Dec 23, 2015

2016: Slay the content dragon

Adland needs to stop chasing the ‘content’ drug by replacing ideas with the delivery mechanism and get back to telling great stories, writes Iris's Grant Hunter

Tell surprising and gripping stories in the freshest way you possibly can
Tell surprising and gripping stories in the freshest way you possibly can

Grange Hill was a big kids’ TV show when I was growing up. In 1986, Zammo, the cool kid in the show, got fixated with the latest cool trend. It was heroin. Having a heroin storyline then was ahead of its time. It was smart placement by the health authority and the BBC to highlight the dangers of drug abuse. Zammo ‘chased the dragon’ (in writing this I discovered that it’s Cantonese slang originating from Hong Kong) and we watched him descend into hell as he went on the pursuit of the ultimate high. 

The cast of Grange Hill released a track called Just Say No and it made the top 10 in the UK charts. Zammo’s plight generated PR buzz as the controversy got all the newspapers talking. The song became part of popular culture and the combination of channels delivered the message in an incredibly effective way — ultimately it let the audience make up their own minds, and that was way back in 1986.

Fast forward to today and it seems like adland is chasing its own dragon — ‘content’. It’s an obsession for our industry. Content marketing, content this, content that. We’ve forgotten what goes inside ‘content.’ The idea. The story. We are doing ourselves a disservice as a creative industry if we get carried away with the buckets that deliver the idea instead of the idea itself. 

In adland, it often feels that many stories are spoon-fed to the audience. We crowbar the brand into the piece and spell out the message so there’s nothing left for the viewer to get. 

Of course, we have to stay true to the underlying brand positioning and that should inform the takeout we want the viewer to take away. But it’s our duty to create ideas or tell stories that people want to spend time with. As creative guardians, we need to guide our clients away from the pitfalls of creating more ‘adverts’ in the online and social space. We must not devalue the potential of storytelling by mistaking the medium for the message.

With screens everywhere, people are watching more film than ever before. The audience is increasingly sophisticated. Interwoven narratives, non-linear timelines and the story playing out across different platforms are the new normal. VR is being touted as the new golden age of filmmaking. So how do we embrace the new freedom that technology has opened up, without being distracted by it?

We should look outside our walled gardens and take inspiration from the great storytellers of the film world. Japanese director Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On series has played with the timeline in an anachronistic order from the beginning. It’s worth noting that his first two straight-to-video movies were shot in just nine days. The limited budget meant that the constraints helped him generate tension in different ways — he couldn’t rely on big SFX budgets, but playing with the timeline became a trademark across the long-running saga.

Ridley Scott’s The Martian (based on Andy Weir’s novel) showed interesting uses of ‘second screens’ as they expanded on the story to support the main event. This includes Matt Damon’s character as the star of an Under Armour film from the future. And at Sundance, they created a VR experience where you could walk in the shoes of Astronaut Mark Watney on the Red Planet.

With VR, there is a real opportunity to break new ground in a narrative sense, but only if we look beyond the tech. 2016 will be a watershed year for VR as the major players will all be releasing consumer-level devices. At Sundance this year, there were 30 submissions that used VR to tell stories in new ways — a proof of how the excitement around the medium is building. 

Perspective Two: The Misdemeanors by Rose Troche and Morris May puts the viewer in the shoes of two young men who have been apprehended by police and also gives the option to see it from the police officer’s perspective. The creative potential of truly seeing the same story from another perspective is intriguing. In many ways VR eliminates the screen, we are no longer constrained by a frame. Creatively we will be challenged to work out how stories play out in that fluid environment. 

At iris, we believe that the participation of brands are the most important factor for succcess because they invite people to get involved. And people love stories. So instead of talking ‘content,’ we talk about content that ‘POPS’. Our ideas need to have a ‘Purpose’ (what role is the content playing?), be ‘Original’ (keep it fresh, remix classic narratives), have ‘Participation’ baked in and, most importantly, have a great ‘Story’ (relatable arc, tension and characters).

In 2016, stop saying ‘content’ and chasing tech for tech’s sake. Start telling surprising and gripping stories in the freshest way you possibly can.

Grant Hunter is regional ECD for iris Asia-Pacific


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