Thinking far beyond Facebook and branded content, Pereira & O’Dell knows how to put on a show that the world can’t wait to share
O’Dell had two defining moments in 2012.
One arrived early, in January, when the San Francisco–based agency bid farewell to its largest client, the University of Phoenix, declining to participate in a review for the business.
“We knew it was going to change the agency, alter our course forever,” says CEO Andrew O’Dell.
Though the account had helped put pod on the map and generated considerable revenue, senior management changes on the client side convinced agency execs that it was time to move on — and O’Dell doesn’t regret it.
pod doubled down on new-business efforts, adding assignments from BevMo, Burger King, Fiat, Henkel and Mattel. By year’s end, the agency had increased its staff from 90 to 120 across offices in San Francisco, New York and Sao Paulo, and boosted revenue nearly 40 percent to approximately $20 million.
O’Dell believes 2012 “on all levels has easily been the best year” for pod since he and chief creative officer P.J. Pereira left i-shop AKQA nearly five years ago to found their own agency.
O’Dell’s assessment includes the quality and scope of pod’s creative output. So it’s no surprise that the agency’s other defining moment — perhaps even more important for POD’s identity and future than rebounding from U of Phoenix’s exit — was all about the work.
This summer, POD launched “The Beauty Inside,” a groundbreaking social film for Intel and Toshiba. The work “was a defining moment not only in 2012, but in the entire life of the agency,” says Pereira. “It was proof that it is possible to combine great stories and technology and make people love it. The kind of response we got from the audience was the most touching we have ever seen. It changed the agency.”
As a creatively driven enterprise, POD lives and dies by the quality of its work and the level of innovation it generates to drive buzz for clients. The product adheres to O’Dell’s mantra, “What if advertising were invented today?” Campaigns for several clients in 2012 strove to push the envelope and take branded social content beyond where it had been before.
Every great idea is social
“Every great idea is social by nature,” Pereira says. “If it’s not social, it’s not great. If the work we do is not worth sharing, it’s not worth doing.”
Indeed, the agency seems social from the top down. Pereira, 39, born in Rio de Janeiro, and O’Dell, 42, from Tennessee, project a serious but approachable management style. They’re dedicated to growing their business but plugged into what’s going on outside adland. That trait is typified by the agency’s BarrelHouse space in San Francisco, where it hosts community gatherings and performances to raise funds for causes like the Special Olympics and the sf aids Foundation.
The notion of an increasingly social, interconnected world — and advertising’s role in it — came up at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity in June, when Pereira interviewed former U.S. President Bill Clinton at an event hosted by POD’s Brazilian parent Grupo ABC.
On stage in France, Clinton told Pereira, “We are living in the most interdependent era in history,” and the ability to work together “to solve common challenges” is paramount.
That spirit informs POD’s creative, which, at its best, exudes good humor, an awareness of community and extreme sociability.
The shop defines “social” as more than endless trawling for Facebook “likes” or posting client updates on Twitter consisting of logos, inane quizzes and pleas to “Please RT.” Likewise, “branded content” has moved beyond awkward product placements or ham-fisted efforts to weave client wares into the storylines.
POD’s efforts are more organic, its approach intrinsically tied to the personality of the client’s product or service. This philosophy helped lure those new accounts in 2012 and continues, perhaps, to push the agency — and, by extension, the dubious art of advertising — to the next level.
In adland’s recent past, bbdo blurred the line between entertainment and promotions with its BMW Films series, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky made arguably the first “must-share” interactive splash with Burger King’s Subservient Chicken.
POD is the latest link in the chain, fusing traditional storytelling with social tools to produce content that offers multiple layers of consumer engagement.
It’s what’s inside that counts
“The Beauty Inside” for Intel and Toshiba exemplifies work that straddles the line between old and new media. What’s more, it brings pod’s penchant for creating evocative and engaging social campaigns into sharp focus.
The six-part online series, with each segment running less than 10 minutes, followed “The Inside Experience,” the agency’s 2011 social film for Intel and Toshiba. That first effort told the noir tale of a woman trapped inside a room, with fans helping to guide the story via Facebook and Twitter.
