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Clients come to Pereira & O’Dell looking for the interactive agency of the future. What they find are dozens of crystal chandeliers hanging from the enormous exposed timbers of 24,000 square feet of loft space. It’s a subtle statement that in the hottest creative neighbor-hood of San Francisco, where everyone is constantly looking for the next new thing, “Old is awesome, too,” in the words of co-founder PJ Pereira. The chandeliers aren’t fooling anyone. The clients, ranging from LEGO, Skype, Intel and Fiat to Scrabble, are actually in the right place. And Pereira & O’Dell, with 140 employees in offices in San Francisco, New York and São Paulo, just might be the interactive agency of the future. The three Gold Lions brought back from the 2013 Cannes Advertising Festival for its social film The Beauty Inside—in categories as diverse as film, branded content and cyber—should attest to that.

The agency isn’t content to collect awards. It wants nothing less than to make content that becomes part of pop culture. Eight years ago, the core group that formed Pereira & O’Dell—which included chief creative officer Pereira, co-founder and chief executive officer Andrew O’Dell and creative directors Rob Lambrechts and Jason Apaliski—was working at AKQA on a mockumentary for Red Bull titled Unflinching Triumph. At the time, Apaliski points out, “YouTube was six months old. We hadn’t heard of terms like viral, seeding or shareability.” But the work, which takes an unblinking look at the fictional sport of competitive staring contests, “led us to think this was the advertising we should be making.” Apaliski calls it “content inspired by brands.” Instead of competing against other television commercials, their new agency would be a company focused on branded content—narrative storytelling that blurs ideas, tactics and strategies to engage con-sumers. That would enable them to tell bigger stories, free from the constraints of 15-, 30- and 60-second spots.

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Looking back at their early days, O’Dell remembers, “With us, starting an agency was almost a disease. We had to learn first what didn’t work. In 2007 we thought we knew where the industry was heading. So we opened our doors and jumped straight into the downturn of 2008.”

Fortunately the upstart agency had been invited to pitch LEGO, which was in the process of celebrating 30 years of its Minifigures brand. Four months of frantic production with a team of animators in Brazil and art directors in Rome ensued. The work culminated in a 60-second fly-through animation that references everything from Star Wars to Saturday Night Fever, the United States ice hockey “Miracle on Ice” victory over Russia in the 1980 Olympics, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the building of the International Space Station. Not bad for a snap-together plastic children’s toy. LEGO bought the pitch and ran Go Miniman Go on YouTube, where it has captured over 470,000 views.

That initial project with LEGO laid a foundation for the way Pereira & O’Dell operates today. “We’ve solidified our thinking around three principles we learned from that engagement,” Pereira says. “First, we ask ourselves the fundamental question, ‘What if advertising was invented the day we got the creative brief?’ That’s liberating. It frees the agency, enabling us to ignore history but keep the knowledge of what the tools are.” As a result, the agency creates work that defies conventional categories. Is it cyber? Is it film? Is it branded content? “Like LEGOs, the parts are the same,” Pereira points out, “but every time you make something the sculpture is different. So we look at the tools we hold in our hands and the problems we are trying to solve.

“Second,” Pereira continues, “the fundamental challenge created by combining technologies under the same roof is timing. PR people think of timing as a matter of hours. Brand guys think in decades. It took a while to establish a common process and language so we could share the same way of seeing things.

“Third, if it’s not worth writing about, it’s not worth doing,” Pereira says. “We need to build the work in a way that will be talked about. Do that and people will get the message.” It’s that kind of thinking that lets Pereira say, with a straight face, “For five years we’ve been a PR agency masquerading as an ad agency.”

Instead of thinking in terms of print, interactive or video, Pereira & O’Dell sees the world of advertising through the lens of content, applications and distribution. As Pereira explains, “Content can be anything from a 30-second ad to a two-hour film to a poster or a song. It’s the story you want to tell and the form you use to tell it. Applications are programs that give consumers something to do: take a picture, make a movie, share material. Finally, distribution is about seeding and PR.” That framework enables the agency to define its world just enough, according to Pereira, “so you don’t have to think about disciplines, you think about functions. Once we started thinking like that, things got easier for us.”

For five years we’ve been a PR agency masquerading as an ad agency.”—PJ Pereira

People are definitely getting the message. The Beauty Inside, the social film Pereira & O’Dell made for Intel and Toshiba that combines traditional movie-making with interaction, has been viewed 74 million times on YouTube, received 97,000 “likes” on Facebook and been awarded an Emmy for “Outstanding New Approach to Original Daytime Program or Series.” Which means Pereira & O’Dell produced the first ad popular enough to beat out regular programming. Sales figures weren’t too shabby either: during the six weeks the series ran, Intel and Toshiba experienced a 360 percent increase in sales.

The concept—a “doomed love” story of young Alex, who wakes up every day in the body of a different person—could have come straight from a Hollywood poolside pitch meeting. The brilliance of the concept comes in Pereira & O’Dell’s ability to leverage the inherent power of social media. First they shot a 45-minute film featuring Topher Grace and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, leaving enough gaps to layer in appearances from each new Alex. Then they opened a casting call on the Internet. Four thousand men and women from around the world auditioned for the main role via their webcams. Twenty-six actors were chosen to play the role of Alex, with another 50 featured on Alex’s Facebook timeline. From day one, the agency was creating content, developing their social component and building a fan base.

