Mike Monello visits with Adam Pierno to talk about storytelling. Stop, don’t leave. Not storytelling in the cliché marketing way. Mike and his team at Campfire have an approach that is more about getting a person who hears the story to want to learn more or retell it. He’s been doing this for HBO and other crazy properties – going all the way back to the launch of the original Blair Witch Project which changed the way movies are promoted and even produced (see: modern found footage category). This is a great one.
[00:00:26] Adam Pierno: All right. Welcome back to another episode of The Strategy Inside Everything, this is a big one. This is one I’ve been working on for quite a while to get scheduled. We have a lot of back and forth here making this happen but I’m really happy to welcome Mike Monello from Campfire. I still say from Campfire, Mike?
[00:00:43] Mike Monello: Yes. Definitely.
[00:00:46] Adam: Awesome, very good. I’m really glad to be his work. We had some scheduling fun which seems to be the new arm I guess. How are you doing?
[00:00:54] Mike: I’m great, thanks for having me on.
[00:00:58] Adam: Yes. My absolute pleasure. Mike and I spoke a few years ago, I swear, I just sent him a note that said, “Hey I would love to hear how you do this?”. He humored me by getting on the phone with a couple of people from the agency and walking through the process, a little bit and I thought, “Let’s do a deep dive.”
Once you learn who Mike is, I think you’re going to really like this topic. Mike if you wouldn’t mind, for the listeners who are not familiar with you or your work, give people a little sense of who you are and where you’ve been.
[00:01:29] Mike: Sure. I entered this business in a probably unusual route. I started off going to film school. I was an independent film-maker. In the late ’90s, I was fortunate to be one of the five guys from Florida who made The Blair Witch Project.
Coming out of that, I was absolutely in love with telling stories online, particularly to an audience and in real time. That just completely changed my perception of storytelling altogether. I wanted to do more of it and in a weird way despite the success of The Blair Witch Project, Hollywood was still not interested in really funding anything online. They were still viewing the internet as a place where they advertise movies and they didn’t want to think about it in advance.
But the ad industry started calling. We started getting calls from ad agencies from brands wanting help to figure out, in particular the digital side of things. I think they saw Blair Witch and they went, “Those guys seem to know what they’re doing”, even though we didn’t [unintelligible 00:02:39], [laughter] and called us up and worked on a few projects with ad agencies and over the course of that realized that it felt like there was an opportunity for a company that would specialized in the kind of storytelling that the internet seems to be better suited for.
Campfire was formed out of that. We’ve been basically working with clients since then to look at the internet as well as physical space and create the experience of stories, that’s how I describe it. It’s been a blast and we’ve been fortunate to work with some amazing clients and to be able to play their some incredible stories.
We do a lot of work with HBO, we’ve launched season 1 of True Blood and season 1 of Game of Thrones. We’ve done work on West World. We do work with Discovery channel. We did some recent work with Syfy channel that was so much fun. We’ve got something brewing in the next coming up for San Diego Comic-Con. All of these one run across all different platforms, whether it’s digital or physical but all that’s really rooted in creating the experience of the story.
[00:04:00] Adam: That’s awesome. Thank you for running through that. You said a couple of things but before I start grilling you with questions I wanted to– just the idea of storytelling, today’s topic is really not about storytelling in itself, it’s not about the creative of the story that we write for a brand or you tell a story and then to put it out in the world.
What Mike and I are going to discuss today is actually how you craft a story that someone wants to retell. How do you seed it so that they want to go tell someone else and create some– I don’t like the word viral and I’m sure Mike [unintelligible 00:04:41].
What’s the strategy behind making it interesting enough for someone to pick up and just hand it to someone else?
[00:04:50] Mike: Yes. That’s the secret, that’s the big secret. Actually it’s not a secret, it’s really hard to do and it’s very unique. I don’t like the term best practice, I think there’s some things that– maybe principles, design principles that can work at our jumping off points, but ultimately, there’s like all great storytelling, there’s a reason that not every movie is a hit and some movies come out bad.
No one starts out to making bad movies but sometimes it ends up that way and I think it’s the same thing. The difference is that– and why I talk about the experience of the story is that you really have to shift your mindset away from the act of telling the story because the internet in particular is participatory, and our culture is participatory.
When we think about a story, we’re thinking about “How do we make people experience the story?” For instance, if I wanted to tell a conspiracy narrative, which is a kind of a [unintelligible 00:05:50] genre. If I’m a storyteller I’m going to create whole Mission Impossible style conspiracy story that’s going to be complex and convoluted.
