By Matthew Schwartz
In a scene from the Budweiser TV spot "Impact," set in 1947, patrons listen intently to a radio broadcast of Jackie Robinson's debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The ad, the premiere of which coincided with the opening weekend of Major League Baseball's 2019 season, was directed by Spike Lee. Budweiser/YouTube
Ricardo Marques, group VP of marketing for core and value brands at Anheuser-Busch InBev, had just finished watching the rough cut of "Impact," a Budweiser commercial celebrating the legacy of Jackie Robinson and directed by Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman, Malcolm X, Do the Right Thing). Marques was pleased with the ad, but Lee was eager to screen an alternative version.
Rather than a chronology of events, as in the rough cut, Lee's version intersperses the past and the present. The 60-second TV spot, for example, starts with a bar full of black patrons listening to a radio broadcast of a Dodgers game. It is 1947, and Robinson has just broken professional baseball's color barrier. The scene shifts to a picture of Robinson walking outside Ebbets Field, which blends into a contemporary shot of the site of the now-defunct stadium, which cuts back to the bar scene. That's followed by vintage footage of Robinson smacking a game-winning hit and the crowd erupting in jubilation. A youngish Spike Lee, wearing a Dodgers jersey, also appears in the montage.
The ad culminates with a famous Robinson quotation, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives," and closes with a message from Budweiser: This Bud's for you, Jackie.
Lee also directed a three-minute version of the commercial that, in addition to the Robinson homage, recognizes the work of community and civil rights advocates.
Budweiser's ad "Impact" honors the life and legacy of Jackie Robinson, who broke the color barrier in professional baseball when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The commercial was directed by Spike Lee. Budweiser/YouTube
"It turned out to be a much more compelling, engaging [ad] because of the combination of images," Marques says. "As we think about the process as clients, we want creative control but, at the same time, when you're working with the caliber of talent of Spike Lee, we must release some of that control to be able to enjoy that talent."
The ad, which premiered in March 2019 to coincide with Major League Baseball's Opening Day, ran throughout the season on multiple media channels and was streamed at ballparks across the country. (Anheuser-Busch InBev-owned Budweiser is an official MLB sponsor.) As part of the campaign, Budweiser sold limited-edition Jackie Robinson "42" aluminum bottles during the MLB season; 42 cents from every bottle sold was donated to the Jackie Robinson Foundation. The money is intended to help fund the Jackie Robinson Museum, which is slated to open in lower Manhattan later this year.
"We're not necessarily in the game of GRPs (gross rating points) and pressure and interruption, but in the game of relevance that is at the center of the 'Impact' campaign, which is tied into a cultural moment with a powerful message about inclusion and diversity," Marques says.
"Impact" is part of a recent spate of advertising campaigns directed by major film directors, or "big-time directors" (BTDs) in industry parlance. "Really good directors can take a script to a different level and make it more than what they got on the page," says Kevin McTigue, clinical associate professor of marketing in the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, who adds that while hiring BTDs is not a slam dunk, it does boost the probability of having ads that will grab consumers' attention.
Big-time film directors have been part of the advertising scene for years, of course.
Ridley Scott (The Martian, Black Hawk Down, Thelma & Louise) directed Apple's famous "1984" commercial introducing the Apple Mac. The award-winning ad, which portrays an unnamed heroine saving an Orwellian universe from soul-crushing conformity, aired on national TV just once, during the 1984 Super Bowl.
Scott also directed "The Journey," an ad campaign promoting Turkish Airlines that premiered with a 30-second spot during the 2019 Super Bowl.
In the 36 years between those two ad campaigns the marketing landscape has undergone seismic change, in which traditional advertising models no longer apply. Ditto for the type of ad creative that will command viewers' attention and get them to share branded content on their social channels. As the battle for mindshare intensifies, BTDs can provide brand ads with a cinematic quality that consumers crave. They can also ramp up the entertainment value that increasingly animates the strongest marketing campaigns.
"Marketers are trying their best to connect with audiences on a higher level," says Matt Miller, president and CEO of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), which specializes in the production and post production of commercials for advertisers and agencies. "Succeeding in the quest for earned media means the level of creative product has to keep getting better."
Chris Garbutt, global chief creative officer at TBWA\Worldwide, whose clients include Apple, Hilton, and McDonald's, stresses that marketers' growing reliance on data to inform their ad creative is no match for the emotional punch that big-time directors pack. "It's really worthwhile because that's what enables [marketers] to cut through culture and elevate their brand beyond tactics into something more iconic and long-lasting," Garbutt says.
Working with BTDs is similar to working with strictly commercial directors, but there are significant differences. Foremost among them is whether brand managers are able to cede creative control. "While marketers don't need to know how to build the film, they should be well-versed enough to make sure they understand the process, the costs related to realizing the creative vision, and the effect later changes or lack of planning can have on cost," Miller says.
Day rates for BTDs can range from $50,000 to $75,000. The fee won't bust an annual marketing budget for major brands, of course, but it's still a big expense. With such a large investment on the table, preproduction meetings are crucial.
Brand managers, BTDs, and agency reps must agree on the storyboard, shooting location, and length of time needed for principal shooting. They also need to consider the more granular elements of the ad, such as the aspect-ratio of the picture for different screen sizes, lighting, audio strategy, and wardrobe, among other items. But during principal shooting, when a BTD is calling the shots, things can often change.
