Why Brands Should Look to Hollywood for Storytelling Inspiration

Marketers and filmmakers share a similar creative focus

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It’s an exciting time to be a creator. There are so many new platforms we can use to express our voices and tell stories—positive stories that make people feel good, laugh, cry, and that give audiences an emotional experience.

Andrew PanayIllustration: Alex Fine

Among the team, Brian Klugman, Nate Tuck and Ahmet Zappa, we have been telling stories in the long form for more than 25 years. Now we get a chance to work with brands like Microsoft and it’s opened up a whole new creative world to us. After all, launching a movie is a lot like launching a product.

We love exploring the soul of a brand and finding ways to show people all sides of a company through reimagined narratives. Finding creative expression that reflects the brand, lands a message and sells a product is formidable. Brian, our creative guru, often quotes Stanley Kubrick when he says, “Some of the most spectacular examples of film art are in the best TV commercials.” It’s true.

Brian and I used to think filmmaking and advertising were two different animals, but over the past several years we’ve realized these crafts are more alike than different. Let’s look at movies. We think of movies as a 60-second concept that plays out over two hours. Regardless of how long the final film is, the idea must be sold—to both the studio in a pitch and audiences through a trailer—in a minute or less. Take my film Wedding Crashers. The 60-second idea is: Two guys crash weddings to meet girls until one of them falls in love and then has to lie about it.

We approach our brand concepts the same way. We just do it more often, which comes with different risks and rewards. With the long lead time for features, we have to hope that by the time our story reaches the marketplace two or three years later, the world is willing and ready to accept it. That’s a big gamble. There’s beauty in that build, but a lot of fear and uncertainty, too. Creating an ad with a shorter lead time means we can connect to what’s in people’s minds and hearts right now.

There are so many similarities between a studio head and a marketing client, so we approach our creative the same way.

There are a number of roles in filmmaking—producer, studio head—that take new shape in the world of advertising. In film, one of the many jobs of a producer is to curate the best group of artists for the project at hand—from the writer to the director to the actors and so on.

In advertising, we believe in the same approach. We have a core creative team, but we’re set up to be flexible and collaborate with other artists depending on the project, e.g., a comedy writer, a gifted up-and-coming musician, like Stephanie Tarling, etc. For example, years ago when we wanted to make a dance spot to announce the Microsoft Surface, we went to the best, most creative director of dance that I knew, Jon Chu, known for directing Step Up 2.

As filmmakers, our goal is to show studio heads something they haven’t seen before. In turn, studio heads and executives make it safe for us to take a risk. There are so many similarities between a studio head and a marketing client, so we approach our creative the same way. For example, Kathleen Hall is corporate vp of brand, advertising and research at Microsoft, and, in this case, our studio head.

When we first met Kathleen and her team, in some of our early working sessions, we were all trying to figure out how our two worlds were going to meld together. We got in a room, took out the whiteboard and started putting down concepts, and it got really exciting. It was clear we did come from the same world: a world where you create high concepts you can say in one sentence.

In the end, artists want to feel safe. And that’s what she provided—a safe room that we could play in. That built trust. When you have that, the sky is the limit. You can do anything. You can take risks. Risks lead to breakthroughs. Breakthroughs lead to change and changes lead to growth.

Today, Kathleen empowers us to pitch her campaign concepts and stories to move the brand forward. Like any studio executive we’ve worked with in the past, she jumps in and helps shape the creative to be the best it can be for the brand. We’ve created a bond with her like we do with any studio head or filmmaker. We have become so close creatively that when we’re writing together we finish each other’s creative thoughts.

Whether creating a movie or a brand story, our challenge is fundamentally the same: move the audience. People must be entertained or they will turn us off and tune us out. Winning their attention is incredibly rewarding, regardless of medium or message.

Andrew Panay is a premier feature film producer, and the creator and producer of Wedding Crashers, Earth to Echo and Van Wilder. He is also the founder of Blk-Ops, a creative agency he describes as being born from Hollywood and built for brands.

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This story first appeared in the Nov. 13, 2017, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.