PSFK 2017 Speaker Interview: How Morgan Spurlock Turned The Ad World Upside Down
Morgan Spurlock wants branded content to serve a greater creative goal, and is bringing his expertise to the PSFK 2017 stage on May 19
Navigating the divide between the creative desires of the artist and the monetary demands of the market has long been the conundrum in a number of professional fields. Perhaps nowhere is this divide more often bridged than in Hollywood, where it is the marketing department, not the artist, that is so central to the creative process that entire films are born just to push product. The idea of the branded movie is something renegade filmmaker Morgan Spurlock explores to hilarity in his 2011 documentary “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” a meta-film about product placement in the film industry that was entirely paid for by sponsors.
What many people might not know about Spurlock, now more than a decade on from his star-making turn in “Super Size Me,” is that he’s been bridging that aforementioned gap between artists and brands as a part of his day job at Warrior Poets, the NYC-based production studio he co-founded in 2004. Warrior Poets has been at the forefront of digital content creation, leading Hulu’s push into original programming with their first series, “A Day in the Life,” as well as working with companies including GE, Lucasfilm, and Yahoo!, among others.
PSFK recently met with Spurlock at his offices—a converted former sex den which used to house padded dungeons—in downtown Manhattan to discuss his upcoming keynote address at PSFK 2017. He shares his long path to getting brands to trust him, and how marketers can better work with artists to promote their values.
“Super Size Me” was a documentary. There wasn’t much branding involved. Then we saw some playful experimentation with brands during “Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” What’s the path from that moment where you had that documentary start picking up, to working with brands in the way you do now?
I think that we had the idea for “Greatest Movie Ever Sold” for a long time. As you would imagine, after “Super Size Me” we were pretty much brand cancer. Brands weren’t chasing us to do anything. They weren’t saying, “We need to work with that guy.” Radical honesty wasn’t a reality people in the ad world wanted to deal with. Then we had the idea of “Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” We decided it was a great way to kind of pull the curtain back on advertising, marketing, and the world of product placement in a way that was fun and in a way that was cool.
When that film came out we had 22 different brand promotional partners. Then on the heels of that movie brands were much more willing to work with us, because they saw that we could make stuff that was smart and entertaining. There was not a brand that we worked with on that movie that had a bad experience. Everybody loved it, and it accomplished all of our goals. We made a movie that was in the black before it ever opened!
In the film, you also worked with that company out of Pittsburgh, Olson Zaltman [a market research firm that combines brain science and marketing]. How did that help you?
They helped [us] understand what our brand is. They work with huge companies, but they’d never worked with just one person. They’re the ones who told me, “You fit within the brand landscape of being mindful-playful.” That whole mindful-playful mindset helped us solidify other brand opportunities. It also showed other brands that they could also live in a mindful-playful space and work with us.
Looking back on it, you seemed to have intercepted a time when there was a change in how brands market themselves.
I think there was a turn. Especially around the time we made “Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” It took nine months, from January to September, to get even one brand to say yes, and that was Ban deodorant. The only reason we could even get close to Ban was because we had people who vouched for us; [advertising executives] Richard Kirshenbaum and Jon Bond. After Ban said yes, we started to realize that in the brand world everyone wanted to be first to be second, but no one wanted to be first. Nobody wanted to be the first person to take a chance or do something different, because it was a scary time, especially when it came to doing out-of-the-box content. Once Ban said yes, it was a steamroll of blue-chip brands after that—Hyatt, JetBlue, Old Navy—but getting that first one was really difficult.
So then how have you seen that change, to the point where now brands are more open to trying new things?
It’s a lot easier today than it was eight years ago. Now, brands are infinitely more open to risk and taking chances—legacy brands probably not as much. But I do think people are more willing to take a chance with creators, knowing that, especially if they have a seat at the table and a have a voice in the process, that something really innovative and great can come out of it.
What was your perception of advertising before you did the movie? How did that change through the movie, and since then as well?
When we first got the idea for the film, the idea of product placement at the time was always: “Hold on a second!” [Morgan picks up a Fiji water bottle from the table in front of us, holds it up to an imaginary camera and slowly drinks from it.] It’s that moment where you’re holding the bottle of water, showing people what it is, putting the label right up in the camera. That’s the world you lived in. What triggered us to make this movie was the Nissan Rogue moment of “Heroes.”
Season one of Heroes was one of the greatest things on television. Then season two of Heroes starts. The very first episode, Hayden Panettiere had moved to a new town. She’s undercover, she’s really unhappy, she hates her life, she doesn’t have any friends, things are terrible, her dad’s picking her up from school and she hates everything. Her dad’s like, “What’s wrong, honey?” She’s like, “I just hate everything. I don’t have any friends. My life’s awful!” He goes, “Well, your mom and I were going to save this, but I’ll give it to you a little early. Happy birthday.”
He pulls something out of his pocket, and you see the closeup of the Nissan keyring, and then the camera dollies past the front of the Nissan logo on the car, and then it goes back to her face and she’s like, “The Rogue? You’re giving me the Rogue? I can’t believe it’s the Rogue! You’re giving me the Rogue!” I was like, “Holy crap, that just happened.” Then later on in the show, she’s got a Nissan Rogue, and now she’s got friends, so she’s leaving a party and she’s like, “Come on, guys. Let’s get out of here. To the Rogue!” I was like, “Screw you! You did not just ruin my favorite show on television by doing this.”