"You need to be prepared to go along for the ride" when working with BTDs, says Brendan O'Malley, manager of broadcast production at Verizon and co-chair of the ANA's Broadcast Management Committee. "CMOs have to make an informed decision on who they're getting because they pay a lot more for less access," O'Malley adds. "That's the bet you're making; it's the same reason you hire a celebrity endorser, because this is a truly gifted person who is willing to bring something special" to the message.
Frame of Mind
Collaboration is a key ingredient for Chipotle's "For Real" integrated marketing campaign, which debuted in September 2018 and includes a series of ads directed by Errol Morris, who is known for groundbreaking documentaries such as The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara and The Thin Blue Line.
"What we recognized — and what we told the agency (Venables Bell + Partners) and Errol what we wanted to achieve — was that there was a low awareness of what made Chipotle different when it came to unprocessed ingredients that we transform in our restaurants," says Stephanie Perdue, VP of brand marketing at Chipotle. "We wanted a very transparent approach to what makes Chipotle unique, and what better way than to partner with a director who's known for documentary style and for capturing people's true selves?"
The Chipotle spots directed by Morris, titled "Behind the Foil," feature Chipotle employees preparing various foods for the restaurant chain. In one 30-second spot, a Chipotle employee named Carson minds the grilled chicken and chats with Morris, who can be heard but not seen — a device Morris often deploys in his documentaries. "I mean the chicken always seems to be a big favorite. People love it," Carson tells Morris.
"You're not pulling it out of a box, you're making food!" Morris responds enthusiastically.
"Yea! I like going on grill. I like being able to put pride in my food and pride in my work," Carson says.
"Good Food, Good Person," features Carson, a Chipotle employee, chatting with the commercial's director, Errol Morris, about why he loves working for the fast-food chain. Chipotle Mexican Grill/YouTube
Morris draws in unique perspectives from various Chipotle employees, personalizing the ads. "He's amazing at making people feel comfortable, seeking out their passion and what's on their mind, and his question style definitely made it work," Perdue says.
The "For Real" marketing campaign seems to have resonated with consumers. Business Insider reports Chipotle's 2019 third-quarter earnings grew to $1.4 billion, compared to $1.2 billion during the same period in 2018.
Perdue says Chipotle is developing new "Behind the Foil" spots with Morris to run this year. "We think the food in Chipotle is beautiful and could only be presented by the caliber of someone like Errol Morris," she says. "The added bonus is he amplified what we set out to do, which is to tell the story of 'Real.' Finding a director who fits your concept and provides A-list cinematography is a winning combination."
From Big Screen to Big Picture
For Apple's "Welcome Home" ad, which plugs Apple's HomePod smart speaker, the technology giant wanted Spike Jonze (Her, Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) behind the camera.
"The choice to work with him was very specific because Jonze is a very accomplished director in a lot of genres, but he has the incredible ability to create alchemy between music and storytelling," says TBWA\Worldwide's Garbutt.
In the ad, which rolled out in 2018 and ran on multiple media platforms, a young woman (British performer FKA Twigs) gets home after a dreary commute and asks Siri "to play something I like." She sits on her couch and begins to sway to the mellifluous Anderson .Paak track "Til It's Over." When she gets up and starts to dance, her apartment begins to bend and break, responding to her every move (compliments of Jonze's In-camera editing effects). She meets her mirror image and the duo bend, twist, and turn together before the young woman gently falls back on her couch. With her apartment back to its normal size, she exhales, and shows a smile that indicates the mood from her commute is long gone.
"The creative team working on the HomePod found an emotional truth in how music expands your world. They started writing a script about stretching and expanding space, but they didn't really land the treatment," Garbutt says. "What Spike did was bring the X factor and an ability to visualize storytelling that can capture culture in a way no one else can."
Working with Big-Time Directors
Hiring big-time directors to shoot branded ads offers both risk and reward for marketers. ANA magazine spoke with Jillian Gibbs, founder and global CEO of Advertising Production Resources (APR), a consulting company specializing in marketing and advertising production, for some insight.
Q. How do brand managers working with big-time directors budget for what is a serious expenditure and justify that spending to the C-suite?
Working with celebrity directors or big-time directors (BTD) can greatly increase the cost of the project. On a traditional commercial shoot, the day rate for a director is about 4 to 6 percent of the overall production budget, yet those video productions for commercials or digital video shot by a BTD can run up to five times the typical A-level "TV spot" director cost.
Booking and awarding the work to a BTD through a commercial production company, rather than a feature film company, can help keep costs down and ensure that the marketers and creative agencies involved are getting the support they need. Generally, the justification of a BTD pays off when connected to a motion picture premiere and/or a PR story for the brand.
Q. Is the creative execution different when a BTD is hired to shoot the ad, as opposed to a purely commercial director?
The process can be different depending on whether working through the BTD's feature company, which are typically used for long-form film productions, or a commercial production company, which are used to working in the advertising (short) format.
Commercial production companies better understand that the marketer is the funding source and has the final decision on all creative and production matters. On the contrary, feature film companies are used to having veto power over creative and production issues, which can create a potential conflict for who is ultimately in charge of making decisions.
Getting the right match — director to the creative — is the most important, whether the director is a celebrity or not.
Q. How should brands measure ads directed by BTDs?
As with any celebrity spot, publicity is the primary added value. The talk value, added amplification of the project, the making of, partnerships for social or environmental reasons, etc., can all add to the publicity efforts.
The cool factor may help generate more interest in the brand if it goes viral or gets picked up by a national news channel.
Buzz can be due to celebrity talent, BTD, or just a great and/or unique spot.