There are plenty of examples of brands being integrated into TV shows these days. And plenty of examples of fun being poked at the ad industry. But Wellington-based video strategy and production company Stem Creative is aiming to combine those two things in a new satirical web series called Agency that follows three "hapless but genuine and enthusiastic" employees at a small creative marketing agency in Wellington and, as Stem founder and director Ben Forman says, "pulls the veil off the ad industry".
Stem Creative, which has done work for a range of clients and most recently filmed the Kickstarter fundraising video for What We Do in The Shadows, was set-up around three years ago. Now Forman says it's in the exciting position of having gained enough confidence to try its hand at making its own content. And as it explains on the website asiansea.co.nz (so named because “we couldn’t get the [agency.co.nz] domain name"): "Agency is loosely based on challenges familiar to anyone whose professional life includes exposure to the marketing, branding and advertising industries. Viewers will enjoy seeing an intelligent parody of universal challenges that include harnessing creative personalities, managing difficult clients, approaching today’s highly competitive pitch environment, overcoming production disasters, and navigating an industry that from the outside often seems imaginative and glamorous and exciting, but can also be clumsy, mindless and absurd."
In addition to the pilot, which charts a rather awkward interview process, it plans to make six episodes of between 10-12 minutes each, with every episode featuring a new client.
“If you need a comparison, it’s somewhere between Mad Men and The Office,” Forman says.
He says the show isn't about taking stabs, as the people who are making it are part of the marketing industry. But it is about having a bit of fun and experimenting with a new way of making video content. The project also has a big marketing angle for Stem, as it shows what its creative team is capable of. And as it gets set to enter the Auckland market this year, it's also a good way of getting the company in front of potential clients.
"What’s different about this web series is we’re funding it through sponsors. We’re not going through any funding agencies [it's also attempting to raise money from fans through a Pledgeme campaign that has so far raised $1,080]."
Like the bastard child of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold and TBWA Helsinki's sitcom called Buy This that takes live briefs from clients and writes a 30 minute episode around them, Forman says it is offering a series of deals to commercial partners, whether it be clever product placements done in a “Wayne’s World, break the fourth wall kind of way”, writing them into the script or creating tongue-in-cheek ads that can appear on the microsite and can also be made available for clients to use on their own networks.
He says clients are starting to recognise that consumers "understand marketing now and can see through it". And that’s why branded entertainment is proving so popular. He points to the likes of Vice and Buzzfeed, which make their money by putting their skills to use for brands—and rely heavily on brands trusting their skills to get the brand in front of a younger audience.
He calls this branded entertainment pro-active rather than the typical reactive marketing. And while it might not be as big in New Zealand as it is in the US, he believes it's growing in popularity here too.
In quintessential Wellington style, Stem has also called on its network of friends to help create the series. Forman says it expects the show to cost around $25,000 to make, not including the contra or the involvement of Stem. And if those involved weren’t doing it out of the goodness of their heart, the production costs would be closer to $200,000.
He says the idea of the web series has gained prominence in recent years, with the likes of High Maintenance, the first series produced by Vimeo, and Comedians in Cars Buying Coffee, receiving plenty of love. Closer to home, Auckland Daze, which received $350,000 from NZ on Air's digital media fund for its first season before moving on to TVNZ and Flat 3, which also went on to get NZ on Air funding, have been success stories (NZ on Air gives out around $3 million a year to digital projects. Check out the October round of funding decisions here).
Some of those web series gain enough popularity or critical acclaim to make it onto 'traditional' TV, with the likes of Broad City, Web Therapy andDrunk History fitting that bill. But Forman says it has no intention of going on TV with Agency, even though that would almost certainly increase viewership.
“Our target audience is online. We don’t watch TV. And a lot of our friends only have TVs to connect their laptops to. And that’s the sort of demographic we’re after. We don’t really mind if my mum doesn’t get to see it on TV.”
But if a network came along and offered them $100,000 for the rights to put it on TV, he says they'd obviously jump at the chance.
While web video is often associated with low-quality production, this series is being shot on a Red Dragon, which Forman says is one of the best cameras in the world, and it also involves professional cinematographers. So he's hopeful its high-quality will help increase the international reach of the show.
So will people actually watch a show about the idiosyncrasies of the advertising industry? They've watched stranger things in the past. And Kat Lintott, Forman's business (and life) partner, believes it will be accessible to those who aren’t in the industry but also funny for those who understand the subtleties that run through it. In fact, after the pilot was released, she has had feedback from a number of people telling her their agency interview was very similar.
Many in this business are quite self-aware and can laugh at themselves and their work, as evidenced by these entertaining clips for created for Strategy magazine in Canada. And, if Silicon Valley is any guide, satirising an industry doesn’t mean those from the industry in question won’t watch the end result. Like that show, which is seen as required viewing among the employees of many tech start-ups because the portrayals and scenarios are so accurate, Forman hopes it has managed to get it right.
Credits for The Interview:
Writer/Director: Judah Finnigan
Producer: Olivia Shanks
Cinematographer: Matt Henley
1st Camera Assistant: Nat Brunt
2nd Camera Assistant: Oliver Denman
Lighting: Michael Engelbrecht
Sound: Joel Anscombe Smith
Art Department/Props: Olivia Shanks
Editor: Ben Forman
Ben Forman as Tom
Samantha Reed as Summer
Glen Puklowski as Duncan