There’s going to be players, they’re going to learn– the conspiracy will unfold through watching a character and you’ll eventually learn about it. If I was going to do it the Campfire way or in a way that is designed to be shared, I would actually come out from the point of view of like, “How can we make the conspiracy actually touch people?” So instead of, “How do I–”
[00:06:24] Adam: Find a way in there that I actually get to experience or observe instead of just telling the 30 seconds story or the 60 seconds story.
[00:06:32] Mike: Yes. Before you realized it, how can I make it like you’re living the story rather passively receiving it?
[00:06:44] Adam: We could stick with the idea of a conspiracy story or if you have examples that you can quote from, how do you create those seeds or how do you figure out what is meaningful to be observed versus what is passive and what I’ll just consume? You said just now you have been doing this for long enough to have a gut feel about people will pick up and what they’ll let go past.
[00:07:12] Mike: Yes. There is an aspect– there’s a lot of different things. I think the first is thing is that as humans we’re hard wired to compete stories. When we look at things, it’s funny if you stop and think about how many stories we make up to understand the world around us.
You’ve ever had that experience when you’ve been in a bus or a subway train or just walking in the streets and you see something and you’re like, “That was curious”, and it caught your attention. Then maybe in your head, you start to develop a story about why those people were doing that thing that you saw.
Maybe you pick it up from bits of conversation you overheard plus what you observe and you might walk away thinking you have an understanding of it but probably most of it was just made up in your head because our brains like stories and they like to understand the world through stories.
You start to realize what I need to do is create a gap sometimes. Maybe I need to put something out in the world that causes a little bit of cognitive dissonance and makes you cock your head a little bit, go “Wait, what?” and the story starts to peer.
If I can get you up next with something deeper or some place to go that’s deeper, before you know it, you’re digging in to a story that’s been put out there, rather than me trying to tell you, “Hey come and experience this story.”
[00:08:38] Adam: You mentioned creating a gap, that’s a technique I’ve heard before and try to execute myself before. Do you know where the right place is to create the gap or how do you figure out– how much of the story do you right and how much of the story do you let be open and interpreted and how do you figure out how to place that?
Is that a function of the platform or is that a function of the specific audience that you’re getting or is it a function of maybe a brand or [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:09:10]?
[00:09:11] Mike: It’s all those things. You think about what story are we trying to tell, who are we trying to reach, what do we want them to take away. Sometimes you’re using traditional ad space. You might use out of home in a way that’s a little bit less, “Here’s the product, take a look”, and something that a little bit more makes you lean in.
Sometimes we’re using place and not only place but also culture. For example, I go back a few years there was a show on Cinemax called Hunted and we launched that with a piece of ad homes. Hunted was a conspiracy story and
in the show it involved a company that provided very high end security for high wealth individuals, very important people.
At the time we were about to launch was also the first anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. We knew that there were going to be protests and things out on Wall Street again. We bought a very targeted out of home buy that basically hit Lower Manhattan, basically around the financial district.
There was a very provocative ad for our company that was engaged in this conspiracy and it had a tag line that said, “We’re not for everyone, just the 1% that matters”, and then it had a URL, and it was extremely– and we’re sitting there going, This is a sense– a prop, I think the people who are out there are going to use this as a prop, it’s going to be photographed, it’s right there and it’s so provocative that people are going to go, “Who would dare do this?”
I think the narrative was open enough that I think anyone could embrace it. If you’re a wall streeter [laughs] in the office, you might look at it, and perceive that as one way, and if you’re in Occupy Wall Street, you might look at that as brazen evidence that there’s more work to be done. It isn’t really plant a flag that was just extremely provocative, and the one thing that would make you do is go to that.
Once you went to the URL, you were engaged in the story.
[00:11:35] Adam: That’s a very interesting example.
[00:11:36] Mike: Yes, I think that’s one example of ways to do it. There’s– but I think you can do it just about any way. A lot of it depends on, again, the type of story you’re telling, who you’re trying to reach, where you’re trying to reach. We’ve done projects were we’re trying to reach a very targeted group of people to start something.
So a lot of times when people think about participation, what they’re really aiming for is they want, some kind of mass movement, where everybody in the world is doing something, but you don’t start there. Everything starts small, so you start with kind of a highly engaged first group of people, and you get them going, and then you work to build on what they’re doing.
We’re fortunate enough, we work with a lot of entertainment companies, in particular cable companies, so we do a lot of television marketing. Often times we’re playing with narratives and worlds that have been built the show creators. You’re looking at that and you’re going– if it’s a brand new show that nobody knows, you might be looking at that and going, “Okay, who are the type of people that might be interested in this and how do we reach them in a way that they’re going to think is really cool and unique?”
