David Blecken
Oct 24, 2013

Brands need grit as well as happy tales: Sundog's Johnny Webb

HONG KONG - Attending the CASBAA convention for the first time, Johnny Webb, MD of London-based documentary maker Sundog Pictures, explained how he believes brands can make their content more compelling.

Webb: "Monologues have ever-diminishing value"

If we are to be honest, the bulk of branded entertainment out there is just not very engaging. Why?

Brands tend to speak to the aspirational part of life. The truth is, that’s not how life plays out. Our job [as branded documentary filmmakers] is to tell the highs and lows. Usually, the lows are the times that connect us as storytellers. The challenge and opportunity for brands is to allow us to tell both. That’s what engages people. In return, we agree to take [the audience] up—to leave them with an authentically happy ending... It’s about the grit. Everyone likes a pleasant land, but no one loves it. It doesn’t evoke passion or genuine commitment to things.

A piece of work we have just launched for Randstadt [a recruiting firm] tells the twists and turns of finding the perfect job. We didn’t approach it any differently. It’s just a great piece of documentary content that happens to be brought to you by Randstadt.

You don’t shy away from controversial topics, but brands usually do. Do you think this is something that makes their storytelling seem inauthentic?

I totally understand that nervousness. Controversy is not the grammar of marketing and brands. But it’s less about what holds them back and more about the opportunity to engage and to get people to share [content]. I’m unlikely to want to share an ad with you. You share because you think it’s going to make someone laugh or make you, as the sender, look more intelligent. That’s our opportunity—to create content for brands that’s enriching in its own right and that people fundamentally want to share. I look at a lot of stuff out there and think, “Who’s this for?” Those questions tend not to get asked.

How do you see the approach to branded entertainment changing in the near future?

Advertising is a monologue. In a socially connected world, monologues have ever-diminishing value. It’s not just about having people talk about the brand either. Breaking the Taboo [a documentary about the war on drugs] attracted a community of like-minded people. When you define content in that way, you think about it differently. We are going to fire up a community of people in advance of our next film: lay the whole process bare on social media—it’s about crowdsourcing ideas. When you can do that, why the hell wouldn’t you? My point is, it’s not only about breadth, but also depth. That social production model sits behind our business: how we can engage people in genuine conversation and then put the brand in there.

One topic that always arises at CASBAA is piracy. Do you think that broadcasters should accept some responsibility for the problem?

I genuinely believe that most people are law-abiding. If you can get something conveniently online, legally, you will—for lots of reasons. It’s just that as content distributors, we’ve collectively failed. Netflix is a great example of intuitive UI that makes it really easy for people not to steal things.

I think we’re fundamentally honest, but we’re also creatures of habit. If you’ve raised a generation of people who are not in the habit of paying for [content], they’re out of the habit.

What’s next for Sundog? Do you have anything planned here in Asia?

We’re global in our outlook. Breaking the Taboo was more about the Americas than Asia. For our next documentary, we’re looking at prostitution and the sex trade. Countries like Japan are very interesting. There will be an Asia focus, and we are going to start talking to brands.

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