Brian Pittman’s exclusive interview this week: Eddie Rehfeldt, Vice President, Experience Design, WE Studio D
HTML 5 is poised to break down the fourth wall between brands and consumers—at least inasmuch as web video is concerned, says Waggener Edstrom’s Eddie Rehfeldt, who leads the agency’s video production team and is a 10-year veteran of projects for Microsoft Corp., most recently consulting with director James Cameron and Microsoft Research to develop a digital road map of high-definition stereographic production for the Oscar-winning film, "Avatar."
PR pros who can create compelling company stories using web video now have an even better opportunity to engage audiences, thanks to an improved content experience, believes Rehfeldt, who prior to WaggEd was executive producer at Ant Farm in Los Angeles, the creators of trailers for the "Iron Man" films.
That’s not all, he adds. These and other developments are thrusting PR and other strategic communications partners (i.e., marketing to advertising) together at unprecedented levels to work on creating seamless, truly integrated campaigns. That’s exactly the thinking behind WE Studio D, Rehfeldt explains. The details:
Why is HTML 5 such a pivotal development for web video now?
It’s a way to refocus the audience’s attention on a whole new avenue of storytelling that is very impactful. Put simply, we are seeing a move away from relying on media players for being the main form of showing video and other types of content. You now can use the full browser experience as a pane of glass for looking at and experiencing content. Your display—whether a device, laptop or monitor in your office—is now a window into how to tell stories in the most impactful way.
That is the unique skillset of the PR business—telling stories in impactful ways. For example, my team at Studio D is uniquely set up to utilize technology and design to use those "windows" offering communicators the opportunity to have the greatest impact with clients and design campaigns that get to the core part of the messaging we’re trying to get out with the brand.
What does that mean, practically speaking, to PR?
Cutting through today’s promotional and marketing clutter that people are bombarded with is very difficult. By eliminating the media player, there is now a more focused ability to have that experience happen instantly without having user wait for a video to load up. When you go to an HTML 5 site, the video is already going—there is no loading. These sites show you how you can use the infinite horizon of the page.
In a lot of ways, the pivot point for technology was the software and hardware. But we’ve moved beyond those limitations. Those are just cogs. Most computers have the capacity to show this great storytelling. The experience used to choke on a fairly narrow pipe. Not anymore. There are efficiencies that make it completely seamless.
That’s why I get excited about the technology. It stops being about the media player and the software. This is what we wanted it to come to. We want our audience to be able to experience the brand in the true sense without barriers. That hurdle is now gone.
How does that relate to integrated communications—and PR’s role in driving this kind of content experience?
I was at the Ant Farm before coming to Studio D, and therefore have experience from the advertising world. They (advertising) do qualitative remarkably well. They’re now starting to dip their toes into understanding social media and those channels. They’re also starting to rev up and get a better understanding of how to go after using better analytical tools—but when it goes beyond broadcast, it’s hard for them. So much of measurement for them was the Nielsen rating.
On the flip side, and interesting for me working now on the PR agency side, is that PR professionals are uniquely set up as "storytellers"—it’s all very reactive, and also completely consumed by the news cycle. The challenge for the PR side is all about incorporating the level of qualitative work that advertising and marketing agencies traditionally have done well. This gray area has emerged between those two disciplines or practices—and that’s where integrated communication sits. It’s a thirst for impactful media and experiences that rise above and allow you to have great content, unique experiences around that content, and also to be able to do analytics and research that supports whether that content was effective.
Also, the evergreen nature of that content gets spurred on by really strong social media integration and distribution efforts that are far more intimate than you could ever buy in terms of ad dollars.
How does that reflect the vision behind WE Studio D?
Our two remarkable founders—Melissa Waggener and Pam Edstrom—saw this all coming together and residing under one tent in the form of WE Studio D. I own the experience side of this—but I work with our research and analytics, and our social component, all under one banner. That’s where you rise above it being "just PR" and you become a true integrated communications company. The value for the client is getting out beyond just the "media"—your impact has a longer tail to it and a greater surface area of coverage this way.
Let’s talk about your work with "Avatar"—what did you learn in terms of executing creative campaigns from that experience? What lessons come out of that for others in PR?