So, that might determine whether it’s a piece of content or whether it’s an experiential event, or whether it’s something digital or whether it’s in the paid advertising states or how we kind of launch– sometimes we launch things with influence on marketing, that’s very different. It’s not the kind of paid, “Let’s find someone with lots of followers and pay them to use our brand on their Instagram feed [unintelligible 00:13:19].
It might be one where we actually craft a prop that’s designed to encourage someone to tell a story and we send it out to people, and then they get it and they end up making Youtube videos and their Youtube videos might be something as simple as they believe they’re unboxing something, but in the course of unboxing something for their fans, they’re telling our story.
[00:13:41] Adam: Are they in on it or do you just do it blind so that they dig in and they’re uncovering it too in their own [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:13:47]?
[00:13:47] Mike: We tend to try to keep it as blind as possible. What we tend to do is, if it’s something– the way we look for influencers is not who has got the most followers, it’s actually more– if we’re doing an entertainment property, for example, we might look for people who have expressed a passion for that entertainment property.
Then we look to see, “Do they have status in the community?” Then we might reach out to them and say, “Hey, we’re representing, client X, we’d like to send you something related to–” possibly we might mention the show, but “We’d like to send you something related to the show, are you willing to receive it?” If they say yes, then we get their information where they want it mailed to. That’s usually it.
We don’t want to steer the conversation, we don’t want to tell them what we want them to say, we don’t send talking points, because it’s a real story if they tell it from their own words and if we’ve done our job right, we’ve steered it through the creation of the prop that we’re sending them.
[00:14:53] Adam: Right, you’ve done enough.
[00:14:55] Mike: Yes, like for The Man in the High Castle, we did a project called, Resistance Radio from The Man in the High Castle. Which is Man in the High Castle is [unintelligible 00:15:02] Dick alternate history show where America and the Axis powers lost World War Two, so America is divided and under fascist rule.
In the middle, there is this neutral zone. We thought, an interesting way to bring people to the show, might to create a radio station from this world, this alternate 1962 where rock and roll didn’t happen, and we had nine artists remake songs from the period but do it in the world of The Man in the High Castle. So we’re leaning into culture a bit there, and we created an influencer piece for that, that we sent out to some people– some fans who are relatively well known amongst, pop culture aficionados, who had expressed interest in the show.
That was a record player in a suitcase that was made to look like it was built in Germany and it was very retro. It came with a seven inch single that had two of the 18 songs that were recorded for Resistance Radio. The songs were put inside sleeves that made look like the record itself was smuggled into something like it would be legal under a fascist government.
But when pull out the record, it had some hand writing from the resistance, and the music itself was [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:16:30].
[00:16:30] Adam: It’s really cool.
[00:16:31] Mike: It had a few other things. It had a setup to make paper turn tables, so you’re not thinking about the world and maybe not everybody has a turn table and people would turn around. So, someone would open this up and by unpacking it, you’re telling the story of, “This record and then look, it’s in the sleeve and it’s a resistance record and I’m going to play it for you now.”
You get people making a Youtube video or livestreaming to their fans their unboxing of this thing and they’re playing the songs, and basically they’re telling all people who are watching their videos about the world of The Man in the High Castle, but they’re doing in their own style so that it’s truly authentic it doesn’t– and they acknowledge they’ll acknowledge, “Amazon sent this to me?”
And we do encourage them to do that, so everybody–
[00:17:22] Adam: And also by doing that, you’re not sending them a poster of the leading actor and saying, “Look at this person, she plays this character”, or in the case of the outer boards you put up, for Hunted, it’s not about a story about the character, you’re letting people figure out the part that is interesting to them [crosstalk]
[00:17:44] Mike: Yes.
[00:17:44] Adam: So it could be for a vinyl collector, it’s the device of the suitcase record player, but for someone who’s into the actual music if it and these artists, now they have an entry point, these artist recorded this song from the ’60s or late ’50s I would imagine, not interesting.
[00:18:01] Mike: Yes.
[00:18:02] Adam: There’s a lot of ways–
[00:18:02] Mike: Yes, that’s exactly it. You just want to– in a weird way you’re looking for something both highly specific and open enough for people to bring themselves to it, and I think when I talk about the gap we also talk about that as white space.
It’s like just leaving white space for people to see themselves in the work, and you can do that– that’s much harder to do when you’re in the storytelling mode, but when you’re designing an experience, it’s essential.