So how did you go from that moment to where you are now?
Well, Jeremy [Chilnick, Warrior Poets Partner] and I came in the office that day, and we both said, “Did you watch what happened last night? Did you see that?” We started talking about it, and out of that conversation, it was like, “You know what we should do? We should make a whole movie about product placement that’s completely paid for by advertising and product placement.” That’s when we were like, “Oh my god, that’s it. That’s how we tell our advertising story.”
We said there’s a great way to talk about what happens in the industry, and hopefully drive a path towards a better way. Because if you look at the way content’s created today, I don’t see a difference between Paramount Pictures or Warner Brothers, from the film side, or a digital company, like a Hulu or a Netflix, or a brand, like a Mercedes or a Visa. Because I feel like, so long as you’re letting a creative person make the content they want to make, and it’s getting out into the universe, I’d say, I don’t care who makes it possible for me, so long as it’s good content.
What does good branded content look like then? Are there any challenges working with brands from the creative end?
What’s most challenging about it is, up till now, we’ve always felt like if somebody’s making it then they’re trying to sell me something. They’re trying to make me buy X. Part of what enabled us to help turn that corner for brands was the project we did with GE a few years ago, where we did a series called “Focus Forward.” That came out of a conversation Beth Comstock and I had, where she goes, “we want to remind people we’re an innovative company.” At first, they just wanted to show their products, and I said, “I think what’s a better idea is let’s just align you with innovators. Let’s have GE tell these stories about amazing innovators around the world.” It was this magical alignment of ideologies. We’re like, “Here’s an innovative company, and here are innovative people,” and they just made these stories possible. They were powered by GE. There’s their logo at the front, logo at the end, but in the films, there was nothing about GE. You watched these movies, and they’re great stories, there are great characters, they are amazing, innovative people.
Take us through that. Obviously, you guys have a little more permission in some content-making. How do you stop a brand from just making another ad?
That’s the hard part. Brands will say, “We’ve always wanted to do something different, we wanna tell good stories.” So it’s a convincing process, to get them to that point of where it’s not about shoving messaging down somebody’s throat. There’s a way to have your message be parallel to what the content is, to where the content serves that message, but it doesn’t have to spoon-feed it to me. Storytelling that isn’t just confined to hitting product notes, and features and functions. Storytelling does a better job of explaining what a brand’s ideals are. The more that brands are willing to step back and let their message be the content, the more successful they’ll be in that content space.
How you tell stories and the format of those stories also changes. As a creative team, you can put it on Facebook. You can put it on Instagram. You can put it on YouTube. How do you decide to cut up a story? Do you go in with those mediums or mind, or is it something that comes later on?
I think it depends on what the piece of content is and where it’s going. We did a project with Paul Allen called “We the Economy.” The whole idea behind that was not an ROI, but much more of an ROE. How do we create almost like a Return on Education for the people who watch it? We made 20 films about economics, which you think is going to be a really boring thing, but then we brought in Adam McKay to direct one, Mary Harron, who did “American Psycho” to make one, John Chu to make one. Within a two-month period, what we did with these is we said, “Let’s give them away to everyone.”
When those came out, those were, day and date, on 65 different distribution platforms. They were free on AOL. They were free on Yahoo. They put them on Netflix. We called Time Warner Cable and got them on the Time Warner Cable movies page. We created educational materials with them as well. We had a screening where they screened all during the week at Landmark Cinemas, where teachers could take classes to watch the movies. So each project is different. For us it’s about how can you be more innovative and creative in how you get these films out there.
Your work on “In A Galaxy” seems to be a good example of that.
Yeah, we got called by Lucasfilm when we had our partnership with [Disney-owned] Maker Studios. We ended up creating 80 pieces of short form content that had nothing to do with Star Wars. We said, “There’s going to be so much out about the movie and behind the scenes.” I said, “Let’s celebrate the fandom,” because that’s what this is. Let’s celebrate the fandom and what it means. These were put out through Go90 and then on YouTube. It was an incredibly smart way to reach an audience in a very different way, and create a real branded promotion that wasn’t about “Go see the movie,” but it celebrates, “How cool and geeky are we?”
The theme of our PSFK conference this year is “Innovation with Purpose.” How do you find purpose in your work?
That’s a good question. I think having a purpose-driven production company is something that has been at the core of our business structure from the beginning. For us, it’s always about how can we tell stories in a different way? Reach audiences in a different way? How can we play with the medium in an exciting way? And ultimately, how can we work with creators to tell that story differently? One of our mantras is, “If you can make someone laugh, you can make someone listen.” We really believe that through that type of humor is how you can open more doors or get people to let up their protections, to let whatever you’re telling in. We deal with things that may be kind of medicine-y or broccoli, but we make it taste like cotton candy. We really believe that the greatest way to touch people and affect an audience is through emotion, and there’s no better way to evoke emotion than through storytelling.