I started working on Avatar when I was at Microsoft. James Cameron was looking for tech partners to execute the vision for this. At that point, the script was in no way something that could be made. The technology just didn’t exist. He looked around and found that Microsoft could be the partner he was looking for. There were a group of us with entertainment backgrounds. Mine is as a filmmaker. When he came over, we started to realize when we spoke together that it could happen if we broke it down by its component parts. Under that premise, we built a system called GAIA. It was originally scoped out as being a massive endeavor, which was built around the idea of somehow bringing together 1000 artists working simultaneously on a project where a remarkable amount of CGI work was being created. This was to be a film where 80 to 90 percent would be done in a computer. The challenge was having all that happening with 1000 artists and a director at the top reviewing it all and shooting live action when needed, and then trying to stitch together a timeline for that to be done efficiently.
It was such a Herculean task that the only way to do it was to break it into smaller parts. What I learned was that big projects come together and succeed when you focus on what the heartbeat of the story and message you want to tell is. Everything else will wrap itself around that core naturally and lift up the story so it has the greatest impact.
In our case, we had a remarkable script in "Avatar" that Jim wrote 15 years prior. And we also had a visionary director. Because of the amazing, remarkable story, everybody involved was able to break down barriers and try to tell it in an as effective way as possible. That drove us. Everybody worked for a long time. I worked on it through Microsoft for eight years. I left Microsoft in 2006, but stayed on the project as a consultant.
What other lessons did you learn from the "Avatar" experience that you apply to your work today?
First, nothing is impossible if you believe and if you can break it into its components. Jim never doubted he could make the movie. He is a remarkable individual and had a big vision. I had the opportunity to introduce him to Pam Edstrom recently. It was wonderful, because here I had this great storyteller with a giant movie meeting another great storyteller in Pam, who has been part of cutting edge technology and communications trends for almost over two decades. Also impressive is that they’re both incredible storytellers.
Your tips for telling a compelling story in a quick Internet video?
It’s same thing I tell my students in producing and directing classes. Most of it is focused on the storytelling component. I break great storytelling into three parts:
- Story: You have to have a great story. Otherwise, it’s Kabuki Theater. Part of this is determining what a good story is.
- Surprise: It’s important to be challenging yourself to come up with something unexpected. That means the twists and turns of your story are really important—set yourself up to be unique. I just saw "The Town," and was surprised. It’s a heist film, but he did it in an intimate way that was unique
and unexpected. It’s a great example of this.
- Statement: With brands, you sometimes get through the first elements. And marketers generally can sign up for those first two. The third is harder—and it involves "statement." By that, I mean, if the work you’re doing has a great story behind it and you have a commitment to do something new, a third byproduct is that you are hopefully making a relevant statement. That can be anything from your POV about the world, the industry or the things you do … It’s what gives it resonance and sets it above and beyond the rest out there.
If any piece of content has these three things, it will rise above everything else.
I agree. But let’s circle back to the first element—having a great story. Everybody thinks they have a great story to tell. So, what are the elements of a truly "great" story?
First is authenticity, which is telling something in a purely human and authentic way. Right now, we all want that in our lives. We are all closer to the ground due to the economy and things that happened in the last decade. Everybody is looking for that authenticity. Two other essential elements of great stories are intimacy—speaking directly to our community—and doing so with a credible voice.
What other trends are you seeing that PR pros need to stay on top of?
Measurement is one—that involves making sure that we track everything we put out there. We are starting to deliver on the promise of showing that what we’re doing is effective by having the research and analytics at hand. We create great stories and then use credible distribution chains to get the stories into people’s hearts and minds, via social media or whatever, and now … we tie that back to measurable results focusing on the impacts it had on audiences.
Five years ago, it was a harder challenge to show this—but tools today show you if your campaign or initiative was effective. We have our own proprietary measurement and monitoring tool, for example. Anybody in the marketing communications spaces must be able to show and measure results, regardless of what system they use.
We’re both involved in the Surfrider Foundation—how is that important to you and your work?
I’m involved here with the Northwest chapter. We have a lot of water around us. We are really active, because the Sound is integrated into the eco-system. The variety of marine life and the incredible urban impact on the area keeps us engaged here. That said, I believe surfing is the great leveler.
How does it inform my work? I think it comes down to the sense of being able to anticipate what the next wave will be. To do that, you have to sit still and be focused. In many ways, there’s a certain Zen to surfing—and that applies to how I look at trends and business. It’s about being smart and anticipating through the clutter of information what will be most impactful and have resonance versus something that might be momentary. With surfing, there can be little waves coming in, but it’s the sets of [consecutive] waves that are most important.
As you know, if you’re in the lineup, there could be another two, three, four or more waves coming through any particular set. So you have to position yourself to be there. I think I’ve tried to do that with my career, and it’s certainly what we’re doing here at WE Studio D.