David Blecken
Jun 18, 2018

Q&A: Where brands go wrong with content creation

Most marketers are still too heavy-handed in their approach to entertainment, says Sarah Armand, head of content partnerships at RYOT Studio.

Sarah Armand speaking at Branded Shorts in Tokyo on 13 June (photo courtesy of the organisers)
Sarah Armand speaking at Branded Shorts in Tokyo on 13 June (photo courtesy of the organisers)

At the Branded Shorts festival in Tokyo on Wednesday, Campaign asked Sarah Armand, director of content partnerships for RYOT Studio, Oath's global creative division, to explain the role of technology in content, and why much of the content brands produce still fails to be compelling. Armand is based in Los Angeles and has held her current role since 2015.

The winning entries to this year's festival were Apple's 'Three Minutes' (international category); Kodansha's 'Tina Tamashiro Dreaming' (national category); and Recruit Lifestyle's 'Spring' (CineAd award).

What’s the most innovative thing you’ve worked on in the past year and what did you learn from it?

The most innovative thing was a program that never came to life. It was an AR experience we were creating for a gaming client. I found it innovative because I think AR can be too commercial and here, we were using it to tell a story and give context to the game they were releasing. Also, the client understood that we didn’t need to be too forced with our advertising messaging so it was great that we could create something organic that felt like storytelling.

Why do you think AR can be “too commercial”?

AR is unique because it can feel too intrusive. If we use it to show a car, or a couch or whatever, it’ll feel like people are losing privacy. It should be used as a storytelling medium. It has an opportunity to bring something to someone so if they can feel the story because it’s in the room with them, that’s incredibly powerful.

Why didn’t the AR project you mention come to life?

Because in the end they chose to work with Snapchat over us. But it got us thinking differently.

What was your biggest lesson from this project?

That something should not feel overly forced or overly advertorial.

It seems quite obvious. Do clients understand this yet?

They understand in theory but in practice a lot of marketers today have really aggressive KPIs and they have to deliver on how many people go to the website, how many book etc. so in theory they understand the consumer mindset but then they fall back on having to make sure people go to the website. What happens is they forget they are consumers of content. They become too much of a marketer and too heavy-handed.

What advice would you give them?

To try to take a step back and create a piece of content you would want to share and that you would feel proud of. We live in a world of mistrust so the more authentic you can be in your content creation the more likely you are to drive your objectives.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt in your career so far?

Don’t be afraid to push the limits. Some of the most successful programs I’ve worked on are when the brand took a stand and spoke out on a matter that was important to them.

Why is most branded content still so unengaging?

The biggest reason is it’s too heavy-handed with product mentions. It still feels like commercials, not content that I want to read or watch. I also think we often overuse influencers so a lot of us get tired of hearing from these random influencers about what we should think or do or whatever. I think there are right ways to use them but it’s become the default to use an influencer when there’s no attachment to the brand. I worked with a skincare company and the influencers they had were rap stars and sports stars… It’s cool for buzz, but as a consumer we see through all that.

Is VR fulfilling its potential for brands yet?

I don’t think we’re quite there with brands yet, the reason being that VR has an amazing ability to really transport you and put you inside a powerful story, and those tend to be more news-related and they don’t necessarily want to be part of news content. But I see a great opportunity for brands to use VR to gamify content. A lot of marketers are still using VR when it could just as well be linear content, just to say they did it.

Why are brands reluctant to get involved in news issues?

News can be seen as controversial and risky and most brands want to align with all audiences so they think if they take a stand they might scare away certain audiences.

Do you think it’s realistic to try to appeal to everyone?

No. You need to really understand who your audience is and create content for that specific audience. Very few brands can appeal to a broad general audience.

What are your top dos and don’ts?

Don’t force integration. Don’t just use the new buzz like influencers or immersive technology just because you think you should. Don’t just force new trends.

Truly understand your audience’s consumption habits. What are they watching, how, when—just be obsessive about it. Also, be topical and relevant. Create content that people can relate to because it’s in the news cycle or has been going on in their world for a while. And be a thought leader. All brands are experts in something. Don’t be afraid to share your voice or expertise.

What piece of content do you think will stand out at Cannes this year?

P&G’s ‘The Talk’—I like it because they talk about racial biases in the States and it’s a beautiful video. I also really love the Apple Home Pod one where a girl had a crappy day and it shows how music has the ability to transform your mood in an instant. I think that’s something we can all relate to. They both drew an emotion out of me and I felt very immersed in them. The integration is so little that you feel it’s not being brought to you by a brand.

What will shape the creation of content in the near future?

Audiences, and then things like, do we look more at messaging apps? Especially if we’re not trusting social networks. I think this mistrust will lead to more high quality journalism and we’re going to see Apple News and Google Amp blow up even more because people are moving away from certain social platforms.

Do you distrust platforms like Facebook? How have your habits changed?

I think trust and privacy are a big issue and I now go more direct to publishers. I’d say I’m curating my news more and I’m only seeing things from certain publications. I’ve also been using more podcasts as a way to get the news and that’s a recent shift for me. What’s old is new again. I feel podcasts seem to be doing more deep-dive journalism, stuff they’ve researched for months.

Campaign Japan

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