Thinking Long Form – Lessons from The Lions

Submitted by Luke Southern, Managing Director, DRUM, part of Omnicom Media Group

Jump off the conveyor belt of convention and think big, bold and longer form storytelling in 2020 to cut through with audiences for the long term.

In 2018, a supermarket chain in Finland decided to live stream a checkout conveyor belt for 24hrs on Facebook to promote their new 24/7 opening hours. The Belt, as it was called, was actually funnier than it sounds, but as a piece of entertainment, it was the social media equivalent of watching paint dry.

I know this because it was one of the 1,200 pieces of work I judged as a member of the 2018 Entertainment Jury at Cannes Lions. The Belt reminded me of the late, great Generation Game – a pillar of family friendly, Saturday night ‘light’ entertainment in the UK - with cuddly toys and microwaves replaced on the conveyor belt by fruit and Villi (a type of yoghurt).

Branded entertainment is often accused (rightly so, in many cases) of being a bit ‘light’ in the entertainment stakes. It’s sometimes seen as predictable, disposable content that falls short of conveying either a brand’s message effectively or being entertaining enough to warrant repeat viewing. As adding to the clutter of branded stuff that fails to capture and maintain an audience's attention in the way that a compelling new drama or documentary from Netflix, Disney+ or one of the other leading streaming video on demand does so well.

But, beyond a pang of nostalgia for an entertainment format from my childhood, The Belt seems about as close as we have come to a conveyor-belt like approach to branded entertainment in recent years. The big winners over the last few years at Cannes Lions show that brands can ‘do’ long form drama with emotional punch that’s just as unmissable as the latest from Netflix, Amazon or Disney.

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More to the point, it’s important to remember that quality branded stories - stuff that warrants attention and repeat viewing - isn’t defined by length, ad format or clever use of a new tech process but instead through the underlying focus on telling emotive, entertaining and engaging stories that our audiences can empathise with.

Take the Grand Prix winner from 2018, Evert_45 for Dutch telecom company KPN that imagines how a teenager would record his experiences of WWII and the German invasion of the Netherlands in 1945 if he lived today. Out goes the diary, in comes social media, a YT channel, Instagram Stories and a weekly Vlog. We meet Evert and get to experience and empathise with his daily routine and the heart-breaking reality of living under Nazi occupation.

This is high concept stuff with a purpose – to preserve and pass down lessons from the past to a younger generation - that wouldn’t be out of place on HBO. It requires a deft hand in balancing historical accuracy and entertainment value that you would typically expect from a major studio. The fact that this comes from a telco operator with, to my knowledge, no previous track record in original content is remarkable.

The brand is implicit in how the story plays out across mobile and desktop devices and with the piece of work being adopted by Dutch schools as an educational resource to teach children about WWII, shows how brands have a hugely important role to play in society to fuel cultural as well as commercial growth at a time where governments and local authorities are struggling for funding (and presently adapting to providing remote schooling services amidst the COVID crisis).

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Also from 2018, there was Corazón (Give Your Heart) – a Gold winner in Entertainment and the Grand Prix in Health & Wellness – a 50-minute drama to promote a specialist heart hospital in New York. We follow the heart-breaking story of a Mexican sex worker with heart disease as she takes a personal journey to the US – aided by a hospital doctor – to have a heart transplant. This is a film so good it makes Grey’s Anatomy look like a student film project.The whole film is literally layer upon layer of heart references just in case you weren’t clear on what the hospital specialised in, but rather than being overtly ‘branded’ it fits naturally into the overall narrative. The film is basically a dramatization of the whole heart transplant process that you wouldn’t think could be entertaining but is made in such a way that it sympathetically weaves the hospital and the services they provide into the overall narrative.

The result of this is on par with the best new true story/dramas of recent years like (my personal favourite) Narcos where the audience feel genuine empathy for the main characters despite their less than empathetic backgrounds and motivations holding your attention to the end. That’s 50 minutes of time spent by an audience with what is essentially a huge product/service demo for a brand which is quite a feat when you consider that, according to research, consumers have gold-fish levels of attention (around 8 seconds) for advertising today.

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And finally, last year’s Entertainment Grand Prix winner 5B from Johnson & Johnson. A hard hitting 90-minute documentary telling the inspirational story of everyday heroes, nurses and caregivers who took extraordinary action to comfort, protect and care for the patients of the first AIDS ward unit in the United States. J&J actively stay out of the way of the dramatic true story being told by Directors Dan Krauss & Paul Haggis, instead acting as the enabler – a brand doing something for the greater good and bringing this vital story of the 5B ward to theatres and a variety of digital & SVOD platform for the wider world to see and draw inspiration from.

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So there you have it. The big winners of the last few years and no two-minute ‘long advert’ in sight. There’s nothing ‘light’ about the entertainment here or any sign of a brand message being forced into the story to the detriment of the drama.

Instead, we have a multi-format historical study of human mistakes from the recent past, a long form gritty human drama and a health documentary that shows how compassion in times of crisis has an overwhelming impact on the outcome with major echoes of relevance for the current global pandemic we are living through.

Each piece is a delicately crafted human story of consequence with the brands involved either integral to, or enabling of, the story being told. The films, regardless of format, could easily be found amongst the better new shows on one of the SVOD behemoths ‘just arrived’ lists defying assertions of conveyor-belt thinking when it comes to brands making entertainment.

Much has been stated about the challenge for brands today that want to reach consumers when more of their audience are spending their time (and attention) within SVOD closed content eco-systems like Disney+, with limited traditional advertising or media placement opportunities.

I’m sure that in time decent advertising formats will be established within these platforms but until then the brand-funded films mentioned above signal to me that the most progressive brands already understand the need to, and effectiveness of, investing in longer form storytelling to reach their audiences effectively in the increasingly SVOD dominated world.

At a time of huge disruption to this industry (and the world at large), these winning pieces of work also show that gaining consumers’ attention in the future isn’t just about understanding pathways to purchase and how to target audiences efficiently, but developing our ability as advertisers to create branded entertainment with a small b and big E.

Programming that prioritises entertainment first, brand second, warranting repeat viewing and which audiences, ultimately, choose to spend time with (and maybe even their money on) will continue to thrive in the future.