Crowdsourcing the auditions proved to be an unanticipated wellspring of ideas. Instead of scripted line readings, Pereira & O’Dell provided open-ended prompts. That gave people room to be creative and tell a personal story. One aspiring actor auditioned with the announcement, “Today I woke up as a person who has cancer.” Another, who could not speak, simply wrote his audition on cue cards and held them up to his webcam. And one young man from China auditioned in his native tongue. Sure enough, in episode four, Alex wakes up speaking Mandarin. Even better, Pereira & O’Dell had hit on a topic ripe for social interaction: dating advice for the love-lorn. Anyone who followed the six weekly episodes could like Alex on Facebook, and submit their advice with a comment. Suddenly real people were acting out Alex’s scenes from the movie, engaging in discussions about identity and, in the process, racking up 26 million social interactions. The Beauty Inside is the second example of the social film concept pioneered by Pereira & O’Dell. Their first project for Intel and Toshiba was called, simply, Inside. The thriller featured Emmy Rossum as a young woman named Christina Perasso, who wakes up trapped in a room with only a laptop and an Internet connection. The brief was to make Intel and Toshiba relevant to a younger audience. So how did Pereira & O’Dell convince its client to make a film about a young woman taken hostage? It’s not exactly content that’s on-brand. As Pereira remembers, the people at Intel were presenting PowerPoint slides with Venn diagrams showing the overlap between their brand and their audience. “We said we just weren’t interested.” Instead the agency came back with the concept of social films. “But first we needed a plot,” Pereira says. “We came up with an idea that would make the computer a character in the film. Then we pitched five separate ideas.” At the presentation, an exec at Intel said the idea of taking a woman hostage “makes me so uncomfortable that it is the one we have to do.” Intel’s legal department thought otherwise. In fact, they asked Pereira & O’Dell to eliminate any reference to a young woman taken hostage. Gulp.

Somehow, the original Inside moved forward. Interaction through group challenges drove the audience to Facebook where, for example, enough “likes” on the Inside page would get Christina fed for the night. “Save Christina Perasso” became the number-one hashtag for a day in the Twitterverse. By the time the last webisode aired, Inside had garnered 20 million views. Today the series is so successful that more Inside movies are in the works, including one that stars Harvey Keitel. In a validation for long-form advertising, four brands—Skype, Skullcandy, Spotify and Fossil watches—are angling for brand placement within the next installment of Inside.

The fundamental challenge created by combining technologies under the same roof is timing. PR people think of timing as a matter of hours. Brand guys think in decades."—PJ Pereira

No matter which client Pereira & O’Dell takes on, a strong undercurrent of emotion runs through the work. Sometimes that comes from outrageous humor, as in the Muscle Milk “Sexy Pilgrim” spot that ran a few years ago. Creative Director Rob Lambrechts remembers that at the time, Muscle Milk was locked into the performance category. “They came to us and said, ‘Do something crazy to run over the Thanksgiving weekend.’ We said, ‘All right!’” The result is a genre-bending, wildly offensive R&B jam that features a bling-wearing Pilgrim who manages to insult Native Americans, Italians, Mexicans and even Azerbaijanis. At the time it was launched, “Sexy Pilgrim” became the second-fastest spreading video on YouTube.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, much of the work produced by Pereira & O’Dell requires a box of Kleenex to get through. “Relying on emotion doesn’t change the way we work; it allows us to think more freely,” Pereira says. That freedom is on display in work for Scrabble that reveals the secret lives of letter tiles. Likewise for the Keep America Beautiful Ad Council campaign, which allows us to listen to the innermost aspirations of empty plastic bottles. Turns out they want to be recycled and come back as park benches.

For Skype, Pereira & O’Dell dug deep into one of the most fundamental emotions of all: the need for connection. In three-minute clips, Pereira & O’Dell tells us how Skype connects us. Not that anyone really needs to be told—if Skype were a country it would be bigger than China. So raising awareness wasn’t part of the creative brief. Connecting Skype’s technology to a basic human emotion was. Projecting a Skype video call on a wall allowed photographer John Clang to make impossible portraits of families and friends torn apart by war, distance or changing circumstance. At the end of a film that documents the making of an impossible portrait, a Ugandan refugee wipes a tear from his eye while saying, “This is the first family photo I’ve ever had.”

This is powerfully emotional storytelling that almost allows viewers to forget they are watching an ad. Almost. As our attention spans get whittled down to a six-second Vine and a 140-character tweet, the length of these productions seems epic. So why do hundreds of thousands of viewers on YouTube care? According to Jaime Robinson, executive creative director, it’s all about the story. “I wouldn’t give a shit if I wasn’t interested in the story,” Robinson says. “Unless you make people laugh or cry or dream, the rest of the world will see you as just another commercial, or they won’t see you at all.” Now more than ever, people are getting a chance to see what Pereira & O’Dell can do. ca
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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