[00:18:37] Adam: That space it’s actually where brands live.
[00:18:40] Mike: Yes.
[00:18:41] Adam: They occupy that space in between what the brand tells you and what I have experienced as a middle ground, where I say, “Yes, that’s what that brand should be like”, or “That’s what that story should be like.”
[unintelligible 00:18:51] Mike: Right. When those things sync up, when they feel right, it’s so powerful. That’s really where authenticity comes from. It doesn’t come from your word choice, it does, but those are superficial ways. Authenticity is really when the story you’re hearing, when you believe it.
It’s like the storyteller who’s saying it it’s just as important as what they’re saying.
[00:19:17] Adam: Yes, who’s doing this really well? I don’t know if you’re involved in this or not, but Mr. Robot.
[00:19:23] Mike: Yes. We’re not involved in it, but [crosstalk]
[00:19:25] Adam: The email states– so you’re an outsider [unintelligible 00:19:27] of that concept.
[00:19:30] Mike: And they’re doing it beautifully. I think it’s a beautiful example of doing it right, and I think it’s no surprise that the show creator is heavily involved in all of that work.
[00:19:44] Adam: The emails I get from eCORP and the Easter eggs they put in the show that in real time I’m on Reddit while I’m watching the show, I’m trying to figure, “Wait, I think I remember that screen, I’ve seen that screen before, where did that come from?”
[00:19:56] Mike: Right. I think that’s another example when you look at the
kind of show that Mr. Robot is and you see episodes where every sign on the highway is a weird number, and then they realize, “If I put that number into my web browser, I’m taken to– ”
That level of detail and depth, it’s perfect expression of what the show’s about. Even if I’m not personally going to go through and try to connect all those things myself, I love going to Reddit and seeing people put that all together. It’s amazing you go, “Wow, look at what the show did, look at what these people did.” It’s this story that’s happening around me rather than a story that’s being told to me, because like you said, we’re seeing it in real time.
[00:20:49] Adam: Yes and if know the Brian Colangelo story, the NBA GM who had the five burner Twitter accounts, or perhaps his wife did, you know the story?
[00:20:59] Mike: No.
[00:20:59] Adam: The GM of the 76er’s, he had some– there were some Twitter accounts that were linked to him somehow, and they were talking shit about some of the players on the team and they were defending him and saying, “Bryan Colangelo is a great GM and he’s smarter than the previous– Sam Hinkie, who was the previous GM”, and the Internet figured that out.
The Internet lives to solve these problems. Somebody posited this theory that, “I think there’s a correlation between where this guy is posting from and where these other five accounts are posting from, and his point of view, and how they’re defending him.”
[00:21:37] Mike: Right.
[00:21:37] Adam: And then the Internet, [unintelligible 00:21:38] jumped in and started saying, “Yes, look at this, this mobile number belongs to this person, and this belongs to that”, and they connected all the dots for the journalists who finally told that story. Mr. Robot is the same way, and I have a feeling a lot of those stories you guys create. It’s not even so much me telling the story, it’s nudging someone; “Take a look at this, I found this puzzle piece.”
[00:22:02] Mike: Right. It definitely is. Or like– I’m trying to remember the name of the actor Shia LaBeouf who was in the Transformers movie. When he did his art project, he had some project and I forget the details of it but it was at the Museum of the Moving Image, here in New York, and it involved a camera with livestream.
[00:22:24] Adam: Take down this flag.
[00:22:27] Mike: Yes, and he put it on the road and he moved it, and how people on Reddit were looking at this live stream of the flag and were able to, with a combination of noise and seeing an airplane go by, triangulate the location of the flag [laughs] by tracking down flight patterns, crazy. Something that no one individual alone could do but when given a challenge, people like to come together and step up to solve it especially if it’s a–
Those are the kinds of challenges we can solve, or we feel like we can solve. I think it’s a release in some ways for a lot of people because life itself is complicated and culture is complicated, and there’s lots of problems we feel powerless to solve. So when I think somebody puts out there a mystery that is solvable, I think it attracts a lot of people.
[00:23:23] Adam: Yes, when there’s a problem to be solved that you can solve from your laptop- [laughter]
[00:23:28] Mike: Right.
[00:23:28] Adam: -and it’s easy to Google it, or put in coordinates, or look at the weather or whatever they did to figure out where that flag was [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:23:34].
[00:23:34] Mike: Right. You’re essentially casting those people as characters in your story.
