Branded Conflict

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“The Displaced” could well be the title of a film about the plight of old-school marketing and media executives in the age of digital disruption. Instead it’s a beacon of light that shows the way forward for how those folks (and their companies) can thrive through storytelling.

In the real world, “The Displaced” is a virtual-reality documentary on the refugee crisis created by the visionary Chris Milk for The New York Times. It was also the winner of the Entertainment Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.

After two years without a Grand Prix winner in what used to be called the Branded Content & Entertainment category, it was refreshing to celebrate a top prize for brand storytelling. (Full disclosure: I served as jury president in the category in 2013, the last year a Grand Prix was awarded until this win.)

This year’s jury, led by CAA’s Jae Goodman, made a sweet choice. “The Displaced” embodied all the elements of great brand storytelling, and those elements ran through many of the jury’s picks like sharp plot threads.

The work that rose above didn’t shy away from conflict, tension and the (gasp!) messy complexity of human emotions. That’s a big breakthrough for an industry that often paints the world in bright, happy new-and-improved colors. It recognizes that if we want audiences to seek brand stories out rather than swat them away, those stories need to have the same elements that draw people into the greatest films, books and TV shows.

As brands get more comfortable with conflict, they will also be able to collaborate with the world’s best writers and directors, many of whom avoid working with brands because they fear the need to whitewash their work.

Of course to be successful, brand stories need to also advance the interests of their investors. “The Displaced” did that, helping transform The New York Times from struggling newspaper to vital news brand and growing the business by tapping new sources of revenue and audience.

Other common threads among award-winning work in the Entertainment category included: the use of video and digital content as a doorway to real-world experiences (and vice-versa); high production values; and a focus on story over brand (while maintaining a clear connection to brand values).

Seeing the quality of the work winning awards in this category, one of my colleagues shot me a text during the ceremony saying that Cannes could soon rise to the level of the Grammys and Oscars. I’ll take that a step further and look forward to the day when the kind of brand stories that shine at Cannes actually win Grammys and Oscars.

We’re headed in the right direction.

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