Web film finally finds its voice

While online films have come of age, social media campaigns still struggle to make an impact in digital advertising

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If you work in the creative industry for long enough you’ll end up on a judging panel at some point. And when it happens you might be surprised to find out just how much fun judging can be. It’s partly the sheer guilty pleasure of passing sentence on your peers but, more importantly, it’s a privilege to have a whole range of great work paraded before you and to have the opportunity to argue over the merits of each piece with your fellow judges. Things stand out. You get a sense of trends, of where it’s all going. You’re offered a different perspective: an impression of the landscape, rather than individual features. And what emerges is a whole set of value judgements – what’s good, what isn’t, what’s innovative and what’s on its way out. As a form of creative benchmarking it’s entirely unscientific, subjective and open to revision. But it’s the best we’ve got.

The traditions of TV
Last month I sat on the digital advertising panel for D&AD. What does digital advertising conjure up for you? I bet it’s not good old fashioned stories, filmed in classic narrative form, with big characters, professional actors and great writing. Which is why it was odd to discover that this year’s stand out trend in digital advertising is … web films. OK, it’s not quite breaking news that film and video is big on the web. But this is digital advertising, goddammit! It’s supposed to be different from … plain old advertising. It’s supposed to be interactive for a start, it’s supposed to enable you to do something, to be active rather than passive. Isn’t it?

What originally got me into digital media was the promise of interactivity – and the sense that it offered a different kind of relationship between artist and audience – that at its best is capable of reconfiguring spectatorship into something new and exciting and challenging. So I was surprised to find myself responding so positively to The Fleet, a traditional comedy series made by Krow for the Fiat Professional about people who work in a fleet hire office. Very reminiscent of The Office, except on the web instead of on TV. It’s well scripted and well acted and actually rather funny. The heavy-handed product references to the specifications of Fiat vans only added to the humour by making the characters seem ever so slightly tragic – but in a sweet way. Basically, it’s a classic British sitcom that could have been made any time in the last 40 years and funnier than a lot of stuff on TV today.

A Sweet Encounter by Eight Partnership in Hong Kong for Kami Puddings is a lovely homage to Brief Encounter, that very British romance of the 1940s with Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. This time, the almost-but-not-quite lovers are sitting around a revolving sushi counter somewhere in the Far East. Quite why it’s so good is hard to pin down: it’s a low key piece but the casting and the acting are quite brilliant. Once again the product – a pudding in a plastic pot – is introduced into the love story in a way which is entirely consistent with the overall narrative arc.

Another stand-out project was created by agencytwofifteen for Xbox. Bright Falls is a six-part prequel to the action thriller game, Alan Wake. It’s a gorgeous piece of filmmaking, which brings us right up to the day the game begins, and is influenced (almost too influenced) by Twin Peaks.

And Pool Worldwide’s hilarious sketches of Darth Vader and Yoda recording voice packs for TomTom had the jury in stitches. We played it over and over and it just seemed to get funnier.

Make good films not viral films
All of these examples are based on traditional TV formats: sitcom, romance, action thriller and comedy sketch. So what are they doing in digital advertising? Does the simple fact that they’re distributed via a free online channel really mean they should be in a different category from, say, TV advertising?

I think it does. I think the context of online channels and TV channels is so different that we have to look at the stuff they contain in different ways. Online content has to compete for attention in a bigger and more crowded eco-system and work harder to get noticed. If you want something to get seen online, you have to make it good enough for people to actually want to see it and tell their friends about it, and the best web films live up to that. The lesson seems to be that you shouldn’t try to make ‘viral’ films – just make good films.

For Mark Chalmers, founder of Perfect Fools and this year’s digital advertising jury chair, it’s all about recognising that online has become a natural place to put film content. “Originally the web was the alternative to TV, where you put anything that didn’t or couldn’t conform,” he says. “Now the web is recognised as a decent place to put great film material.”

Alongside all this traditional narrative, it was a relief to find several experimental pieces which pushed formal and technical boundaries and explored new types of engagement. Radical Media’s Wilderness Downtown project for Arcade Fire has been widely acclaimed for reinventing the music video by offering viewers a uniquely personal and emotional experience without compromising the integrity of the music or moving image. The same agency also created the much admired Johnny Cash project, again based on rethinking the music video – this time by offering viewers a collaborative and creative opportunity to customise individual frames. However, the project which pushes furthest in exploring interaction within a narrative framework is Hunter Shoots the Bear by Buzzman for Tipp-Ex, in which users get to decide what happens next. It’s funny and smart and had enormous reach, but at the same time it fails to engage emotionally and struggles to go beyond its own gimmickry.

The social media problem
If web films made a strong showing this year, great social media projects were notable for their scarcity. It feels like the industry still doesn’t really get it. Notable exceptions were the Uniqlo Lucky Line which connected Twitter, an online queue and the chance for discounts at real stores; and Skittles’ Super Mega Updater where TBWA London set up a call centre in which bored actors are filmed reading out users’ Facebook status updates. It’s funnier than it sounds.

And, of course, Old Spice from W+K Portland showed the awesome potential of combining great traditional advertising with Twitter and YouTube to create the most effective social media campaign we’ve seen to date.

The standout client this year has to be Google with a couple of brilliant campaigns: digital agency Johannes Leonardo and Hello Monday’s Demo Slam and Chrome Fastball from BBH. Demo Slam is a great solution to a great problem: what to do when you have so many good services that people find it hard to appreciate how useful they all are. The campaign is all about digging deep into the range and diversity of Google’s offering with a raft of mostly user-generated short films taking a sideways glance at fun ways to play with the services, like using Google Translate to order a take-away curry in Hindi. Despite the varied origins of the films, it’s the tone of voice of the campaign which really impresses. It’s spot on, absolutely pitch perfect, across 80-plus short films from all over the world. You can’t help thinking that this is what advertising should be like: simple, genuine, on-brand and very, very relaxed.

Last word goes to Mark Chalmers: “It was Google’s year for sure and why I’m so happy about that is because it shows big brands can be creative, reactive, fun and useful. They presented a shining example. All the Goliaths out there take note: there’s no excuse, if you get it wrong you’ll be ignored.”

Andy Cameron is interactive creative director at Wieden + Kennedy London