When an Advertising Giant Met an Inquisitive News Guy, this really happened.
Ever thought what it would be like if commercial advertisers and journalists shared ideas around their trade? Disastrous right! Well not quite. One’s about selling you a story; the other is about, well, selling your story.
One’s about persuasive intention; the other looks to telling the truth without taking sides. Yet choices are being made. They’re the same beasts really but different animals and they share a common medium — in this case film.
Seems absurd now, but at the start of the 1950s TV revolution News relied on the world of cinema and burgeoning commercial directors to get them off the ground. As amply documented in Mike Conway’s The Origins of Television News in America CBS lifted many of its ideas from the film industry with titles such as ‘Producer’.
Since then, the two fields have crystallised differences in their ideas. What possibly then could a greatly admired adman and a news guys learn from each other? Exaptation means looking outside of your lane for ideas.
That’s me above playing around with one of the giants of the UK ad industry. His name, Jon Staton, which may likely not evoke any reaction. Jon was, for a good while, TV Producer at Saatchi and Saatchi during a golden period. He was one of the figure heads behind some of the world’s most successful commercials, such as British Airway’s, Manhattan Project that broke ground new ground. Tell a story without showing any shots of your client. Like great cinema directors everything lay in suggestion and allegories.
Jon and I met when he was looking to expand. I’d pursued a career in journalism, across radio, TV and videojournalism. The latter was an awakening as it introduced a philosophy around story making in which the solo VJ could think through their visual schema, just as a director would.
Thinking like a director meant, for instance, shots weren’t attenuated (loosely connected), or what you might call b-roll or GVs as you see in television journalism. We engaged in what’s called intense drama continuity sequences using specific shots to push a story along. We eschewed cut aways.
The skillset advertisers like Jon had developed was how to tell a story persuasively in a limited amount of time, implicitly revealing how the human mind worked. He had an innate sense of how film hijacked the amygdala — the region of the brain involved in fear, threat and emotion. ‘Why is it, you’re likely to remember a commercial, but not a newscast?’, I’d ask.
In cinema, as in commercial directing, every shot matters and builds towards the next, using for instance several post human editing sequences. This is where in a sequence different frames emerge around the subject crossing TV’s imaginary 180 degree line. Its aim is to keep the audience’s gaze, providing privileged points of view and avoid visual saturation. The creativity involved lends itself to audience engagement rather than a perfunctory cut for the sake of it. TV take note!
Stereotypical TV framing I’d come to learn as functional literacy which also weakens a story. Then there’s the essence of turning complex ideas into watchable TV. TV News took the approach based on fear of boring its audience. Seriously. Commercial’s took a leaf from cinema and psychoanalysis, which was co-opted into political campaigns. Take a private moment, an idea then turn a complex theme into watchable TV. Remember how President Lyndon B. Johnson undid his opponent Republican Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee, without mentioning his name in this commercial.
Surely there’s something generally for the TV news producers to think about? Jon, a most generous soul told story after story, ranging from understanding your audience to the affect of brand. This was the late 90s.
We formed an agency, Re-active, in which I wrote up our work in Blue Print, that plush architect magazine. It was at the time that online and Dotcom 1 was on the horizon, and with Jon’s offices in Soho, we were well placed for the the excitement and challenges of the era.
Viacom approached us about making visuals on the London Underground, Viral video companies sought Jon’s endorsements and we were invited to pitch to Lennox Lewis’ management at the time when the biggest fight in boxing history was about to take place: Lennox vs Tyson.
We pitched, and narrowly lost, but the team asked if I alone could join them. Jon was incredibly gracious in approving. I know I took more from Jon than he did me, but his letter of recommendation was truly generous (see below).
His encouragement led me to drill further into fact-based journalism story modes, and being critical
At about the same time, I came by Rob Chiu, who was starting out as a motion graphics designer. His ambition back then in 2000 was to become a commercial maker.
We too swapped many a notes and storytelling techniques. When I shot and edited a film and had Rob reinterpret the film, it was an eye-opener, literally
Rob Chiu is today one of the most exciting commercial makers in the UK, and has an international portfolio.
Some years later, my research would manifest itself into a craft skill, supported by intriguing data and analysis of a select top flight number of journalists who were borrowing from the world of commercials and cinema.
It led to a PhD, and evolved into an art form called ‘Cinema Journalism’. There was a way of doing television journalism which didn’t compromise truth. I feature this prominently in previous posts and have produced work for various clients around the world and presentations at Apple, BBC and TV2.
The BBC’s Clive Myrie and friend and multiple award winning videojournalist Raül Gallego Abellán are but two examples who embrace notions of cinema in storytelling. “I want the audience to feel how I feel” is an emotional intelligence intrinsic to cinema.
Sadly, Jon passed away three years ago. I know he would have found this amalgamation fascinating, for it was how we came together in the first place and became friends: An Ad man and a news guy.
So what takeaway could be compressed in this?
I can sum it up through the following. Firstly, Carolyn Marvin’s book When Old technologies were New. “Media are not fixed, natural objects. They have no natural edges. They are constructed complexes of habits, beliefs and procedures embedded in an elaborate cultural code of communications” .
Secondly, what if we started news video today or that the group who did start did not begin to eschew principles in filmmaking because they saw them as difficult.
What if Netflix did news? Remember there are no fixed boundaries. In the X-Men of journalism, I write about a group which did reform TV News.