Opinion: Agencies must be more pirate

31 Jul 2018

By: Sport Industry Group

Josh Connell, head of content at H+K Sports talks about the courage of a pirate and why ‘thank you’ should be the new engagement metric when creating long form content...


Making a documentary or film requires stepping outside of the box that the marketing industry tries to - sadly to some success - put agencies in. You make ads. You do social. Get back in your box please. Well…it’s time to break the rules, pirate style (more on pirates later) and play the long game.

The thing is, marketing agencies often share the same objective as each other. Especially in sports marketing and sponsorship. Something along the lines of...make a connection with the client's audience through a shared passion. It doesn’t matter what discipline you do or which media you favour. What drives us is the same – the ability to create a brilliant idea that makes a connection.

Are you suggesting a bold and original documentary to your client or colleague? Worried they will dismissively reply, “how many coffees have you had today?”. It’s time to smash that box into tiny pieces. And if you need any more encouragement, try taking a leaf out of a pirate’s book (or scroll rather). In Be More Pirate Sam Conniff Allende describes how being unconstrained by the way things should be, allowed pirates to experiment with the way things could be. Becoming one of the most innovative, and misunderstood, groups in history. Making long form content is about breaking the rules. When we do that, a marketing agency making a feature length production becomes a very real possibility.

But why bother in the first place (it’s anything but easy)? Often, we watch films or documentaries with the hope of having a profound emotional experience. But when we're making content for brands, which is invariably short form in design, we don't always work with the same ambition. It's style over substance. Immediacy at the expense of impact. Science overshadowing art. Shouldn't the same reason we go to see a movie inspire a brand or agency to reach for the same level of storytelling?

Now let’s consider the pay-off. Because let’s face it, there will, and should, always be a commercial prerogative in branded content. Increasingly short form is a numbers game. Facebook delivers viewing figures that rival most linear TV ratings. Likes ratchet up to create engagement rates that make every other campaign pale in comparison. In case your cynicism hasn’t already kicked in yet, let’s cut to the chase – the reality is that most views are bad views. Salesforce data shows that in some markets most viewers watch less than 25% of a video.

Today’s limited attention spans and scroll-through culture, we’re told, means that only the first 10 seconds of branded content really matters. But how can that be true, at the same time as streaming sites like Netflix have exploded because of the popularity of ‘binging’ – hours spent in front of the latest series, documentary or feature film. The technology has changed but the human truth hasn’t; create a powerful story and people will happily invest their time in it. Just because it lives on YouTube instead of the cinema doesn’t change that.

In fact, online video platforms mean long-form content can have a timeless quality that keeps viewers engaged far-beyond any other kind of branded content, and crucially has them coming back to watch again and again. In a culture that moves on to the next thing faster than ever before, long form lasts indefinitely.

Whilst long form alone is by no means the only solution to turning bad views into good views, it can help rewire what we make and most crucially, why we make it. When a credible story is told over a duration that allows it to breathe and build, we see a new kind of engagement metric appear – the ‘thank you’. This is the act of showing your appreciation enough to stop scrolling and write it down (we usually just say it). The viewer didn’t just like it, they didn’t just share it, they actually thanked us for making it. Because we’d enriched their lives and/or been brave enough to break the rules and share a story no one else has told that they care deeply about. It should be noted, this isn’t likely to be on a mass scale. But it’s the top of the pyramid and the pinnacle of audience engagement we can help brands strive for. As Margaret Wheatley states in Be More Pirate – ‘Rather than worry about critical mass, our work is to foster critical connections’.

Comment under the HSBC documentary, Sevens From Heaven

Audiences are smart. Often smarter than we treat them. They can see the sincerity and care in a piece of content and they appreciate the lengths a brand has gone to in order to tell a story. That’s why we confidently included ‘HSBC Presents’ in the title sequence of their most recent documentary – The Pioneers, a film following the journey of the USA rugby sevens team. And most significantly, it’s why the response it evoked in the audience is warmth and a sense of ‘cool’ that most banks would die for.

For the commercially minded, a thank you also comes from broadcasters and OTT providers who see the opportunity to screen a high value production, no matter who made it. Often in need of shoulder content to complement live programming, the opportunity for agencies is to distribute long form content without the need to put a price on it. There’s no requirement to sell the content given the marketing budget covers the production costs.  Even better if you can of course. And let’s face it, marketing agencies need to start selling more than their time and fast.

But here’s my favourite part – if you’ve broken the rules, have a brave client and tireless team (shout out to ZoomFiji and the indomitable spirit that is Bruce Southwick), ending up with something you’re really proud of… you’re then in a position to premiere your documentary on NBC Sports prime time, with several free (no, that's not a typo) ad spots. Now that’s a nice conversation to have with your client.

So, raise your skull and crossbones, break some rules and play the long game.