Is Werner Herzog’s New Film the Future of Branded Entertainment?

PJ Pereira explains how agency, brand, artist and audience come together

BALI, Indonesia—It's been almost four years since PJ Pereira unleashed "The Beauty Inside" on the world. The years since that groundbreaking work of branded content—which Pereira & O'Dell made for Intel and Toshiba—have been a time of experimentation, Pereira says, with agencies testing formats and boundaries in the one advertising genre that truly likes to pretend it isn't advertising at all.

"I don't think we're at a point of evolution [in branded content] yet. We're still testing the waters and seeing what can be done, or can't," Pereira told Adweek here in Bali this week, where he's been chairing the Branded Content & Branded Entertainment jury for the Clio Awards—sifting through hundreds of entries and picking the 2016 winners. 

Around the time of "The Beauty Inside," which won gold Clios in Film and Branded Entertainment in 2013, there was lots of long-form content, even things over an hour long. "I didn't see anything this year like that," Pereira said of the work he and his jury evaluated here at the lavish Ritz-Carlton resort.

PJ Pereira at Clio judging in Bali

"VR is coming into play," he said. "Super long-form is slowing down, but I'm not sure it should be. It's more difficult to do. And now, it doesn't have the novelty. It becomes less inviting. And if you're going to do a feature-length thing, it has to be really good because it's competing against other movies out there."

That's a challenge that might well put off many agencies these days, but not Pereira. In fact, he's preparing for the theatrical release on Aug. 19 of Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World—a 98-minute documentary, which Pereira & O'Dell produced and documentary master Werner Herzog directed, about the past, present and future of the internet.

It's a bonafide film that premiered at Sundance in January and has been generating lots of buzz heading toward its wider release. It also happens to be one giant ad, half in disguise, for POD New York client Netscout. The whole thing started out as an agency idea to produce short videos about the internet as part of a online Netscout campaign. But after they roped in Herzog, the vision for the project soon changed—for the better. 

"I come from a digital background, and I've talked about the internet for my entire career. My first job was as the internet guy at DDB in Brazil," Pereira said. "When we hired Werner to do content about the internet, I felt like, OK, I know it's going to be awesome, but I'm pretty sure I know what I'm going to see. But actually, it's mind-blowing. We gave him the beginning of the idea and told him, 'This is where it starts.' He took it from there and owned it. It's a mind-blowing documentary."

The film, which Variety called "playful and unsettling" with a "stimulating volley of insights and ideas," is organized as a 10-part meditation on how the internet is changing the human experience. It touches on everything from hacking to web addiction to artificial intelligence.

Some parts are lighthearted, others brutal.

"There's a moment where Werner interviews a family whose daughter had a tragic accident," Pereira said. "The police didn't let the family see what happened to her. But one of the officers or first responders took a photo and sent it to a friend, and it started to spread. And someone sent the photo of the girl, nearly decapitated, to the family. It was a horrible thing. At one point, the mother looks at the camera and says, 'I think the internet is the anti-Christ.' It has no sense of morality or control. And when you hear that, you think, yeah, maybe it is."

Despite being branded content, the film clearly has artistic integrity—and it reflects the kind of collaboration Pereira says is so useful for brands looking to engage through this kind of work. It also shines a light on a new formula that's emerged for brands dealing in the space.

"That's the best part of this area of branded entertainment. The level of collaboration you have with the talent, with the artists, is much bigger," Pereira said. "You need to give them that space. They are the artists. You find the idea that is going to make the investment worth it for the client. Then you bring in artists who guarantee that it's going to be a good investment of time for consumers.

"Ultimately, this is the equation: It needs to be worth the money to the client, and worth the time to the audience. In most branded content so far, the agencies have been trying to please the brand, and that's all. Now, the bar is higher. It also needs to be a good investment of time for the audience. Finding that balance is way more difficult. We need the artists to come in. And we need more credibility as artists ourselves, as agencies, as well."

As an example of branded entertainment done right, Pereira points to another film featuring top-notch talent, but with a twist—the film 100 Years, which Fred & Farid made for Remy Cointreau, starring John Malkovich, which no one will see until its theatrical release 100 years from now, in 2115, when the brand's Louis XIII cognac being bottled today is finally ready to be opened.

"I don't know if it's a short film, or a feature film. I have no idea. That was fascinating," Pereira said of the project. "How the hell did they sell that idea? It's so brilliant. Imagine getting in front of the client and saying, 'OK, we're going to take all this money and produce something wonderful, with very expensive talent, and no one's going to be able to see it.' It's the opposite of everything that's being done in branded content."

Another thing Pereira noticed during judging is that there seem to be fewer campaigns devoted simply to making a positive difference in the world—and the judges are being tougher on those campaigns across the board. The topic of social good has been a resonant one for Pereira for a long time—particularly since 2012, when he interviewed Bill Clinton about it on the main stage at Cannes Lions.

It's still important to do work that makes a different in people's lives, Pereira says now, but if you're doing it just to win awards, you should think twice.

"Overall, we need to be doing it," he said. "What President Clinton was saying was, 'You have a lot of money. You're putting messages out there. Make sure the messages are good for the world.' That's a very simple principle. If you follow that as a belief, great. Then the whole industry elevates itself. But if you follow that as a trend, then with the same speed that it came, it's going to go away."

Pereira has firsthand knowledge of the difference between the two.

"One of the most important things I've done is the work we did for Coca-Cola in Latin America, with the teenage kid whose friends realize he's gay," he said. "It didn't win a single award. But it's still one of the most important things I've done because it made people's lives different. I know a girl who told me, because she saw that ad, that she was able to have a conversation with her mom."

He added: "It doesn't get more mainstream than Coca-Cola talking about that. It didn't win awards, and that's fine. Awards aren't the only thing that matter. They do matter, but they're not the only thing. But you're not going to be able to play that trick on judges anymore. 'Let's do something that makes the world better, and it's going to win.' No, it's probably going to backfire. But if you have an idea there, then it probably can still win."

Pereira singles out one recent example of a social-good campaign with a brilliant idea behind it. When Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf (My Struggle) was published in Germany this year for this first time since 1945, Ogilvy Berlin culture-jammed the release with its own competing book, Mein Kampf gegen Rechts (My Struggle Against Racism), which told the stories of 11 individuals who have fought against xenophobia and injustice.

"One of my favorite things about it is it's a book, and this is a category that's dominated by video," Pereira said. "As a writer myself, I love the fact that it's a book. It opens people's minds to what storytelling can be. That made me happy. That was making the world better, but there was a very good idea there."

Asked to name one other branded content campaign that's impressed him over the years, Pereira—whose young son has been with him here in Bali this week—picked the glorious branded film The Lego Movie.

"I have the highest level of jealousy for that film," he said. "I worked with Lego in the past. I know what the brief is. I know what they're trying to say. And you watch the movie, and it's exactly what they have been asking all of their agencies to do for the last 10 years. They took a very complicated thing and turned it into one of my favorite movies of the last few years, and one of my son's favorite movies. It's worth watching over and over. There's all these gags everywhere. I'm going to feel like I can retire the day that I feel like I did my own version of The Lego Movie." 

—The Clio Awards will be announcing this year's gold, silver and bronze winners on clios.com on Sept. 12. The Grand Clio winners will be revealed at the Clio Awards ceremony in New York on Sept. 28.