“The Inside Experience” was well received, but “The Beauty Inside” refined the concept and proved more subtle and resonant. Its focus on the universal desire to be loved and valued for who we are, regardless of outward appearances, was inherently social to start with. Such themes are a natural fit for shareable media — and dovetail with the broader branding mission to play off Intel’s iconic “Inside” positioning for its processors.
The story follows Alex, who wakes up each morning as an entirely new person. Young, old, short, tall, black, white, male, female — Alex never knows what the new day will bring, and he has no control over the transformations. In his strange world, feelings of loneliness and dislocation are constants, driving Alex to a series of one-night stands. (To protect his secret, Alex never takes anyone back to his place, and always leaves before that evening’s partner wakes up. There are some logic gaps, naturally — such a plan would be unworkable in real life — but the concept works well in the metaphorical context of the film.)
Alex’s routine is interrupted when he meets Leah, an antiques dealer he immediately falls for and takes out on a date. (The idea of antiques having “shared” the lives of many different people is a nice touch.)
Alex decides he can’t live without Leah. Given his “Twilight Zone” existence, he struggles with what to do next. “They say love conquers all. It also ruins everything,” he laments.
Ultimately, our hero takes a chance and tells Leah the truth. “Outside, I’m different,” he explains, having taken the form of a thirty-something woman. “But inside, it’s Alex.”
There’s a happy ending — this is advertising, after all — though the denouement is legitimately moving despite its basic predictability.
Leah accepts Alex for the person he is inside, and his shape-shifting days are over. Alex’s final line: “I used to wonder if she was the reason why it all stopped. Because maybe she could see who I was.”
Sure, it’s convenient that he finishes as a handsome adult heterosexual male, rather than a colicky six-month-old with explosive diaper rash. Still, the film was brave enough to show Alex as a woman of various ages interacting with Leah — and his settling into one form they both appreciate feels less like a cop-out than a logical conclusion.
Veteran ad critic Barbara Lippert, who writes MediaPost’s Mad Blog, calls the work “a genius insight into our schizophrenic culture. It really does go Kafka and Rod Serling one better.”
As a piece of dramatic storytelling, “The Beauty Inside” follows the traditional TV series episodic arc, mixing in social elements and brand message in ways that don’t detract from the overall effect.
The appearance of Toshiba laptops, powered by Intel processors, seems unforced, as Alex keeps a daily video diary showing all the different people he has become. (He closes each entry with the melancholy, ironic catchphrase: “That’s it for me.”) Fans who auditioned via Webcam for the film portrayed the versions of Alex shown on the laptop screen, and those following his travails could interact with the campaign through the usual social channels.
Bill Green, executive vice president of strategy at Noble Mouse, who blogs at AdVerve, believes “The Beauty Inside” represents the next iteration of interactive narrative advertising. “Anyone who thinks of branded content always goes back to BMW Films as the be-all, end-all, and assumes that any agency trying something even close is an automatic fail,” he says. “The difference here is that while bmw Films was a noir, action-focused piece, ‘Beauty’s stories are more poignant and personal — engaging the viewer on a deeper level.”
The client is pleased with the effort, both for its creativity and measurable results.
“It was an opportunity to make an emotional connection and be seen as an essential character by the target 18-to-34 year old audience who typically sees the Toshiba brand as a brand for their Dad,” says Billie Goldman, partner marketing manager at Intel.
Per Goldman, “The Beauty Inside” garnered 69.7 million global views, compared to 50 million for the previous year’s “Inside Experience.” The average viewer age was slightly more than 23, almost evenly split between men and women, which means pod was right on the mark in terms of the target demographic. (The “Inside Experience” audience had been more than 60 percent male.)
Connecting with Skype…teaching Snoop Dogg New Tricks
While “The Beauty Inside” was pod’s biggest creative splash in 2012, other campaigns are worth noting. These include efforts for Skype, the Kingsize Slim Rolling Papers of iconic rapper Snoop Dogg and an animated sci-fi Web series from Tom Hanks.
