As the first deadline for Brand Film Awards U.S. 2021 approaches, PRWeek and Campaign editorial director Steve Barrett caught up with Jeffrey Whipps to talk filmmaking in the pandemic and Google’s brand studio.

The Brand Film Awards U.S. 2021, presented by PRWeek U.S., Campaign U.S. and MM+M, showcases the year’s most artistic, creative and effective films produced by and for brands as they embrace consumer entertainment, from short or feature-length non-fiction documentary or scripted films or series.

Entries are open to any organization in the U.S. and the Americas, celebrating the new wave of marketing storytelling, while convening and rewarding the brands, agencies and craftspeople leading the way in their fields.

Early bird entries must be received by Thursday, February 18, 2020; late entries will be accepted until Thursday, March 4. Full submission information is available here.

Steve Barrett: How has brand film evolved over the past five years?

Jeffrey Whipps: Companies have recognized the opportunity and responsibility they have to better convey their values. It’s important for their employees, their broader stakeholders and their consumers in particular, who are increasingly factoring in the values of the company, its products and the people behind them.

This is one obvious and potent way of communicating a company’s value system in a way that’s relatable, motivational and has a dimensionality to expressing values that other media doesn’t have at the same level.

What would you like to see in the Brand Film Awards entries this year? 

I want to see craft of the highest possible level, storytelling that truly moves beyond what we’ve seen companies are capable of doing. I will have a particular affection for companies doing that on their own, who’ve found a way to build the right talent in-house and/or worked with production companies to do this. There’s no conflict with agencies working on this, but it’s interesting when we have a diverse set of means by which companies are building these stories. It’s challenging but I’m looking for signs that companies are finding the confidence to work in that way. We should be aspiring to the level of craft that belongs in Netflix Originals, HBO, BBC and the top of the quality peak.

But I also feel a lot of brand storytelling gets celebrated purely for craft and not for solving real business problems. The winners will be at the intersection of both those things. I want to hold my team and the things we do to both those standards simultaneously.

What have been the particular challenges of producing films over the past year? 

When this first happened we thought it was going to be a challenge, for sure, but we felt good about the odds of being able to produce first-class work, because so much of it lived in-house.

We have our own editors and editing bays, photographers and full studio, writers and designers and animators, so our external support is often directors, production company level support. A lot of the work we do involves not having to go shoot. We do a lot of product imagery, UGC, archival work that we shoot in-house.

We are not heavily dependent on shooting externally. We recently went to Memphis to shoot The Four Way restaurant, just to pick up some footage of the family that owns it and the way it operates today, but as much of the film is made up of archival footage from them, boxes and boxes of photographs from the last 50 years. We found our ability to make the quality, caliber and volume of work at pace not as excruciating as some people are clearly experiencing, where they don’t have an infrastructure set up and they’re more reliant on shooting in the outside world. 

What trends have you seen in filmmaking during COVID?

The films of healthcare workers at the start of COVID in April/May all looked the same. There was a problem in the lack of tonal diversity but you could see everyone turning to the same production techniques out of necessity to make anything to put out into the world.

We’ve left this behind and I now see a lot of great work where I’m asking how did they operationally get to that? There are production companies doing important work that have found ways to work around it. It takes longer. It costs more. Not everyone is up to the task. There’s certainly a degree of risk brands are having to take on in a highly managed way, but there’s clearly excellent work being done right now.

I’m a little surprised at the amount of work that’s managing to ignore entirely the fact we’re living in a pandemic, particularly at the Super Bowl. 

How does brand film integrate with the rest of storytelling?

Brand film is part of a larger ecosystem of work for us and most other brands. We are thinking about these films as living in an integrated ecosystem of elements that travel, that have super-short duration, that are created in an entirely different manner, that need to do very different complementary things.

We don’t practice brand film arts in a vacuum. We don’t think about them as solving for all business and brand challenges. They are flagship transmissions from the Google brand that help bring values to life in a way other media can’t in terms of emotional quotient or fidelity. They serve a unique purpose for us, but never alone. It’s always in conjunction with smart print, podcasts and other editorial content and really smart social and partnerships with the kind of influencers we want to associate with the Google brand. Our campaigns are fully diverse ecosystems and brand films are a center of gravity in the middle.

How are using brand film at Google?

We have a recurring series of brand films that we have built over time around the notion of ‘Search On’ that is obviously a you nod to our core product, the thing that most people think of on an enduring basis as the center of Google. A place for learning, knowledge and understanding the world around them, personal advancement and all kinds of positive and humanistic attributes. The documentary films focus on all the ways people use search to advance their place in the world.

We also use long-form brand films, often in conjunction with key cultural moments such as Black History Month – we’re about to do one on International Women’s Day – Pride and others.

How does search inform your brand film narratives? 

We have the most amazing ability through search to understand what the world really wants, needs and desires or is anxious about at any given moment. A couple of years ago we recognized we were doing this once a year and searched for flagship ways to chronicle these things. It was like a love letter back to our users to say thanks for turning to Google in so many aspects of your life, large and small. And we played that back to the world in a way that reflects our shared community.

We stopped and said why are we only doing this once a year? Why is this an annual event? Why don’t we do something continuously at moments in the world that matter culturally? You can see a whole can of brand films that take a particular topic, film, theme or community and tap into the power of what we understand through the lens of search, and inspirationally represent that moment or community in brand storytelling.

What examples particularly stand out?

Last year we did a film for Black History Month that became the company’s most powerful moment in brand filmmaking. We realized how many of the most-searched people, moments and accomplishments in the world happened to have their origin story in Black American history. We did a film for the Grammy’s that 180 million people have now seen. Playing these stories back in a way shows what a community represents to everyone that can help us all recognize the value of diversity.

For Black History Month this year we added a feature to our search and match product that helped Black-owned businesses self-identify as such. We saw a 600% increase in people searching for Black-owned businesses they could support, restaurants, bookstores, every conceivable category. We saw that signal coming in profoundly throughout 2020 and turned that into an attribute so you can support Black-owned businesses. We’re also going to do that with Veterans, women-owned businesses and many other attributes.

We made a beautiful 90-second film chronicling the stories of a restaurant that started in the early 1900s in Memphis, Tennessee and became a community hub for the Civil Rights Movement. So MLK, BB King, Aretha Franklin, Jesse Jackson, everyone ate there. If you were in Memphis permanently or ephemerally, you’d go to The Four Way because it was a beautiful meeting place, with Black and white diners sitting together and sharing meals together.

We got this beautiful archive footage and they’re one of the Black-owned businesses that’s made it through this far and self-identifies as Black-owned. It’s a different tack to the search trends work, but it’s a feature we created from seeing the trends on search.

What we’re doing for International Women’s Day in March will be similar to the ways search has helped intro the world to historical leaders in all aspects of culture from a gender perspective. 

Is Google the sole client of your global brand studio?

Our day job is looking after Google from a brand perspective. We think about topics that cross the company and live above any Google product, from sustainability to digital wellbeing, crisis response, diversity and inclusion.

We do get a lot of asks to drop in across Google as strategic creative consultants to work on things like supporting our hardware branding interests, which can sometimes get a little complex and overcomplicated over time. We help a lot on YouTube in different ways.