IBM’s Long-Form Content Shows Its Technology in Action

Ogilvy's short films include a poignant one about the elderly

Headshot of Tim Nudd

IDEA: Technology for elder care has come a long way since "I've fallen … and I can't get up!" IBM is pioneering sensors that monitor seniors' homes in real time—temperature, carbon dioxide levels and much more—and send the data to city workers, who can dispatch friends, family or emergency personnel as needed. This remote solution can keep a town's social-services costs down as its population ages. IBM tested the system in Bolzano, Italy, and had a great story to tell—one that stretched beyond a TV spot.

Through an extensive collaboration with Ogilvy (and its branded-content arm OgilvyEntertainment), StudioNow, director Lily Henderson and The Huffington Post, IBM produced a poignant four-minute documentary about the Bolzano trial. "Short-form film, or long-form content, really lets you open up a topic," said OgilvyEntertainment president Doug Scott. "You're not constrained by media time. A storyteller can truly allow the topic, the character and the story to give a full view of what the brand is trying to convey."

COPYWRITING: The story is told through Zita, an old woman living in Bolzano. She speaks poetically of her life in the opening scenes, set in her simple apartment, looking out at the Italian hills. "When my children were small, I always told them they were rich," she says (in Italian, with English subtitles). "They had hands to drink water if they didn't have a cup. They had feet to walk, ears, eyes to see. A rich person is someone who can do anything. This was our life."

Zita explains that her husband has died, and the scene cuts to her daughter, who says she's worried about her mother living alone. The film frames the scope of the problem of elder care through interviews with Bolzano's deputy mayor and director of social planning, then presents the solution, as IBM's Nicola Palmarini introduces the sensor and explains how it works. At the end, the film returns to Zita, who now talks about life in the present, not the past. "Independence is the most beautiful thing in the world," she says. "This is living. This is richness."

"It was definitely a collaborative process," said Henderson, IBM's handpicked director from Thin Place Pictures. "StudioNow provided a initial project proposal, which included a list of questions that I was able to sculpt and restructure where I felt it necessary. There was also a treatment provided with the understanding that when we actually filmed, some of the story structure might change, since we were working with documentary subjects."

ART DIRECTION/FILMING: The film was shot over five days in Bolzano and at the IBM offices in Milan. Visually, it's simple and artful. Images of the spectacular landscape and architecture are juxtaposed with an intimate portrait of Zita captured through candid and more formally composed shots. There's also footage from the modern IBM offices. "The main conceptual idea was to show how two contrasting worlds could work together," said Henderson. "These two worlds were the elderly people living in an old town in Italy meeting the high-tech and current world of IBM. Visually we conveyed this by showing the old city architecture next to the modern architecture of IBM's offices, and in the edit I made sure to start the pace slow and sentimental and then pick up the energy when introducing IBM."

Old family photos on Zita's walls are echoed later by old illustrations of the town at the city offices, subtly weaving the personal and political stories into one—a harmony achieved, of course, by the IBM solution. There are also lots of shots of windows, a subtle metaphor—particularly in the final shot of Zita—for vision and freedom. "This is a piece about home and the challenges and values of living independently as an elder," said Henderson. "It was important to show the home experience, and windows were a good way to peer in, to be invited into the cozy nature of home, and also a way to look out on the view of the city—to remind us that the elderly person is still a part of the world."

Henderson said preparation was key to getting the film's balance right. "The interesting challenge in doing these ad-doc films is that you are trying to accurately convey a story about a person and a story about a company, maintain an emotional draw while also giving accurate information, all within a short amount of time," she said. "It was important to be as thorough as possible in the pre-production phase—creating a rough storyboard, shot list and treatment based off the pre-interviews with the documentary subjects. This close preparation allowed the cinematographer Ed David and I to approach the project almost like a narrative. We allowed the spontaneity of documentary to come forth, but we also had a clear plan on the story flow and key visual elements."

TALENT: Zita was part of the first phase of the IBM project in Bolzano. She "turned out to be a dynamo—a fantastic point of focus and lens for the project," said Ben Tyson, executive producer at StudioNow, the formerly AOL-owned production company that works on many AOL and HuffPo online video projects. "Humanizing these types of branded documentary stories is the single most important path to creating a great piece of content," he added. "The human subjects become part of the focus alongside the technology and brand. So we were thrilled that Zita, with some coaching, was exceptional on camera." StudioNow and Ogilvy located the other subjects in the film. Pre-interviews helped dig up as many details for the story as possible.

SOUND: Plaintive piano early in the film soon gives way to a livelier though still quiet score, mirroring the gentle optimism that slowly seeps into the material.

MEDIA: HuffPo, which co-produced the film—one of five in a new series under IBM's "Solutions for a Smarter Planet" banner—is hosting them all on a special hub called Smarter Ideas. It's also on YouTube.



Client: IBM

Vice President, Brand Expression, Global Advertising: Ann Rubin

Marketing Manager: Cecilia Correa

Advertising Lead: Cindi Ellis

Agency: Ogilvy & Mather

Executive Group Director: Kim Duffy

Neo@Ogilvy Global Managing Director: Patty Sachs

Neo@Ogilvy Media Planner: Katherine Moore

Agency: OgilvyEntertainment

President: Doug Scott

Producer: Jamie Schutz

Creative Director: Otto Bell

Account Director: Scott Vogelsong

Thin Place Pictures

Director: Lily Henderson

Director of Photography: Ed David


Producer: Lindsay Frail

Account Manager: Amy Ferguson

Assistant Director: Giuseppe Zito

Gaffer: Kristian De Martis

Audio Tech: Eva Lageder

Assistant Camera: Daniele Serio

Production Manager: Matteo Stefani

@nudd Tim Nudd is a former creative editor of Adweek.