[00:23:41] Adam: Yes. That’s an interesting way to look at it. I have a question, you talk about the experience of stories and there’s a lot of agencies out there pitching storytelling, talking about getting your story across, but you take the distinct I can tell you avoid that word, storytelling.
What holds most agencies back from crossing the ravine, from storytelling to creating these types of stories that get retold, that people experience?
[00:24:13] Mike: It’s interesting. I don’t avoid storytelling well I have lately because I think of the last couple years it’s that thing that we do in the ad industry, which is where we take a word and then we try to expand its meaning in order to dust the word over everything we do, even when it’s not appropriate, and then people get sick of that and they go, “It’s a buzz word.”
The idea that someone in our industry would actually say the words “Storytelling is a buzz word”, it’s like if you stop and think about it and go, “Yes, no, it’s actually just being human.” But we like to ruin words by expanding the definition until it’s meaningless. So I do.
To me, what’s really interesting and this goes back to my days as an independent filmmaker, when you sit across from somebody and you’re asking them to give you money to tell a story to raise money to make a movie, it’s not enough to pitch a great story. You have to explain to those people how they’re going to get their money back and why people are going to be interested in watching your movie.
As a producer, as a storyteller which is what producers are in movies, you’re not just making art. We think that way, but really when you’re raising money you have to show people why someone will pay money to experience your story. That is a real challenge, and I think that changes your perspective on the responsibility.
There’s what you want to do and then there’s what you have to do in order to get the money to do what you want to do, and you’re trying to find that perfect marriage. What I found when I started working with ad agencies, was that the concept of paid media had made a lot of agencies lazy when it comes to the stories they tell.
I remember asking all the time when we’d be ripping with agency folks story ideas, and I would say, “Why would someone watch that and then take the next step?” I didn’t really actually understand this when I first started working in advertising and they often just couldn’t give an answer. Which is, as an inde film producer, you better have an answer or you’re not going to get money out of that potential investor you’re talking to.
[00:26:45] Adam: For the insta-ad agencies when you started, it was because the client is paying for this 30 second story, so I’m going to write it or [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:26:53], and it’s got a good punch line or the tagline’s pretty good, that’s really all the answer–
[00:27:02] Mike: Yes, and I was in a long meeting where we were brainstorming with some agency folks and it was probably maybe my second or third job in the ad industry, post Blair Witch though. I was still a smoker then and I went downstairs to have a cigarette, and the strategist who was in the room who was out there.
He came up to me and he says, “I see your frustration, let me explain it to you, these guys”, he’s like, “they come up with stories and then our clients spend millions of dollars to put those stories in front of people, so you never have to ask the question of why anyone would watch it. The answer is they have no choice.” [laughs]
I went, “Oh wow”, just, “Oh wow.” I hadn’t thought of that, but that really helped me understand the difference. So I went, “Okay.” and I started to feel like, then this point of view, that’s what I need to bring to this team. I need to push for that.
But for me, it was really eye opening to have it laid out just like that. This would have been in the early 2000s, so I think this was still at a time when the large agencies were struggling to figure out what digital means to their work.
[00:28:24] Adam: Oh, you’re saying it like it’s past tense, I think half the agencies are still struggling to figure out what it means. [laughs]
[00:28:31] Mike: Yes I think so. Here’s the other thing, the other thing is that we don’t deal in codified formats. You look at– like why is video so popular now, in advertising? I think because it’s a codified format, everybody feels comfortable about it.
I gave you an example of paid out of home, and influencer marketing as two ways that we launch stories and how we found the gap and we’ve done it a number of ways but when you’re crafting the experience, it’s different because all the variables are different.
What’s the story you’re trying to tell? What do you want people to feel? Who are you trying to reach? What is it you want them to do once you’ve reached them? All of those things mean that what you’re making essentially has to be very unique, and it’s hard to build a giant organization that’s constantly building something new.
[00:29:33] Adam: Yes, and then not know the profit, like how are we going to make money from [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:29:37]? We’re going to create something over here, and something over there, and something over here, how do we make money?
[00:29:43] Mike: Right. So oftentimes it’s what’s new about the work we do, isn’t necessarily– like when you start to break down an experience into its individual components, you start to realize like, “You’re doing an out of home ad, it’s just different”, “You’re doing a
website” or “You’re doing some content for social feeds or you’re doing whatever it is you’re making.” “You’re going to put something on TV that’s just slightly different.”
When you break it down to its components then all of a sudden people can understand it but what you run into then is, both from a client side, and an agency side are all the silos of the different people who do those individual things and don’t often have one person who’s overseeing it from that story and that experience perspective.
