By Gary M. Kramer.
As a consumer, advertising is intrusive. As an industry, we want to do better. This film and its participants are hopefully an example of that.”
makeSHIFT is Casey Suchan and Tim Cawley’s nifty, zippy documentary about how the advertising industry has adapted to technological advances and the digital revolution over the past few decades. Whereas television once had only 4 channels, now there is TIVO where ads can be skipped over. Whereas the internet was once new, and banner ads and homepages were quaint ways of reaching customers, now Facebook collects data and generates algorithms to feed advertisements into the user’s feed.
Suchan and Cawley take a deep dive into the industry, interviewing various movers and shakers. Some of the case studies they present are campaigns such as the Subservient Chicken, a Burger King ad that allowed customers to interact with the character. While dismissed by the corporate execs, it became a viral hit. Likewise, an interactive dance video featuring Rihanna also shows how the medium helped the message, allowing users to learn the dancer’s moves and recreate them virtually. And a risky campaign for Domino’s that addressed the quality of the company’s product showed the power of transparency. Other advances, such as a slot car game that involves multiple phones to play, or a Westworld website that can send fans down a rabbit hole to find Easter eggs, show the technological innovations that are being developed.
makeSHIFT is all about the power of storytelling, and the filmmaker gets some engaging subjects to talk about their craft. Suchan and Cawley spoke to Film International about their documentary, which is available on digital platforms March 30.
What are your general thoughts about advertising? Do you read ads, or ignore them?
Cawley: As a consumer, it’s intrusive. As an industry, we want to do better. This film and its participants are hopefully an example of us trying to do better.
Suchan: I like to watch the ads during the Super Bowl. But that’s probably the only time I actively seeking ads out. They are pervasive. They are everywhere. They are part of the texture of our world now. When I watch YouTube, I usually use the skip feature, but every once in a while, something captures my attention. I still can sing jingles for those moments a brand got to me. Now there is so much noise. How do you break through the noise? Now I appreciate the consumer conversation when things are useful. When the brand and agency are thinking about the data they have and how they can talk to me and deliver something to me that’s not invasive and something I actually need. It’s more direct. That’s an interesting place we’ve gone to.
Why make a film about advertising?
Cawley: I make them. I am the creative director of an advertising agency and WP Engine is a client of mine in an advertising capacity. They make websites. If you are on Shark Tank, you want a WP Engine website because it won’t crash and be secure. I’ve been making ads for them and they had this notion that the advertising business, which is the film is about, is not about selling things, but making things that are legitimately competitive in a digital world. They wanted to make this love letter to the digital creators of the world. I made a documentary prior about creativity, so they asked if this was something I could help with. They wanted to really push the limits of what marketing can be by putting creative goodwill into the world. I had previous projects with September Club, and they are the best of the best at this, and they brought in Casey.
Suchan: It was an awesome collaboration. Tim has an intimate knowledge of ad industry and has a great love for it. He thinks: How do I deliver for my client? And he understands the history. I came in as an outsider, with a lot of curiosity for the process. The idea of this film intrigued me because it was about a specific moment in advertising. What happened when the internet became a thing? How did the industry pivot, and what were the campaigns that pushed what advertisers and brands can do? And when did the audience become part of the conversation? It was a fascinating moment, so to make a film with this team, and make a historical documentary about this time, and tease out what comes next was an exciting opportunity.
You showcase many famous advertisements, as well as film clips, scenes from Mad Men, and interviews, internet sites—many from the early days of the information superhighway—and more into a fleet 77 minutes. Can you talk about assembling the film with all these diverse elements? Your film is about using media in the best possible way.
Suchan: I’d like to give a shout out to our editor, Matt Prekop. He leaned into the feeling of the moment in all the parts of the film. When we jump into digital information highway, 1993, he leaned into the timing and pacing there and as things get more quickly-paced as digital technology gets more quickly paced. He also played with PJ Pereira, whose son wakes him up in the middle of the night and says you need to stop making ads because it’s interrupting my YouTube experience, Matt interrupted PJ’s interview with an ad. He played with pacing to reflect the moment.
What about the interview subjects? How did you find them and determine what stories to tell?
Cawley: I’m an ad geek. I had my wish list of who do I want to meet, and who are my role models growing up and in business? When you reach out, for a documentary like this, a “survey film,” people are intrigued, but ask, “Who else is in it?” Then everyone is like, “I’m cool, but is this real, is this credible.” Bringing in September Club, brought credibility. But Alex Bogusky, who ran one of the five hottest shops in history of advertising in the early 2000s, once he said yes, then we told competitive companies, and they said, “I can’t have Alex be in it if we’re not in it.” And then WP Engine pushed us and said, don’t only do the legends, but do the next wave of the next wave. We added their wish list, so it was a [mix] of the OGs and the people trying to knock them off the block.
Can you talk about the case studies you selected? They were all interesting, but none of them failed or showed the risks in the industry.
Cawley: The cases were by design. We had a very long conversation about the hero’s journey. Advertising is 99% failure. And the failures were boring. It’s like a boxer going into a ring and complaining about being punched in the face. It’s endemic. You think up 100 ads, and 99 never do anything. The failure wasn’t a story—it was a failure of the entire industry. People were getting laid off, and companies were collapsing. We were trying to merge teams and it didn’t work. It wasn’t this ad failed. It was this whole industry chose to fail.
