco-based advertising agency Pereira & O'Dell has achieved both of those things. This year, a documentary that was a collaboration between director Werner Herzog, the agency, and its client – cybersecurity firm NetScout – won attention at the festival and was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for theatrical distribution. In 2013, The Beauty Inside, a Web series the agency created about a man who wakes up in a different body each day, won a Daytime Emmy Award. It was also an ad, which picked up awards that year at the Cannes advertising festival: The main character used an Intel-powered Toshiba laptop to keep a diary. It has now been made into a feature-length movie in Korea.
Agency co-founder P.J. Pereira will be in Canada next week for the Future Flash marketing conference, where he will argue that more advertisers need to think like entertainers. He spoke to the Globe ahead of his visit.
People have always disliked advertising, but as the use of digital ad blockers increases, a clearer picture is emerging of consumers' desire to resist marketing messages. How can branded content fix that?
The idea that we could just buy consumers' time is no longer a possibility. We have to make them want to spend time listening to what we have to say. That's what entertainers do. You can buy the time that a digital publisher or a TV station thinks it's going to have in front of the consumer. What you cannot buy is, actually, the time. Whether people are going to block the ad, or skip it, or not, is totally up to them. There are things with hundreds of millions of views on YouTube that everyone knows is an ad, and they still watch it.
"The Beauty Inside" was viewed millions of times online, and thousands of people auditioned through social media for a bit part as one of the character's many faces. But what did it actually do for the clients from a business perspective?
Because Intel is a component brand, they grow as a business if people remember them and understand the value of having them in there. We were all raised buying computers with that Intel Inside sticker, but the younger generation, they don't have that on their minds, because there is a lot of parity in terms of technology. Awareness was a much more important measurement than sales in that case. What people are buying is someone else's computer. If we make Intel grow in awareness and preference, sales naturally come from it.
A lot of 'storytelling' ads take a tearjerker approach. Is there a risk of exhaustion with all those emotional messages?
Yeah, absolutely. Like any kind of entertainment, people get desensitized to it. Like how we've seen this non-stop wave of superhero movies – at some point it's going to stop working. Like any kind of entertainment, things need to keep changing because consumers stop reacting to it.
So would you be more hesitant these days to pitch something like that emotional Skype ad – where two best friends, who only spoke online, finally got to meet in person?
I think so. There are two things I'm currently very hesitant to do: one is tearjerkers, the other is documentaries, which ironically are two of the things I've done recently that worked extremely well. It all depends on whether it's a good story. The worst thing you can do as a marketer is to fall into the trap of the trend. It just causes repetition.
How much of advertising that goes viral depends on "seeding" it through paid ads? How much of it is PR-driven? What's your approach to getting people to actually watch?
You need to think about how to create anticipation – that's the PR element – and then you need to think about how to distribute that content. Like any movie, the first weekend matters a lot. If you get a lot of people to watch it quickly, it spreads from there and you get momentum. … Paid media is an important element. It's about how to create that critical mass that will generate a ripple effect. … How people talk about the story is a big part of it. We made very few of those Smokable Songbooks [a promotion for rapper Snoop Dogg's brand of rolling papers – the little book of papers was decorated with his lyrics], but people talked about it. That's enough.
Consumers might be okay with something humorous like that, or with Skype telling a sweet story about friends connecting online, but they might be more skeptical about storytelling that comes from oil companies, for example. Or banks. Does "branded content" make sense for everybody?
That's the challenge that the advertising industry, for decades, has been dealing with: How do we get people interested in something they're not interested in before we talk about it? The general population actually likes advertising. They just don't like bad advertising. The first episode of Beauty Inside was launched during the Summer Olympics. Two technology companies launching a love story during the Olympics? It cannot get less interesting than that; people want to hear about sports. But the story was a very charming one, and the week that we launched, our Intel work was the most-watched piece of advertising in the world. It's because it was a story that was interesting, on a theme that was not so saturated. This is how entertainers think: Either you find a story that everyone will want to hear because everyone is watching something similar, or, because no one is telling that kind of story. There's only those two sides. Anything in between sucks.
More recently you made a series of videos for Realtor.com featuring actress Elizabeth Banks explaining things like mortgage loans and home inspections. Why take that approach?
There was a real need to take something really complicated and boring, and make it less complicated and boring. It's still overwhelming, but at least I'm having a laugh with that. It helps if it's being explained by someone that you want to hear from.
In a recent interview, legendary ad man Sir John Hegarty said marketers are too obsessed with "content" and have lost sight of the fact that ads are still powerful. Do you think there's a place for the traditional ad?
A great 30-second ad is a great short piece of content. I don't see that distinction. The only difference is, if you're doing this to buy time to get in front of people, that is getting harder and harder – that's a fact that no one can challenge. Ultimately it comes down to, are we saying something that is worth the time that the consumer is spending with us, and worth the money that the client spends on it? The questions have always been this. Nothing changed.