AdCritic: Most people who stumbled onto TheNeverything.com and LovelyBySurprise.com would agree that they're unlike anything they've ever seen before. How else does this project stand out in your mind?
Kirt Gunn: It's very unique in that the level of talent is not something you see in a project like this. We have some amazing actors in this film who came on out of a love for the project. There are several actors from Academy Award nominated films, and a cinematographer (Steve Yedlin) from the soon to be release film Brick, which won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance. It's a phenomenal group of artists.
I generally don't subscribe to calling this kind of content "branded." It's really a sponsorship, or a commissioned work, which is created based on the notion of reciprocity. This is how television advertising began. The words "brought to you by" were used because the sponsor was indeed bringing the content to the audience. Progressively, the model has shifted to one where the advertiser doesn't bring you content, they interrupt it. With this project, and others we do, we're trying to get back to a fair consideration model where a brand benefits from this concept of "brought to you by" by gaining allegiance from an audience that is passionate about the content. The important thing to point out is that this is not a speculative or risky strategy. It just happens to be contrary to common practice. The truth of the matter is we find that the younger demographic we are trying to reach is much more open to a sponsorship than they are to interruption. It's really not that revolutionary when you think about it—give people a good story, and they will give back by responding positively to the brand.
AC: In a nutshell, can you explain the premise of the story, as well as the names of the websites?
KG: The story is about an author who is writing a novel about two brothers who live on a boat in the middle of a field. Her mentor, who is also a novelist, suggests that she kill one of the brothers. When she tries to do this, that character escapes her book and begins to affect her life—past and present. It's a story about the balance between fiction and reality, life and art, and hope and fear. It borrows the Shakespearean idea of a story within a story, and sort of takes that into the realm of absurdity. I guess there are little bits of Sam Shepard, Woody Allen, Samuel Beckett and Charlie Kaufman all in there somewhere. It's really its own animal though. When you watch a cut of the film, it doesn't feel like any other story I've ever seen on film, and that seems to be the reaction of others, too.
"The Neverything" and "Lovely By Surprise" are both lines from songs by an artist named Shelby Bryant. The Neverything is also the name of the boat that the brothers live on. Both titles have symbolic meaning, but I'll leave that to the viewer to interpret.
AC: What's the role of the Mercury and Lincoln brands in the story? Are they major elements, or simply part of the background?
KG: This is where the brand and the agency get bravery points for restraint and taste. The brands have an incidental presence, but not a contrived one. I guess stated simply, when the protagonists drive a car, it's one made by the brand. The idea is to avoid intrusion or interruption, and let the story fulfill its potential without compromising its integrity in any way. We have smart clients, and a great relationship with a very progressive agency. Without that, a project like this can't happen. Again I would shy away from the industry term "product placement" because the product's presence is merely incidental. It hasn't been "placed" for any manufactured effect.
AC: Will we eventually see the film in its entirety at a cineplex near us?
KG: We will have to face the same challenges to meet artistic and commercial success that any movie does. We will definitely submit it to festivals and try to get distribution. There has been a surprisingly strong amount of interest early on, and we're very optimistic, but it will have to succeed on its own merits.
AC: This isn't the first time you've tapped a whole 'nother entertainment medium in the name of marketing. Can you talk a bit about your work on the Volvo video game?
KG: The Volvo Drive For Life Xbox title was a project that happened during a magical period when there was a very smart and progressive client at Volvo in Phil Bienert, and a really strong interactive Volvo account team at Euro RSCG 4D lead by Arthur Ceria, Sean Mc Carthy, Heather Martin, and Todd Sullivan. At that moment in time, we had some really smart people in the same room and we could make some amazing things happen.
We took the project very seriously. We attended Volvo Racing school, visited the safety center in Sweden, and then did a three month search to find the right partner to take on the technical development. We settled on Climax Studios, a U.K.-based company that had built some of the best racing titles in the world. We developed the game over a year, and tested it with gamers along the way to make sure we satisfied the things that they wanted and needed from an A-list console title. Ultimately, the game has graphics and play patterns that rank among some of the top commercial releases.
AC: How integral is the Volvo brand to the actual game?
KG: The brand is the core of the game and its story. The game is about safety, safe driving and Volvo's commitment to active safety. The player visits the Volvo Safety Center, drives through a proving grounds and ultimately takes these active safety features into three different real world environments. It's fully immersive and completely connected to the core values of the brand.
We wouldn't have anything to do with putting interruptive banners or billboards into a video game or spending client dollars to repurpose some existing game just to say that our brand is in it. I think that strategy is just more of the same bad logic that's killing the television viewing experience. This is an audience that is already overexposed to messaging and very aware of when they are being marketed to. We believe in creating stories brought to you by the brand, not interrupted by the brand.
AC: How does your company, Kirt Gunn & Associates, approach the issue of collaboration?
KG: Look, it takes a certain confidence in who you are and what your company does to be able to ask for help when you need it. I think the agencies that admit what they don't know are the ones most likely to weather the change. If you look at the agencies we have worked with in the past year—Mother, JWT and Y&R/Wunderman—they are all very different. But each shares a common trait: they are confident enough in themselves and their client relationships to try new things. They have to. If they don't, their clients fall behind and they lose the business to somebody who gets it.
In my opinion, some of the best minds in this business come from the school of collaboration. Rob De Florio from Mother, Ty Montague from JWT and Bill Davenport from Wieden + Kennedy were all part of a time when this model was really being pioneered by Wieden and Nike. Some of the work from that period still stands out as a reference point for what great work should be. The brand played an active role, the agency steered the ship, new technologies were used well, production companies were seen as experts and partners instead of just plumbers—and it shows in the work. I think these precedents made it possible for companies like ours to show up. Agencies can't do what we do. We can't do what agencies do. If big agencies want to go buy some new red rubber furniture and dress their creatives like spacemen and say they do what we do, great. It doesn't make it true. Conversely, we can't put on cufflinks and don a British accent and ask to plan their $150 million piece of business. We need their intelligence and understanding of their clients, and they need companies like us that are nimble enough to react to changes in technology and human behavior. It's not that mysterious.
AC: With so many chefs stirring the pot, is there a danger of some collaborators not getting the credit they deserve?
KG: Everybody we've worked with has (with some exception) been very generous and honest about who did what. I think that is probably rare, and again speaks highly about the agencies we have worked with. This world is small enough that the story gets out about who did what. I think it's pretty apparent what kind of content we create. Agencies don't generally design Xbox games, or write long form content. We don't design client websites, write print ads or shoot TV commercials. So there's usually very little confusion about roles.