Carrie Brownstein on How Portlandia Launched Her Branded Content Career

The star recently signed with Prettybird as a director

A short film for fashion brand Kenzo in 2016 kick-started Brownstein's directing career. Prettybird

A Swiss Army knife has nothing on Carrie Brownstein. For music fans, she’s the guitarist for the seminal rock band Sleater-Kinney. The rest of the world got to know her intimately over eight seasons of Portlandia as one of the series’ stars, writers and producers. The sketch comedy show that skewered the Pacific Northwest city’s penchant for quirkiness proved to be an important springboard for Brownstein’s eclectic, whip-smart brand of creativity, and a perfect springboard for a burgeoning path in branded content.

Yet, for all of her immense talent, one piece of her enviable roster of creative gifts that she felt could use a push was directing.

Brownstein eventually directed four episodes of Portlandia (and was nominated for an Emmy in 2018). She has several episodic credits under her belt, but it was The Realest Real, a short film for fashion brand Kenzo in 2016, that kick-started not just her directing career, but her foray into the brand world. The close to seven-minute film is a biting, clever satire about the cult of social media that starred Kim Gordon, Natasha Lyonne and Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali.

Defining her style as “formal and composed” yet allowing people to play within a wide space to help engender better storytelling, Brownstein, who was born and raised in the Seattle area and studied at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., continues to build her profile in the brand world, recently signing with Prettybird as a director.

“I really liked their roster of directors,” she noted. “They tend to be polymaths, and it felt like a good fit.”

Another part of the draw to the brand world is where she believes branded content is headed.

“The playing field is interesting, because it’s very creative,” noted Brownstein. “It feels like a ‘third space’ right now where there’s a huge allowance for risk-taking and experimentation that I think you don’t always get within the confines of television.”

Much like the Kenzo short she directed, which put the story first as opposed to the brand, Brownstein endeavors to work with more brands that are “interested in doing things that feel like there is a connection with the audience that transcends the product itself.”

Big Mistake

“I try not to think in terms of mistakes,” Brownstein said. “To me, a mistake, in retrospect, always feels like it happened for a reason and therefore can’t be considered a mistake. I think that’s the healthiest way to look at things that feel like failures or errors. We feel at our most humble when we have faltered, and that forces the next thing.”

Lesson Learned

“Everything is collaborative,” Brownstein advised. “Everything we witness is the culmination of the work of many people. [It’s important] to be gracious and compassionate and acknowledging that collective toil of any project. If you lead with kindness and openness, then you’ll end up with a more fulfilling outcome.”

Pro Tip

“Don’t be too precious about your own work or idea. Know that you can always edit it one more time and to not take offense,” she said.

How She Got the Gig

“I think it all stemmed from wearing multiple hats in Portlandia as a writer, producer and actor,” she said. “It felt like there was a missing component of how I could create a visual vernacular for what I was putting on the page … and that was directing.”

This story first appeared in the April 29, 2019, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@zanger Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.