[00:30:29] Adam: How much, Mike– when you’re creating these stories, how much thought do you give to what actually I want them to take? Is it, do you plot that out after the journey of the story, or do you do that at the top and then create the components below that or off of the action you [unintelligible 00:30:46]?
[00:30:48] Mike: It’s two fold. I think in some cases, there is what we want them to do which is part of the experience of the story and then there’s what we want them to do, the KPIs of the work. We always start with the what we want them to do, the KPIs of the work, at the top.
The one thing I always tell clients is like, “We can develop a participatory experience that will achieve whatever goal you want, you just need to be very clear about that goal upfront and not change it in the process”, because we do develop very specifically for those outcomes.
It’s like, “Show us what dials you want to change and we’ll develop something that will affect those dials, that will move that needle to mix [unintelligible 00:31:38] up.” It’s when we get asked to do one thing and we generate the concept and then other people start to come in and start asking, “But it doesn’t do this”, or “It should do this also.”
They start try to load more on top of it where it then begins to be a challenge because at some point, you get to a part where you go, “If we wanted to all of these things, the best thing to do would be go back to zero and start over again rather than try to bulk things on–”
[00:32:08] Adam: That’s the same– that’s consistent with any kind of creative commission where you agree on something at the top, you bring the idea and then when they see the idea, they start weighing things on it that pull it down and then by the time you’re there, nobody [unintelligible 00:32:22] why we started doing it.
[00:32:24] Mike: Right. That’s a challenge. You have to keep your eye on the ball and you have to keep everybody else’s eye on that ball too.
[00:32:31] Adam: I’m not sure how much of your work is dedicated to keeping everybody inclined and I’m talking about people on the brand side and the agency partners and internally.
[00:32:42] Mike: We work in very small teams so it’s not too hard internally because we’re all aligned in our vision for the work we do. Externally, it depends. Generally speaking, what’s been great about Campfire is that if you look at our work, it’s very consistent in terms of, I think, the point of view.
When we talk about designer stories, if you look at our case study you’ll see there’s a consistency there. You don’t see a lot of things where you go, “That’s not really about designing the experience of stories”, or “That’s not really participatory.”
When a client comes to an agency like Campfire, when a client comes to a group like ours, they’ve already crossed that bridge into deciding they want what it is we do so I think we don’t have this hard path there as maybe a more traditional agency trying to sell something that’s non traditional.
[00:33:42] Adam: Got it, because the client doesn’t even know what they’re buying and they see the concept and they say, “I don’t know, is this what we wanted or do we just want to do some 60s [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:33:53].
[00:33:53] Mike: Like you know, Campfire is not the place you come to if you want some 60s. It’s just not what we do. When you’ve engaged an agency like Campfire, you’ve decided you want to do something participatory, you’re looking to activate a group of people and the work we do is going to help you achieve those goals and then we go ahead and we work with our clients to develop to whatever level.
Some clients are more sophisticated and willing to take a bigger chance and others aren’t so a lot of it is about that communication and trying to keep that communication open. For us, we’re project based so we also have a pressure on ourselves which is we’re only as good as the last project.
For us it’s very, very important that we achieve the goals that we’ve set out to and that we get repeat business as well as people view the work as successfully achieving what it is we set out to achieve. That’s an essential part of the whole process but like I said, most of our clients have already made the jump just by giving us a call.
[00:35:04] Adam: To that point, a lot of the examples you’ve given have been entertainment, television shows or films or other entertainment arts that have that experiential piece baked into it but how would you do this if you’re assigned a toothpaste brand for example or a traditional– Hubba Bubba calls you and say, “We want a story, Mike. Help us do this.”
How much different is the process or is it really just about getting the people on the brand side to understand exactly what they’re committing to?
[00:35:41] Mike: Creatively, it’s a very different process. With the entertainment companies oftentimes, the narrative– oftentimes we’re not able to use the main characters and things. A lot of what we do is really actually world building or building around a story or taking a piece of the story and expressing it in a different medium than television or video games.
But when it’s a brand and we’ve done work for brands, we’ve done work for– a long time ago we did a lot of work for Snapple to bring it down to a consumer package good.
We’ve done work for Infiniti for car brands so when the brand doesn’t have– when the brand has a brand story which is like the values they stand for or the story they tell from a marketing perspective but they don’t have a narrative the way a show like The Man in the High Castle might have or Mr. Robot might have, it’s very different because we get to develop that.