Suchan: We only mention two [failures], when the guys from 72andSunny talk about the work they did on the Zune. They [suggest] the Zune killed the iPod, and when they mention the social media network they were planning to build for Bugaboo right before Facebook comes out. We should do a Part 2, a movie that’s only the epic failures! The inflection points were moving us to where we are now—we spent time thinking about interesting campaigns that used video first. So, what’s the one? We argued and debated which one would make the cut—and it is the Rihanna dance one because the audience could interact. We were thinking, which campaign could activate what new digital space was offering? It was choosing the campaigns that pushed things further.
There is an emphasis on consumer’s power, both in how people spent their time and what they pay attention to, how they can speak out on social media to help or hurt a product or service, and how data is collected about consumers. What are your concerns about the evolution of the industry, as discussed in your film?
Cawley: As someone in it, my concerns were existential. This is a massive industry built around making television commercials, and all of sudden, clients want a 6-second thing to run on YouTube. You have all these teams, expertise, and relationships and the money starts to dry up and everyone starts getting fired. That was concerning. It’s a shrinking iceberg, and there are not a lot of polar bears left on that iceberg. This film was about taking the existential nervousness and saying I can bury my head in the sand, or I can just chart a new path. The last thing Casey and I did in a crowded room was screen this for the New York participants. Then existential crisis number two happened. Clients hit pause. Now it’s that same internet pivot is a post-pandemic pivot. What is the business model of now? Hopefully, Creativity + Technology = Opportunity for those who are willing to ride the ride.
Suchan: We talked briefly about how our advertisers and companies use data. The people we talked to about it had thoughtful answers—how you can understand your customer now and how do you use that in a responsible way? It is an important question the industry faces. It can be a great thing. It means I don’t have to look at a feed filled with stuff I don’t need. I can get a whole picture of me. But it has to be a consensual relationship.
We teased out communicating your brand to your audience. How you are thinking about building a relationship with your audience, and also consumers who want to know what you stand for now—which wasn’t a thing before. That can be directly attributed to the internet and this new digital relationship. Consumers can review products and hold products responsible—are they delivering on the project and are they good global citizens? There’s this new thinking that advertisers need to help their brands think about this. It’s not just what are you selling, but who are we? When you are buying into a project, you’re buying into the brand.
There is a line in the film about thinking through the lens of the consumer. Let me turn that question back on you—who do you see as the audience for your film? Is it inside baseball?
Cawley: We want to ask you…
Suchan: Did you feel that it was too inside baseball?
It could be. I have been in this industry, so I understand part of it. But I can see this appealing to both people who know this world and people who know nothing about this world.
Suchan: I appreciated the relationship with Tim, who knows this world intimately; WP Engine, who interacts with this world; and us, as complete outsiders. It’s not the first time I made a film as a complete outsider. To me, I love that. How do you take this world and make it relevant to someone who isn’t in advertising, or doesn’t care about advertising, or doesn’t think about it? But keeping the consumer front and center, in a way that had never happened before, is in a lot of the conversation—in a film about the digital revolution. Those of us who are not a part of this world are part of this conversation. We tried to pull that out of the scenes Will it translate as the film comes into the marketplace? That’s when you find out. By talking about audience and triggering these conversations at the end of the film, that’s where we made sure viewers know that if you’re outside of this, you’re still a part of it.
Cawley: Anybody who is in business, in any capacity, has had challenges and changes. Everyone has the story of my office is being turned upside down by these forces seemingly out of my control. That kind of problem solving is applicable. Everybody who is creative—and I would say most people have creative problem solving in their life. Maybe they aren’t an art director, a filmmaker, or a designer, but maybe they are a painter, or they have an Instagram page where they like to pick the filters? It’s about creative problem solving. My dad is a chemical salesperson and he argues he has same job as me. He has to put the deal together, get everyone to buy in, and source things like a producer, and he thinks of himself as creative. I think creative problem solving is a universal language.
Suchan: I would add, Yes, a lot of us in many industries are talking to audiences all the time. Writing an article or making a film, we are all doing something that we want others to have us do for them. It’s providing a service. I learned how to think about my audience and how to be relevant to them. I would say any entrepreneur should watch the film and think: How do I find my audience in this moment?
The industry seems to move very quickly, and one of the points made in makeSHIFT is that you can learn something that quickly becomes obsolete. What observations do you have about the ephemeral state of the art, and the legacy aspect of your film?
Suchan: It’s already dated! The pandemic happened…
Cawley: That’s why we went with the historical timeline. It’s a moment in time. Let’s talk about how all these Don Draper types living on easy street in advertising hit a brick wall. Some splattered and some found ways over. That was a moment, and the moment continues, but the hero’s journey very much became a time capsule.
Suchan: And it starts to trigger what’s next. There will be another movie about advertising. We thought about this film as this time capsule to trigger conversations about where the consumer relationship is with the brand right now. It’s changing every day. If we had been making the film during this year, and seen what was happening this year online, it would be a different film.
Cawley: That film is being made, I’m sure.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.