CANNES, France—"Reality, most of the time, sucks."
So says PJ Pereira, who just happens to have created one of the most powerful reality-based ads in advertising history—one being widely honored and adored at this year's Cannes Lions.
Pereira & O'Dell's "Stay Together" campaign for Skype has already won four cyber Lions this week and could take home more trophies when the final category winners are revealed in Cannes on Saturday, but agency co-founder and CCO Pereira admits that the campaign's largest potential obstacle was himself.
"Doing true stories nice and well done is incredibly hard. When someone comes to me with a reality-based idea, it's a 'no' unless you really convince me it's a yes. Nine out of 10 times, I kill the idea before it even gets to the client. But Stay Together was something else entirely."
The campaign initially included three "family portrait" vignettes that featured emotional stories of families and friends connected across long distances through Skype video chat. But then something truly unexpected came along: a fourth spot, one so deeply compelling it practically eclipsed the original ads—not to mention the vast majority of other ads created in the past year.
"We made the first three, and it was great," Pereira recalled, during a chat with Adweek. "We said, 'Now it's time to invite consumers to tell their stories, as well.' And one of them told the most beautiful of them all, and that is the story of Sarah and Paige."
Sarah and Paige are teenage girls who grew up on opposite sides of the world. Despite never having met in person, they spent years chatting on Skype, where they bonded over their shared experience of being born with one arm.
Now a nearly three-minute ad with 2.4 million views, the execution began as a simple text submission sparked by the Skype campaign. Pereira said that even at that point, the story's power was obvious.
"One day, we're just running through submissions, and I kinda walk through the agency and I see a copywriter wiping away tears and I say, 'What's going on?' They said, 'You gotta see this.' Then I was in tears."
The agency quickly fell in love with the story and began to gather further details about the girls, one living in the American Midwest and one in New Zealand. Their mothers had met online shortly after their children were born, but it wasn't until the girls were old enough to begin chatting on Skype that their connection turned into something much deeper.
"It's not just a regular friendship. It's like the biggest friendship that they could have," Pereira said. "I get goosebumps just thinking about it. I knew that was a story we needed to tell."
As with the earlier spots, the agency shot footage of the people in each country. But talking to Sarah and Paige, the crew knew they would need to go further.
"We came back and said: 'You know what? We've got to help them meet,'" Pereira said. "So we went back to them and said, 'You're going to go. You're going to go to New Zealand. You're going to meet your best friend in person.'"
The heart of the ad, the moment that draws tears from even some of the most cynical eyes, is when the teens sprint toward each other and hug for the first time.
It's the type of moment that any filmmaker might spend a lifetime hoping to catch, and the agency had no idea what would happen.
"The moment that they meet, that wasn't planned," he said. "We didn't know what was going to happen. The moment that one gets out of the van and they see each other, after talking for years and years and years, then they run up and hug each other. We were like: 'Whoah, this is real. You can't make this up.'
"That single moment told that entire story in four seconds in a way that no actor could have ever told it."