Sometimes, it starts with– brand like Snapple for instance has, there’s some unique aspects about a brand like that where they actually have fans and you don’t think of somebody as being a Snapple fan. I don’t think people say, “I’m a huge Snapple fan”, [chuckles] like the way they would love Guardians of the Galaxy, but there are fans and they are engaging in their fandom in certain ways.
The way we start is by looking, where are those fans even if they’re very small and what are they doing? How are they expressing that fandom in whatever it is, and then how do we support that from a brand? Sometimes it’s about making that activity action the story. Sometimes there’s different ways in but usually it starts with fan behaviors and then you build back from there.
That’s one way. In the case of something like Infiniti, we got a brief that was actually luxury car brand wanting a film. Our approach to that was to go back and say, “No, you don’t need a film. You need something that’s more participatory.”
What we gave them ultimately, whilst it didn’t stray too far away from the film but it was definitely participatory and the participation and the actions we were asking people to do were allowing them to discover the car itself rather than trying to tell a story about the car.
[00:38:23] Adam: Yes, I think back to the BMW films, a the mid ’90s was the first, “We’re not going to do a commercial, we’re going to do something else”, and it featured the car. You could watch those things and have no idea or any more desire to buy a BMW like you did before if you watch them, they were star powered and they were very star driven.
I think the Infiniti work is a great example of making them curious about the car itself or the brand itself versus just being really beautiful short stories.
[00:38:54] Mike: There is a story there and the story itself is rooted in the message. It was rooted in the same story that they were telling in their 30s and 60s. It was deepening that story and it was broadening that world but yes, when you finish looking at Déjà Vu, you’ll also had an understanding of why the car was special without feeling like you watched an ad, hopefully. [chuckles]
[00:39:26] Adam: We’re rounding third here, I just have one question for you about media and platforms. You mentioned earlier that media has been something that’s a bit of a roadblock for agencies. We’re beholden to formats that exist and we make our money on producing 30s or 60s or prints, ads, or whatever the format is.
Which formats or which platforms do you think have the most potential for triggering people? Which have you had the most fun exploring recently
that will get people to take the next step into the story.
[00:40:03] Mike: I will say, this is the thing that I think– the question you just asked is the one that has changed the most over the years for me. Because when it started, it was just digital. Then the social platforms emerged out of that. In the beginning it was the social platforms and now I see the social platforms as we’ve managed to turn those into the banner ads of today. Where it’s pay to play.
Since we’re paying, we’re just putting ads in front of people, we’re not really doing anything special or interesting with it. What’s happening now, and I think the answer to this question always changes with the culture. It’s very much following what’s happening in culture.
What we’re seeing in culture right now is that what people really value more than anything else is physical experiences. Those are the things that people are willing to really pay for and get out of the house and do. We’ve been doing a lot more physical experiences, in particular, connecting content and digital experiences with physical experiences.
But the physical nature of the kinds of experiences we can build are really powerful. Even though we intend to hit smaller, if they’re done well, if they’re designed in such a way that everybody who experiences it really walks away with a story to tell, they’ll tell it and it expands the scale of experiences. That’s something that’s been really interesting for sometime.
Then I’m also interested in the fact that as we’re starting to see how constricted the social platforms are and how generally unfriendly the advertising things are, I think we’re very slowly starting to see a push back to some aspect of the marketing budget has to be doing something that’s remarkable.
You can’t just be dumping endless loads of content in people’s social feeds because we ignore it now. Being remarkable in doing something memorable is just in general coming back into play. I think once we start approaching the work in that. Again, I think it opens up things– it allows us to do things that a lot of people maybe in the past have declared dead.
You know how everybody goes, “A microsite is dead. Facebook is dead. [laughter] Twitter is dead.” To me, nothing’s dead. It’s just a matter of whether you’re using it well or not.
[00:42:37] Adam: When you plug into it, it wakes up again.
[00:42:39] Mike: Yes. [chuckles] I do think as we see this realization that there is not going to be– I think the smarter brands are starting to realize that they’re just not going to be this codified place like it used to be where you can go to the big thing networks and buy all the eyeballs.
The idea that you’re going to be able to do that in digitals, it’s constantly changing. It’s always going to be in flax. There’s always going to be a certain amount of people who are going after the new. My kids don’t use most of the platforms that I’ve been using for years and they’re not going to.
[00:43:21] Adam: They never did and never will.
[00:43:22] Mike: That’s just incredibly different because my parents watch TV and I watch TV and up to a certain point, my kids watch TV. That’s the change and that change has got to force us back out to think larger about what is it we really want to achieve. I always like to look at two things.