The products and services being advertised couldn’t be more different — and the media brought to bear are diverse and dissimilar. Yet each campaign in its own way is deeply social and attempts to inspire extended brand engagement.
(Intriguingly, all three focus on modes of communication, which was also true of “The Beauty Inside,” as Alex and Leah struggled for understanding. Consciously or not, this forms a major theme of POD’s creative oeuvre.)
“It’s Time For Skype” uses print, outdoor and Web iterations to position the Internet-based voice and video communications service as a warmer, more human way to connect than alternatives like Twitter and Facebook.
“140 characters doesn’t equal staying in touch,” reads one copy line. “When did it become ok to text mom happy birthday?” asks another. The campaign’s main social thrust consists of an app on Skype’s Facebook page that lets users create and share “Humoticons” — pictures of themselves expressing emotions.
“We launched this at a time when the question (of whether technology has gotten too impersonal) was really becoming part of the zeitgeist, and that helped it get great online media coverage to get people talking,” says pod’s executive creative director Jaime Robinson.
The company credits the campaign with a 20 percent rise in Skype.com feature page views, driving 8.3 million site activities.
“This campaign really got to our roots as a disruptive brand while at the same time playing to what makes our brand great, that we enable people to have experiences together, even when they are apart,” says Francie Strong, Skype’s director of global marketing.
Ask Dabitch Wappling, who follows the ad biz at the Adland blog, says the approach for Skype works perfectly because, at its core, “it’s the truth: Skype is face-time.”
A more traditional mode of communication — a book printed on paper — is central to a pod campaign that surely qualifies as one of the year’s most memorably tongue-in-cheek pieces of intellectual property.
Rolling Words: A Smokable Songbook is a volume of Snoop Dogg’s lyrics printed on his branded rolling papers, bound with hemp and twine. The effort plays off the rapper’s bad-boy toker image and constitutes a rare instance in which form and function are literally rolled into one.
The book itself is a social vehicle, says Pereira, because, despite a limited run, it generated considerable attention in the media and among the public, giving it a longer “shelf life” than the work would’ve had if volumes were mass produced.
Only 100 copies were actually printed. “One-hundred books wouldn’t constitute a real project a while ago. But when you create 100, put them in the right hands and promote them online, it turns into something big,” says Pereira. “Online it had more than 1 million views — that is what counts, because the book is more expensive to produce than the product itself. You have to look at that with fresh eyes. The rules are different now.”
The book won a Gold Lion at Cannes in the Branded Content & Entertainment category.
Another of the agency’s ambitious social efforts in 2012 was its campaign touting “Electric City,” a Tom Hanks–penned animated series set in a post-apocalyptic world. (The show, 10 five- to seven-minute episodes, debuted this summer on Yahoo as the online behemoth’s first scripted original program.)
POD created “Tap Joint” an online venue that focused on a Morse Code–type transmitter known as a Tap Kit. This exercise in alternate-reality gaming challenged users to decipher codes to view show previews and plot clues.
Some users would visit occasionally for general information, while others would drill deep into the game and work hard to decipher clues, sharing the experience online with friends.
“We wanted to turn ‘Electric City’ into a cult before it even launched,” says Pereira.
How big can you get before you suck?
Based on the layered arg approach of “Tap Joint,” and the social thrust of POD’s work overall, Lippert says the agency is inventing advertising’s future by “building infrastructure for everybody else.”
Green concurs. “Agencies like Pereira & O’Dell, that are able to bridge the so-called traditional-digital divide, are what matter now.”
Of course, it’s easy to innovate as a young “hot shop,” but the larger an agency grows the tougher it is to stay on the leading edge. As Pereira and O’Dell enter their 40s, and POD perhaps takes on larger, more conservative clients seeking safe ad solutions, won’t the work become less creative?
“Scale has been making us better,” says Pereira, who points to 2012’s body of work as proof. Adds O’Dell: “I’m not worried about that. We have a long way to go.”