“TV isn't dead,” says Chris Bruss—an unexpected remark given Bruss is VP of branded entertainment at Funny or Die, a comedic video website that's attracted marquee names from screens both big and small.
“Technology has fragmented people.”
“People still watch TV,” he says. “But I think there is a fragmented consumer base... you don't have 70 million people watching the finale of Mash anymore. Technology has fragmented people, and so as a result [brands] are going to reach different people in different ways and at different times.”
Into the fragmentation, circa 2007, stepped Funny or Die, with comedic capital provided by founders and Saturday Night Live alums Will Ferrell and Adam McKay—and their many celebrity friends—with traditional capital provided by equity partner Sequoia Capital.
“You don't have 70 million people watching the finale of Mash anymore.”
What started as a creative lark has evolved into an opportunity for Tic Tac, Fiat and Starbucks, among others, to instill humor and authenticity into their brands—and earn mindshare with the potential to go viral. (A webisode for Fiat, for example, earned 1.9 million views.)
But comedic content creation is not always a laugh-filled process.
“And as a result [brands] are reaching different people in different ways and at different times.”
“What makes branded entertainment so hard is that it's 100% unique every single time,” says Bruss. “By definition it's custom content, so it's all from scratch. As a result, every brand that we work with—and even when we work with the same brand over different projects or campaigns—can be wildly different, both in terms of what we're creating for them and also what their goals are.”
Typically, says Bruss, brands approach FOD with a clear set of KPIs. They often want audiences to take a specific action—a #hashtag tweeted or an email submitted, for example. But just as often a brand hires FOD to capture something else.
“We've had brands come to us and say, 'our brand is doing well and we've got a great product, but we come across as a brand that takes itself too seriously.' ”
“We've had people who come to us and say, 'our brand is doing well and we've got a great product, but we come across as a brand that takes itself too seriously. So we don't want you to sell our product, we want you to create a piece of comedy content that will help people to start to see us in a slightly different light.”
To help brands capture some “comedic glow,” Bruss spends a lot of time mediating between, on one side, the brand, agencies and his sales staff, and on the other, his in-house creative team of editors and writers.
"What we do is we ask the brands and their agencies to tell us everything,” says Bruss. “We'll say, 'OK, you feel like your brand is too stodgy. Where are you reading this? Articles? Social media? Why are they calling you an older brand? Why are they calling you a stodgy brand? Why do they think you take yourself too seriously?' ”
“What we do is we ask the brands and their agencies to tell us everything.”
After long briefs, phone calls and Powerpoints, Bruss' creative staff gathers for weekly meetings. “Sometimes we’ll tell the team exactly what the brand is looking to accomplish; sometimes we’ll just sort of guide them and it really becomes a totally free-flowing, creative brainstorm.”
Bruss equates these brainstorms to the “everything goes” ethos as practiced by Lorne Michaels and his SNL staff. “[The creative team] doesn't hold back,” says Bruss. “They get crazy ideas, ideas that will cause them to look at each other and say that’s definitely not going to fly. But they also get some ideas where they go ‘wow, that might fly and I never even would have thought about that'.”
Sometimes a brand will approach FOD with an idea of its own. Lately, Bruss tells me, the trend has been requests for prank videos.
“Funny or Die has always prided ourselves on taking the expected and turning it on its ear a little bit.”
“We've gotten a lot of them lately,” says Bruss. “You see a couple of brands do prank videos and they go viral, and there’s nothing against those, those are fine. But Funny or Die has always prided ourselves on taking the expected and turning it on its ear a little bit. Our version of a prank would be that it looks like a prank but it turns out that the whole thing goes wrong, or it’s actually cast and somebody keeps trying to prank someone and that person’s not noticing.”
“Because we’re not on a retainer with anybody we’re not afraid to say, 'guys, that’s not a good idea, and here’s why.' ”
If a brand insists on its vision, FOD will decline the project, but not before trying to tweak it. “Because we’re not on a retainer with anybody we’re not afraid to say, 'guys, that’s not a good idea, and here’s why.' We’re usually pretty good at articulating why it’s not a good idea. We'll ask them to tell us why they wanted to do it that way, and we’ll create a version of that idea that we think will actually work better for them.”
“These videos have our name on it, so we’ve got to make sure we’re all happy and excited about them.”
What FOD must take into account, of course, is its own brand identity. “These aren't white label TV commercials that are just going to go out there into the world,” says Bruss. “These videos have our name on it and we’re putting them out there to our audience, so we’ve got to make sure we’re all happy and excited about them.”