Fresh off judging the Branded Content category for the 2015 One Show, Carolyn Chen of the L.A.-based production company Production for the People has some interesting things to share. Like how the next time you're working on a project for an agency and it gets into an awards show, you might be up against a video from Al Jazeera.
"There are so many things that fit under the branded content description today," says the director about this catch-all label for seemingly anything sponsored by a brand and meant to engage, inform, entertain or evoke. "What we like most about the category are the longer format emotional stories that have a strong hook at the end to draw in viewers. And what we've found is that this is really hard to do well."
The 'we' she's referring to is her partner, Executive Producer Pam Tarr. At PFTP, the two women are on a mission to rewrite the rules for how everyone from big companies to small businesses and non-profits go about telling their stories. Since opening their doors in 2012, this minority and woman-owned boutique has produced a wide range of video content – much of it possessing a warmly human touch – for companies both big and small.
Chen says she was honored to be chosen for the One Show jury, as the competition is among the most prestigious creative shows on the global ad scene. The experience showed her that the branded content landscape is peppered with vastly different kinds of material, with everything from native advertising video clips produced by major publishers and broadcasters (hence the presence of Al Jazeera, along with The New York Times and Conde Nast, for example), all the way to high-end experiential installations and elaborate pranks or stunts.
"It's a challenge to adequately judge branded content work side by side, as you'd do with so many other forms of media, advertising or entertainment," Chen says. "What you end up having to do is evaluate it on how well it sticks with you, and how it moved you."
She and Tarr know this kind of content well. PFTP's sweet spot is in documentary-style, reality-based storytelling that's personal, relatable, intimate and accessible. They produce it in a way that distinguishes them from the director-driven, cost-infused model agencies and advertisers have relied on for years. Rather, the PFTP approach is one shaped by the multi-tasking content creators who rule YouTube: the writer/producer/director/editor-types whose work is produced in a streamlined fashion.
For Chen, her 'aha moment' came when she shot a short film for a friend who'd launched a home-delivery service that creates healthy organic meals for women who've just given birth. Chen created, on a shoestring, an inspiring film that makes you want to pull out your Visa card and fund the organization's next Kickstarter campaign.
This is when it hit her. Wrapped up in the trappings of making commercials, she almost blew this project off; instead, the process of making it brought her to tears. "I realized that I needed to get out of my own way and focus on work that moves people, that helps them connect," she says.
Tarr had already done just that. A pillar of the commercials business in Los Angeles, her company, Squeak Pictures, had been wildly successful, shooting hundreds of commercials and launching dozens of directorial careers. But she eventually left the industry and worked with several non-profits including Rock The Vote, Council for a Livable World and Homecoming For Veterans to create messaging that would change people's lives.
PFTP's logo – a cartoony sketch of a TV set with its fist raised – suggests a social stance built on protest, and in some respects that's what Chen and Tarr have done; they're defiantly creating a foundation for their work by rejecting the expense and bloat of much of the traditional ad production process in lieu of a lean, nimble and content-driven style.
To pursue this, PFTP has reached out to many different kinds of filmmakers and content creators, Chen says. "They work the way we like to work, and are interested in producing things that move people." She saw much of this approach reflected in what she judged for the One Show. "This was agile work, made by those who clearly have a global sense of community," she observes. "It reflects the direction of our own company, where doing projects like producing a global series on motherhood in developing nations for a big CPG company is more rewarding than shooting a low-brow comedy web video to make a buck."
And what about brands? Where do they fit in? "When you address these issues and tell these kinds of stories the right way," Chen replies, "the brands win, because they've aligned themselves with a universal message that has a real effect on people."
A template for this was the "Brilliant Minds" series they produced for Virgin Atlantic, Tarr adds. The project was built around interviews with leaders culled from Fast Company's "1000 Most Creative People in Business." Featured are visionaries like Warby Parker's Neil Blumenthal or Gadi Amit of New Deal Designs, which created Fitbit, who talk about what motivated them to create game-changing businesses and technologies. This was PFTP's second collaboration with the magazine; earlier they produced a series for American Express that focused on inspirational interviews with young CEOs of tech startups like Skillshare and Taskrabbit.
As a filmmaker, Chen seems well-suited to this journalistic approach. Articulate, inquisitive and quick on her feet, she's a native New Yorker who studied photography at RISD before completing her education in filmmaking at NYU. She got her start in the industry working as a cinematographer before she began to direct on her own, and since launching her career she's directed over 200 commercials for clients like P&G, Bank of America, AT&T, Nike, McDonald's, Pfizer, General Mills, Walmart and Unilever.
Although both Chen and Tarr say PFTP is committed to the intimacy of a human story well told, this doesn't mean their work is limited in scope, or that they don't regularly collaborate with agencies and major brands; they've been doing this successfully since they launched, shooting a series of doc-style films for Leo Burnett and Allstate, for example, as well as a series of moody and evocative films documenting bar culture for Mother New York and Tanqueray. Other major projects includes a series of documentaries for Downy and P&G, produced for Digitas, that celebrated people's love affair with fine fabrics.
"We want to invest ourselves in projects that have the feel of entertainment, but we understand the business imperatives that comes with working for agencies and brands," says Tarr. "We know work like this has to be effective in how it connects with people and that it achieves its strategic goals while still captivating us as storytellers."
As for epiphanies, Tarr says it's not enough to have one unless you use it to change how you approach everything. "We've taken our machetes and cut a swatch to something new and different because that's what inspires us and moves us," she says.
"For us, every story matters," adds Chen. "We've found that people can be moved by all sorts of things. And that's what we're here to do – to capture what resonates, what has impact and what people will want to share. The common denominator for us, in all the work that we do, is that it makes a real connection to the human experience."