I like to look at platforms that people have declared dead or walked away from because I go, “Is there a chance to do something remarkable in that space now because there’s not as much noise.” Or I like to look at emerging platforms that I think frankly podcasting is a platform that’s been emerging for 15, 20 years now, feels like since the beginning of Ipod.
I would say when we were making Blair Witch Project, independent film had the kind of energy, passion and just enough infrastructure around it in the late ’90s that I see emerging around podcast. Podcasting has moved out of people just doing their own thing and releasing it as a hobby, there’s enough infrastructure, we have enough companies now that are capitalized, we have an industry working around it, there’s advertising and there’s money around it.
But that money in advertising haven’t mutated to shave off it something horrible yet. To me, I look at podcasting, I go, “That’s just an incredible opportunity space that a few brands are dipped into, but not well.” If their idea of dipping into it is by buying ads across podcast network, then they’re doing it wrong.
[00:45:15] Adam: You brought up the idea, once it becomes an ad commodity, we don’t do anything special, we just put an ad on it. There’s been– I listen to a lot of podcasts and we don’t [unintelligible 00:45:27] here, but if I did, they would be for square space, V and Ds and the same four brands that are on every goddamn podcast that I listen to.
What’s interesting to me is what some other bigger producers are doing, the branded podcast that they’re doing, Gibbler has a [unintelligible 00:45:46] creative side. Some of those really suck. Some of them are just infomercials and either sniff those out immediately.
But some of the ones that are a story and every now and then they very subtly refer to a brand and the whole thing is bought up by brands. Those are as a fiction, I think those tap into what you’re trying to do. It’s like, “Let’s just make someone feel something. If they relate that feeling to this brand, that’s a plus.”
[00:46:14] Mike: 100%, that is the opportunity in the space. That opportunity is not driven by big data and it’s not driven by a trading desk. That’s why I think in many ways– advertising minutes should become more challenging too, because for the most part I think this is a creative industry.
It’s a creative industry where so many people are invested in trying to productize that creativity and trying to basically scrub it away because creativity is also messy and it doesn’t look good,
[00:46:51] Adam: It’s hard to quantify.
[00:46:51] Mike: Yes, it’s hard to quantify, it’s hard to deal with on a spreadsheet but ultimately, that’s what this is. You have a few brands like GE taking a shot in the space, but I think brands are really tentative. You look at audio and you go, “It’s really not that expensive to produce comparatively.” You could probably squeak by with a few less banner ads.
How about, take some of that media dollars, put it into producing something really interesting in a podcast that really relates to your brand. Again, the story should make me interested in the brand or the product, it shouldn’t be that the story is telling me the story of the brand or the product.
[00:47:37] Adam: Don’t blow the mystique. People believe I’m recording from a huge studio with 20 assistants running around. It’s now just me at my desk, plugged into my regular [unintelligible 00:47:48].
[00:47:48] Mike: [chuckles] Exactly.
[00:47:51] Adam: The stakes are so low, you could produce hit. I’ve been visiting the agencies as I’ve been doing these talks and seeing how lo-fi can you get. I think I’m the lowest, but seeing how simple it is to set up a couple of mics, record some dialogue and have a souly artist do a little bit of sound is not the same investment as a video or a TV spot.
Therefore, I’m shocked when I don’t see brands venturing out and trying conceptual audio. Given how many people–
[00:48:22] Mike: Right, or the ones that do are doing it with the wrong people. You should be going to your traditional agency and asking them to craft a narratively driven podcast. It’s just not a good idea.
Go to people who have expressed a capability in spinning a great story because it’s a lot easier for someone who’s familiar with the format or familiar with that kind of story telling to embew [sic]– to create a story that embeds a brand properly, I think then it is the other way around.
[00:49:02] Adam: Totally on the same page. Mike, I really appreciate your making time to join us today. Thank you so much. This has been– I don’t care if anybody who listens likes it or not. I took a lot of notes. I should probably say if you want to send me an invoice, probably, [unintelligible 00:49:16].
[00:49:17] Mike: Thank you. I had a great time. Thank you.
[00:49:20] Adam: I really appreciate it and Mike, where can people find you online.
[00:49:24] Mike: Best place to go is campfirenyc.com or campfire. I’m on Twitter sporadically when I can take it, @mikemonello.
[00:49:38] Adam: Got it. I will link to both of those places in the short ads. Thanks again, I really– this is a great [crosstalk] [unintelligible 00:49:44].
[00:49:44] Mike: Thank you.
[00:49:49] Adam: All right, that was awesome. I’m going to [unintelligible 00:49:51].